Schools turn to eBay to unload surplus items

Faced with tight budgets, some innovative school districts and other public institutions are turning to an unusual source to raise some extra money: the online auction house eBay Inc., the world’s largest auctioneer.

Unloading everything from vacant buildings to old buses and even fire trucks, schools and other municipalities have found that the internet greatly increases the number of potential buyers who can bid on used equipment and—in some cases—is more cost-effective than holding a local charity auction.

“Either individuals associated with schools or individuals employed by schools have told us that eBay is great way to make money,” said Kevin Pursglove, senior director of communications for the company.

In South Dakota, officials at the Elm Valley School District turned to eBay after local attempts to sell the district’s 81-year-old Barnard School produced only one bid.

The idea was to reach potential buyers outside of the immediate market, said district technology director Cindy Rall, who helped facilitate the process.

The school eventually was posted on eBay under a 10-day listing, she said. It sold in less.

While the school received at least a dozen bids from potential buyers nationwide, the winning bid of $49,000 went to a New Mexico man, who has yet to announce his plans for the building.

Randy Barondeau, superintendent of Elm Valley School District, said the deal includes the 14,054-square-foot school building and a 2,585-square-foot multipurpose building. He said the purchase price is the property’s appraised value.

Originally, Rall said the district had hoped to make a substantial profit off of the sale. But the high bid of $63,200 fell through after a Texas man’s plans to use the school as a bed and breakfast or technology-type business never materialized.

In January 2002, district residents voted to close Barnard School, where students in grades K-6 attended classes. The district’s students in grades K-12 now attend school in the city of Frederick.

Rall said the district was forced to abandon the building because it did not meet handicapped access requirements, among other things. “We had a beautiful building, it just didn’t fit our needs,” she said. “Down the road it was going to be a liability for us.”

eBay is an option the district will consider in the future, Rall said. Aside from a few minor difficulties associated with the closing, the process was altogether easier than selling the building through a traditional auction, she said, adding, “Other than responding to eMails, it really was less work. It’s definitely an option to look at.”

Elm Valley isn’t the only district that has used eBay to sell off used equipment. Kentucky’s Fayette County Public Schools began selling surplus school buses on eBay last year as a way to unload retired buses and raise extra cash.

During the regular school year, 200 buses transport Fayette County students to and from school.

The surplus buses were bought new in 1988-89 for $28,000 each and were retired after they completed the mandated 12-year life cycle. The buses each hold 65 passengers (40 adults) and have up to 200,000 miles on them.

John Kiser, Fayette County’s director of transportation, said the buses are in “pretty good shape.” The surplus buses have been sold for bids as low as $1,500 and as high as $2,800. One bus is offered a week at a time, Kiser said, and bidding starts at $1,000.

Other municipalities, too, are cashing in on eBay.

In Blairstown, Iowa, fire department officials sold an old fire truck on eBay.

The fire department sold the 1979 grass and field firefighting truck for $7,850 to Coyote Fire, from Colorado, a company that fights fires in national parks.

Assistant Fire Chief Randy Macku said the truck was listed on the online auction site with a starting bid of $2,500.

Fire Chief Steve Metz said about 3,000 people looked at the truck online and 75 bids were received. “We were very pleased with the results,” Metz said.

eBay’s Pursglove said items posted to the online auction site are made available to 69 million potential buyers worldwide.

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