Albany County School District No. 1’s school board has declined, at least for now, to approve a $104,000 grant to Snowy Range Academy. The board, which wants a better justification from the charter school, also denied an interest-free loan of $160,000 — to be repaid over seven years — to Snowy Range Academy, which is seeking the funds to expand its classrooms and offices.
The board might still approve the funding at its June meeting, but district administrators warned that might be too late for the charter school to complete needed renovations.
“As you know, SRA has not been allowed to participate in the type of component level funding through the State Capital Construction Department that would fund this type of project,” Laramie attorney Phil Nicholas, who represents the charter school, said in a May 3 letter to the district.
Nicholas asked the board for the funding at the end of April after “exhausting all other possible sources of funding,” ACSD No. 1 Business Manger Ed Goetz wrote in a May 3 memo. Like other charter schools in Wyoming, Snowy Range Academy receives an equitable portion of public funding based on its enrollment. School board members expressed concern about approving the additional payments at their Wednesday board meeting until they receive additional justification from Nicholas on the unusual request.
“I think what’s surprising is that Mr. Nicholas isn’t here to field (these) questions,” board member Lawrence Perea said at the Wednesday meeting.
School board member Tammy Johnson noted that, when the state wouldn’t provide additional funding for space at Indian Paintbrush Elementary School, the district had to tap its own general fund for $76,545 to pay for a modular classroom at the grade school.
Johnson said increasing enrollment at Snowy Range Academy inherently suppresses enrollment at ACSD No. 1 schools, which means greater transfer of state funding out of the district.
“I don’t mean to say we should block Snowy Range Academy, but I also think the board should know the full fiscal impact,” she said. “When we have to cut two teachers from our rolls, they don’t have to hire those two teachers.”
If Snowy Range Academy needs more classrooms, Johnson said the charter school should, likewise, have to find money in its own general fund to pay for them.
In his May 3 memo, Goetz said he and Superintendent Jubal Yennie were in favor of the funding request after the state’s School Facilities Division “disallowed major maintenance funds and have not approved a capital construction request for this expansion cost.”
“Dr. Yennie and I have been in discussions for several months with SRA administration about their expansion plans and how to fund them,” Goetz wrote. “They have attempted over the past year to find grants from private sources to help with this cost but have been unsuccessful.”
But board members wondered why the district wouldn’t structure the entire payment as a loan to ensure the district recoups all funding.
“I think because they want the burden reduced as far as what they have to pay back,” Goetz said.
“That’s what I told the bank the last time I needed money,” board member Nate Martin quipped.
“We tried to set it up in a way we thought was somewhat reasonable,” Goetz told the board. “It’s your decision.”
Both Perea and Jamin Johnson said they’d feel more comfortable if the entire payment was structured as a loan.
“I also want to know why we’re in the business of giving out interest-free loans,” Tammy Johnson said. “The state doesn’t do that. If we were going to go get a loan from the state, they would charge us interest. They’re doing it to the university for the dorms.”
This week, the school board set a special meeting for Wednesday for the sole purpose of deciding whether employees will need to cover a larger percentage of their benefits in the 2019-2020. The board was originally set to vote on that increase this year, but instead, delayed the vote for another week after employees complained that such benefit changes should be negotiated through the meet-and-confer committee, which is set to meet Monday.
Goetz suggested the board should also decide on the Snowy Range Academy funding at the Wednesday special meeting, noting delaying a final decision until June could derail Snowy Range Academy’s summer renovation plans to “meet their elementary grade expansion needs for two sections per grade.”
Instead, the board voted to delay a final vote on the funding until June 12, when Nicholas would be asked to defend the funding request.
“I’m kind of pushing it to make the May 15 meeting anyways, and I really would like that to be an in-and-out deal,” Martin said. “I’m willing to do an extra (May 15) meeting on behalf of the principle of transparency and to accommodate goodwill among teachers of the district. I’m less inclined to drop everything and go to a special meeting so that we can hear about this.”
“This is something that (Snowy Range Academy) has known about for a long time and they waited until now to tell us they need to know today,” Tammy Johnson said. “I’m sorry, but that’s not fair to us.”
While the charter school has been planning to expand for some time, Goetz acknowledged negotiations for the funding proposal only began a short while ago.
Only board member Karen Bienz, who wanted to approve the funding this week, voted against delaying the funding decision until June.
“I don’t view Snowy Range Academy as a competing entity, and that, while they are receiving (enrollment funding) for students, if those students were involved in our district, we would have costs associated with our district for those teachers,” Bienz said. “In terms of what they need to do for their building to meet the needs of their growing constituents, I think this is a reasonable request from them.”
Board member Jason Tangeman, who shares a law firm with Nicholas, was not present at this week’s meeting. All other board members said they needed more information before moving forward on the request.
Snowy Range Academy occupies about a third of the old Walmart 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 an account used for maintenance.
Currently, the account has $523,131, and it’s from that account Snowy Range Academy was asking to receive more funding.
“Ed, do you feel confident that if something catastrophic ever happened to the other portion of the building after agreeing to this, that there would be enough to cover it?” board member Jamin Johnson asked Goetz.
“I’ll give you my favorite accountant’s answer: It depends,” Goetz said. “It is a risk.”