After a third vote taken at three consecutive regular meetings of the Albany County School District No. 1’s school board, Snowy Range Academy was successful Wednesday in securing funding from a district-controlled account to expand its classrooms this summer.
On a 6-2 vote, the board agreed to give $154,000 to Snowy Range Academy.
Snowy Range Academy is working to build two new classrooms, which Principal John Cowper said should allow the growing school to meet its capacity needs for the next three years.
In the 2018-2019 school year, the school had an enrollment of 216, and that enrollment is expected to increase to 237 for the upcoming year.
As part of Wednesday’s deal, the charter school will tap its own reserves for $104,000 for the expansion and is expected to pay for the first $150,000 of any “unforeseen expense that impacts the entire property including but not limited to parking lot, roof, HVAC, electrical, water and sewer.”
Wyoming’s first charter school had originally requested $264,000 in May from an account set up to pay for maintenance of Snowy Range Academy’s building, which is housed in the old Wal-Mart building on Grand Avenue.
In 2013, the state paid $4 million to buy the building for Snowy Range Academy’s use. The district now owns the building and is responsible for maintenance and operations.
Private businesses, which occupy the other section of the buildings, pay rent to the district, which keeps that funding in the maintenance account.
In May, Snowy Range Academy requested the school board appropriate $104,000 from that account for the charter school’s expansion with no obligation for repayment, with another $160,000 given as an interest-free loan that would be repaid over seven years.
The school board delayed making a decision until Phil Nicholas, the attorney for Snowy Range Academy, came to the board to provide further justification at the next meeting.
At the board’s June meeting, the proposal failed after a 4-3 vote.
The school board’s own rules require five of its nine members to vote in favor of a motion for it to pass.
At the June meeting, board member Karen Bienz was absent and board member Jason Tangeman abstained from the vote because of a conflict of interest; Tangeman shares a law office with Nicholas.
During the June vote, three board members expressed concern that the funding request might deplete the maintenance account to the point that repairs on the building might not be affordable.
Wednesday’s vote will reduce the maintenance account’s balance to about $390,000.
Superintendent Jubal Yennie said that “at some point,” both SRA’s roof and the parking lot need to be replaced.
ACSD No. 1 Business Manager Ed Goetz said replacing the roof is likely to cost $1 million. Replacing the parking lot would cost about $2.6 million.
Both projects are eligible for major maintenance funding from the state. However, state officials have shown little appetite for funding these types of requests since Wyoming’s economic downturn in 2016.
“In this current environment, we do not have a guarantee (that funding will be available),” Yennie said.
Bienz said her colleagues’ fears about not being able to pay for an unexpected repair were misplaced.
“If the roof caves in from snow, that would be something you would request insurance (payments) for,” she said. “With the $45,000-$60,000 we get from rental, we should be able to handle things that are going to become a problem. And things that we don’t know about, we should be able to get insurance for.”
Jamin Johnson was the only board member whose “no” vote in June was changed to an “aye” this week after revisions made to the request.
“My main concern was to make sure that the money is put back in that account so it’s maintained for maintenance,” he said.
Jamin Johnson said he was comfortable approving the expenditure now that SRA has committed $104,000 from its reserves to the project. He said it also helped that the total request amount was reduced and there’s an expectation of the school helping pay for unexpected maintenance costs.
“In my eyes, they have contributed an awful lot for this,” he said.
However, board member Nate Martin — one of two ‘no’ votes Wednesday — said he felt SRA’s new request was actually more audacious than its previous version.
Under the original request, only $104,000 of the $264,000 wouldn’t have been repaid to the maintenance account.
“Now, there’s actually an even larger part that would not be paid back to the rental account,” Martin said.
In a July 12 letter to the school board, Nicholas suggested Snowy Range Academy is entitled to use the maintenance funding for its expansion, noting the original 2013 appropriation by the Legislature that led to the purchase of the building stated “this appropriation shall only be expended for the acquisition and renovation of the existing Snowy Range Academy.”
“SRA believes that this appropriation continues to this date and applies to any and all income derived from the lease of commercial space within the building,” Nicholas said.
Yennie agreed to bring the request to the school board, but contested Nicholas’ assertion and required it be stricken from the request.
“ACSD1 would like this sentence removed, and we can discuss this belief statement at a later date, if necessary,” Yennie said.
A 2017 agreement between SRA and the district states the maintenance account can be used for “remodeling costs not otherwise covered by state funding” so long as the account has “adequate reserves to cover the above cost and expenses (in general, the maintenance of the privately leased portion of the building.)”
After consulting with the district’s own legal counsel, Yennie told the school board it would be prudent to approve the request.
“There’s some things in the contract that we have to pay attention to,” he said.
The vote was taken after board member Lawrence Perea “called for the question.”
Under Robert’s Rules of Order, the parliamentary process used by the school board, “calling the question” is a cloture motion to end debate and move to a vote.
The two “no” votes came from Martin and Tammy Johnson, who still wanted to discuss the topic.
To protect the rights of the minority, Robert’s Rules of Order requires a “question” motion to receive a second and a two-thirds majority vote.
“Procedurally, we’ve never done that before though,” Board Chair Janice Marshall said.
After Perea called for the question, Marshall immediately ended debate and began the vote.
After the vote, Martin said, “It didn’t sit well with me” that the SRA proposal was brought back for a vote at three consecutive meetings.
After a vote to offer softball at Laramie High School failed on a 4-4 vote in April, the school board decided not to reconsider the same motion until August.
“I was surprised to see essentially the same (SRA) proposal, albeit with some variations, before us again today,” Martin said. “It seems to fly in the face of (our) code of conduct.”
At the Wednesday meeting, the school board also finalized a new code of conduct for school board members that states board members should “accept the vote of the majority.”
“After the board, on a split 4-4 vote, declined to offer softball, there was a big community push to get that brought back on the agenda the next month,” he said. “There was a discussion the we had as a board that would not be appropriate. That would set a bad precedent because it tells the public, ‘The school board decided one thing, but who knows if that’s going to stand.’ … Yet, now we have Snowy Range Academy and a powerful attorney, we have a board member (Tangeman) whose name is on the letterhead of said attorney, we have a board member (Bienz) who’s a former SRA board member. When you have all that, it seems like it’s a lot easier to get things back on the agenda and in front of this board than a group of community members and something they feel very passionate about.”
Those comments earned a hearty applause from softball supporters, but Bienz later admonished Martin in private for publicly suggesting she was involved in some impropriety that led the SRA question being considered.
Tammy Johnson said she agreed with Martin that “there’s a lot of duplicity going on in how the board functions.”
The district’s contracted attorney, O’Kelley Pearson, said she had only advised against revisiting the softball question in May because Tammy Johnson had proposed bringing it back through a motion to reconsider, which would mean the issue wouldn’t have been listed on the agenda in advance.
“Under a technical reading of Robert’s Rules of Order … at the next session, can be renewed,” she told the board Wednesday. “But alongside that, I had the concern about the (Wyoming) Public Records Act, that we didn’t have proper notice … to have all folks be able to weigh in on such an important issue.”
Board member Mark Bittner said that, although he believed the reconsideration of the softball question was very different from the reconsideration of the SRA request, he thought the circumstances of vote reconsideration should be discussed at the school board’s annual retreat this summer.