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Published in Print: October 1, 2003, as Districts Use eBay to Sell Old School Buildings, Desks

Districts Use eBay to SellOld School Buildings, Desks

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Nestled among eBay's listings of antique pens, engagement rings, and fake alabaster plaques of "The Last Supper" was this gem: "Unique 1921 building for sale in rural South Dakota. Built for use as a school ... this building has a gymnasium, 13 classrooms and four bathrooms."

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Starting bid for the Elm Valley school district's Barnard School: $2,000. Winning bid: $49,000.

Not bad for the rural, 225-student system north of Aberdeen, S.D., where district officials still shake their heads in wonder that they sold their badly aging building (but with "beautiful maple hardwood flooring throughout") on eBay Inc., the vast Internet auction site.

"It was the darnedest thing I've ever seen in my life," said Cynthia Rall, the district's technology coordinator.

But Elm Valley isn't the only school district that's turned to eBay to raise much-needed funds. An increasing number of districts, as well as towns and government agencies, are selling everything from buildings to reams of construction paper to pad coffers depleted during the nation's recent economic struggles.

"It's becoming more popular," said Kevin Pursglove, the senior communications director for San Jose, Calif.-based eBay. "Overall, eBay users have raised about $35 million [in such sales]."

Schools are selling online because they have to, added David Ritchey, the director of government and public affairs for the Association of School Business Officials International, a 6,000-member group in Reston, Va.

"Schools are short of money," he said, adding that, "eBay makes a lot of sense for our members, because they're used to doing things online."

Desks to Buses

The private Central Christian Schools in Omaha, Neb., has sold more than 400 items on eBay over the past month, raising $20,000.

A 2nd grade student desk drew nine bids, starting at $7.77 and ending with a winning bid of $71. An overhead projector, which has a retail price of $125 new, attracted 11 bids last week. The most recent bid was $41.25, with two days of bidding to go.

School officials, who closed the 200- student private system this summer because of low enrollment, said their eBay experience was so successful that they plan to list several thousand more items online, including musical instruments, football pads, lab stools, microscopes, and maybe even their school buildings.

"We've been very, very pleased," said David Jensen, a school board member for the private system. The money will be spent on the buildings' mortgage and payments to various vendors, he said.

Meanwhile, Kentucky's 33,000-student Fayette County school system has raised $90,000 selling 30 school buses and other vehicles over the past year to buyers from as far away as Alaska. Another 30 school buses may be up for bid on eBay soon, said John Kiser, the district's director of transportation.

And in North Carolina, the 425-student Wilkesboro Elementary School raised $20,000 selling 4,000 school T-shirts—that's right, T- shirts—on eBay over the past several months.

It all began when the Canadian pop singer Avril Lavigne wore the school's green-and-yellow T-shirt, with its logo of an eagle on the front, in the music video of her hit song "Sk8er Boi" (pronounced "Skater Boy").

Starting in February, school administrators were inundated with phone calls and up to 300 e-mails a day requesting the T-shirt, which hadn't been sold for several years. At first, they were flabbergasted. Then they got busy.

School officials contracted with a local printing company to reprint the T-shirts in batches of 500. Then they sold them on eBay for $20 each. The money raised has helped pay for new computers and printers, a new school security system, and more than $1,000 worth of books for the school library, among other purchases.

Marcia Reynolds, the former president of Wilkesboro Elementary's parent-teacher organization, had boxes of the T- shirts stacked in her dining room, which also served as a mailing center.

"We didn't know what a big deal it was until it slapped us in the face," she said. "Who could believe that one shirt could raise this much money?"

Other schools are finding similar benefits.

The 1,333-student Pipestone Area district in southwestern Minnesota used a slightly unusual tactic in marketing its old buildings on eBay. School officials listed the circa-1911, 58,000-square-foot Jasper School, as well as the 200,000-square- foot Pipestone School, for $1 each.

The aim was not to make money, said David Krueger, the administrator of the project and the former director of the Pipestone County Economic Development Authority. Rather, the rural school district and community wanted to jump-start a local business, which could bring in jobs. So the winning bid also had to include a sound business plan.

Advertising in the local papers brought one lonely bid, and school leaders didn't want to tear down the buildings, which would have cost $1.2 million, said Mr. Krueger.

So, "we made a deal [online bidders] couldn't refuse," he said. "We saw it as an economic-development tool to find a company willing to relocate here. Here's a building—bring your business."

Bids on eBay poured in. Among the more than 500 inquiries were several dozen serious bidders, Krueger said. They wanted to create an antiques mall, a paintball game company, and a restaurant, among other proposals.

The winning bid for the Jasper School went to a Midwestern businessman who plans to build apartments for senior citizens. All the paperwork to sell the building was completed in June. The Pipestone School was taken off eBay after local officials didn't find a suitable business plan.

Looking back, Mr. Krueger said he didn't expect the deluge of bids or the amount of work entailed in reviewing the business plans.

And he cautioned that districts may receive phony bids. "We didn't always get the most reputable people," he said.

36.4 Million Users

All the school districts said the main reasons for selling on eBay were the low cost of listing items, eBay's ease of use, and—most importantly—the potential to reach the online auctioneer's reported 36.4 million users.

eBay makes money in part by charging sellers a percentage of the sale of their items, as well as "listing" and "insertion" fees. Elm Valley paid $107.25 to eBay for a 10-day listing, while Pipestone officials paid about $350 for 90 days.

Schools sell items on eBay by registering on the auction site and providing a credit card number and checking account number, as well as creating a user name and password.

South Dakota's Elm Valley district received just one bid for its old Barnard School before marketing it online. After listing it on eBay, officials received 49 bids.

"The last day or so, [the bids] were coming in bang, bang, bang," said Randy Barondeau, the district's superintendent.

The winning bid went to a New Mexico man, who is converting part of the building for private quarters.

"Now someone's going to take it and do something with it," said Ms. Rall, Elm Valley's technology coordinator. "It's a beautiful building. To tear it down would have been awful."

Coverage of technology is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Vol. 23, Issue 5, Page 8

Related Stories
Web Resources
  • Thinking about buying a new school desk, or maybe something more vintage? Browse through ebay's current listing of all things related to schools.
  • Read an online "book club" discussion of the book, The Perfect Store: Inside eBay, by Adam Cohen. From Slate.
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