By GRACE GADDY
What does a public school and a Methodist church have in common? A golf course, according to Palestine Independent School District's Board of Trustees.
The board unanimously approved a decision at its December meeting to officialize a unique agreement with Grace United Methodist Church that will allow the district to utilize features of the church's property in exchange for maintaining it. Students will be able to use facilities such as the 75-acre golf course, tennis courts and golf support buildings.
Officials said the partnership began falling in place in November, when the church was considering purchasing the former Meadowbrook Country Club to relocate from its current campus on East Murchison Street. But it wasn't until PISD Superintendent Jason Marshall got wind of it that the church scored a practical hole-in-one.
“We purchased it for the express purpose of using it as a worship facility and as a church, but we happen to have a backyard that's a golf course — so it makes sense that we would utilize that for something other than just a prayer trail,” Rev. Phil Chamberlin said.
Chamberlin said he was looking to form a public or private partnership of sorts.
“About that time, as we were chatting about that, we got word from Palestine ISD that they would be interested in pursuing that as a possibility,” he said.
Marshall discovered the possibility from coworker Suzanne Eiben, assistant superintendent of human resources. A board member at GUMC, Eiben had learned two important pieces of information: the church was considering purchasing the old country club, and PISD was hunting for a golf course.
“The district has been looking for places for our golf kids to practice on a daily basis for some time now,” Marshall said. “And literally Ms. Eiben's walking down the hall one day, and I'm walking down the hall, and I said, 'Hey, does y'alls church have some vacant property that we might could use?'”
According to both parties, it was a “win-win” moment.
“It was the (same) day that the church was meeting about buying the property,” Eiben said. “So I went to the meeting, and I think it was a God thing.”
Marshall praised Eiben for being the “go-between” for the district and church. One could say she got really the ball rolling.
“She said, 'I might have a deal for y'all,'” Marshall said, with a laugh.
From there, the church started to meet with school officials to see what such a partnership might look like. The district will pay the church $1 a year as a lease formality. In exchange for use of the church's property, PISD will preserve and maintain the driving range, golf course and adjacent golf facilities at no cost to the church. The golf team and tennis teams will have space to practice, and the church will have someone to keep up the property.
“Selfishly, I think this is going to be a great thing for our high school and junior high golf teams,” Marshall said. “And secondly, it's going to allow us to further career opportunities for kids through a golf course management program.”
Marshall said the clubhouse facilities would come in handy for that type of program, as well as other student programs, from horticulture to culinary arts to a marketing course in the pro shop.
Marshall called it an “innovative pilot” of a partnership — an agreement between a religious body and a state educational institution.
“For public schools, I think we're the first to do (one like) it,” he said.
Golf students are expected to start practicing on the property as soon as January, though Marshall and Chamberlin agreed that the course is a bit of a fixer-upper. Thus, the district will look to accrue support through private donations and community sponsorship to build the course up to its former glory.
“We want to make sure that our taxpayers understand that the school district is not going to fund major improvements,” Marshall said. “We're not going to take textbooks away from kids to fund major improvements to a golf course. We'll maintain it, but we'll look to private donors.”
PISD is in the process of putting together a formal fundraising effort, which should pick up speed in early 2014. Considering the country club's current state, it looks like they'll need as much. At the time of the district-church agreement, the property's fence had been run down by wild hogs, the grass had grown wild, and the buildings — vacant for the past few years — definitely required some attention.
“There are some details we have to work out,” Chamberlin said. “There's lots of clean up that has to be done.”
But both parties see it as an opportunity for further partnership and community engagement. Chamberlin called it a “win-win-win” for the church, district and community.
“Our first priority is as a church, but we want it to also be a community place where people can get connected,” Chamberlin said, noting the old restaurant will serve as the new GUMC worship center, and the clubhouse will be the discipleship center. “It's a beautiful property, and it has got lots of possibilities.”