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Since being auctioned off, no work has started at 2 old school buildings in DeKalb County

The old Cortland School building, seen here Wednesday, remains vacant.
The old Cortland School building, seen here Wednesday, remains vacant.

Stephanie Black wouldn’t have moved to 113 S. Nina St. in Cortland if she knew the school across the street was going to close.

“I wish the school never closed down,” Black said. “That’s why we bought [the house] eight years ago.”

The old Cortland Elementary School, which has been closed since 2009, used to be very convenient for Black. She said her children used to walk to school and play in the field that surrounds the building.

Cortland Elementary School and Malta Elementary School were sold at auction a year ago to an Iowa-based businessman. Since then, virtually no work has occurred at either of the former schools, although their owner, Destan Aliu, has said he wants to turn at least one into a banquet facility.

Jerry Thompson, a village trustee in Malta, can sympathize with Black. His house is a block from the old Malta Elementary School, which DeKalb School District 428 closed at the end of the 2010-11 school year.

In addition to being a vital part of the community, Thompson said he misses seeing students walk to school.

“It was always nice to sit on the front porch and wave to the kids coming and going,” Thompson said. “On a very personal level, I miss that a lot.”

Aliu paid $82,500 total for the two school buildings in 2012. Community members and school officials said they know Aliu has hired a landscaping service to mow the lawns, but they haven’t spoken to him since the sale.

Efforts to contact Aliu at a restaurant he owns in Oskaloosa, Iowa, were unsuccessful.

Property tax records from the county put the net value of the
Cortland property at $45,404 and the Malta property at $28,652. The records list Aliu’s address as 237 S. Schuyler St. in Ottumwa, Iowa, but an Internet search of this address found that it was the site of a Star Family Restaurant, which has since closed.

Andrea Gorla, District 428’s assistant superintendent of finance and business services, said Aliu had planned to turn the Malta building into a banquet facility. She said he had no plans for the Cortland building yet.

Thompson and Black each said the same thing about Aliu’s reported intentions with the building.

“He had planned to use the school building for a banquet center,” Thompson said, who added that he had spoken to Aliu once. “There’s been no move to do that at all. Nothing done by him at the school to move forward on that plan.”

Thompson said he thought the reason nothing had been done is because there’s no market in Malta for a banquet center.

In 2008, local voters approved a $110 million referendum that saw the construction of DeKalb High School and the new Cortland Elementary School. The opening of those buildings prompted a districtwide shuffling of where students go to school.

For instance, the students from the Malta school were moved into the former Wright Elementary building, which was renamed Malta Elementary School. Students from Wright and Chesebro elementary schools merged at the new Founders Elementary School, while middle-schoolers were moved to Huntley Middle School, which used to be the high school.

Gorla and D-428 Superintendent Jim Briscoe said both the Cortland and Malta school buildings needed costly repairs, and Gorla said it was becoming harder to justify sinking more money into either building.

Briscoe acknowledged that the school closure was a very personal topic for some people.

“It was very emotional and very difficult,” Briscoe said. “We did the best we could to communicate with the community to prepare everyone for the closings.”

Briscoe added that he had not personally spoken with Aliu, but he hopes he does something with the buildings.

“We hope the individual who purchased them soon does whatever they planned to do with them,” Briscoe said. “It sounds as though, from what I heard, they wanted banquet halls. I would hope that this person would move forward with them.”

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