After a discussion lasting nearly an hour at Albany County School District No. 1’s Wednesday school board, board members failed a second time to approve $264,000 from a reserve account to fund an expansion of Snowy Range Academy’s classrooms space within the district-owned building.
When board members did vote, they voted 4-3 in favor of approving $104,000 as a grant and $160,000 as an interest-free loan. They spent the rest of the night assuming that they had approved the funding.
However, when board chair Janice Marshall checked the school board’s policies Thursday morning, she realized that the board has a policy that states “no action of the board shall be valid unless approved by a majority of the members elected to the board.”
The school board has nine members, meaning that any motion needs at least five “aye” votes to pass.
After the Wednesday vote, superintendent Jubal Yennie said he’s asked Snowy Range Academy to decide whether they’d like to make another attempt at trying to get funding from the reserve account.
“There’s a couple bits of language in the (facility use agreement) that could give them a way for them to access the dollars to do what they want to do,” Yennie said.
Yennie had recommended the school board approve the funding.
When the proposal first came before the board in May, most board members expressed concern at the proposal to give the funding to charter school from the reserve account, which under a contract between the two parties earmarks the funds for, among other things, “cost of operation and maintenance not reimbursable through the (State Construction Department” and “remodeling costs not otherwise covered by state funding.”
Because of how the contract lays out what the funding “shall” be used for, board member Lawrence Perea said Wednesday that “I think that if we don’t approve this tonight, we are in breach of this contract.”
Fellow board member Tammy Johnson didn’t like that suggestion.
“I would rather have our attorney give us an opinion about whether we’re in breach of the contract than a board member,” she said.
“I can have an opinion, Tammy,” Perea said.
“I know you can but that’s a legal opinion and you’re threatening the board,” Johnson retorted.
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.
Part of the debate about whether to approve the funding came a from a disagreement about the purpose of that account — and disagreements between the district and charter school about the purpose of the building, which was purchased by the state for Snowy Range Academy’s use in 2014.
“SRA believes that those (rental account funds) are their funds,” Yennie said. “The truth is that it’s a more complex picture than that. We do have a say in how those funds are used.”
Charter schools in Wyoming aren’t eligible for all types of maintenance and construction funding that public schools are. When Snowy Range Academy was created, Yennie said the Legislature had instead created grant funding to fund the types of projects that Snowy Range Academy is currently pursuing.
“A lot of the charter school grants are not as available as they once were,” he said.
Ultimately, board members Janice Marshall, Perea, Mark Bittner and Beth Bear voted to approve the funding for Snowy Range Academy.
Tammy Johnson, Nate Martin and Jamin Johnson all voted against the proposal.
Jamin Johnson said he was only opposed to appropriating some funding as a grant. He said he would have felt comfortable if the entire funding would have been structured as a loan that would eventually reimburse the reserve account.
Martin expressed more explicit opposition to helping Snowy Range Academy expand, which he said is contrary to the interests of the district’s other schools.
“We have to educate homeless kids. We have to educate kids with severe disabilities. We have to educate kids who aren’t going to reach proficiency on their tests,” Martin said. “The more that the kids with parents who are smart enough to look around — the more those kids move out of the district, it’s a detriment to everyone else that remains.”
Board member Karen Bienz was absent but had been the strongest advocate of funding the charter school when the proposal first came up at the May meeting.
Jason Tangeman abstained from the vote. He shares a law firm with Phil Nicholas, who represents Snowy Range Academy and crafted the proposal for the transfer of funds.
Before bringing the proposal to the school board, Cowper said the charter school had unsuccessfully pursued grant funding from a number of private sources..
Tammy Johnson said she was uncomfortable with approving the funding since Snowy Range Academy also hold $554,000 in cash reserves. That dollar amount is 15% of its budget — the maximum amount that schools are legally allowed to hold as cash reserves in Wyoming.
Nicholas said the school had also considered taking out a bank loan. However, he said he wanted to ask the district for an interest-free loan to reduce the amount of the school’s general fund dollars that would go back to repaying the loan.
Some school board members expressed concern about the possibility of depleting the building’s reserve account for fear that they might not be able to cover a major maintenance emergency.
“We know that there’s no immediate problems,” Nicholas said. “Frankly, if an emergency came up, we’ll run over the hill.”