Volume 105, Number 52 - December 25, 2008
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School district applauds decision
The Sublette County School District #1 received some great news this holiday season.
The Wyoming Supreme Court ruled in the district’s favor preventing SCSD #1 from having to pay the state an estimated $55 million.
“It’s a huge relief to have it solved — it was real draining,” said SCSD #1 superintendent Doris Woodbury.
Woodbury and school board members received the news of their victory early Friday morning.
The lawsuit dates back two years and has to do with the changed constitutional mandate Amendment B, which voters passed in November 2006.
The amendment stated that school districts might have to turn over 100 percent of their excess tax revenues.
However, because it used passive wording and the legislators didn’t put the mandate into effect until the middle of the second year, SCSD #1 and other school districts felt that the mandate was unclear and mishandled, said Woodbury.
“Our position was that the amendment allowed the state department to take the money, but did not require the legislators to do it,” Woodbury said. “The amendment was permissive in language and said that the legislation
may take 100 percent of the money and may distribute it to other school districts.”
The other reason for the lawsuit was that the state was asking for money after the fact, Woodbury said.
“The state took 75 percent and left 25 percent (after Amendment B went through), which is what it was before amendment B passed,” she said. “The legislators chose not to pass any laws until last February when they finally passed a statute that said you have to give us a hundred percent of the money.”
SCSD #1 wasn’t alone in its complaint against how the state handled amendment B as four other school districts, Big Piney, Gillette, Shoshoni and Kemmerer, also filed suit against the state.
The Supreme Court hearing took place on Oct. 22 and Woodbury said she and others were surprised to receive the results so quickly.
“We didn’t think we would know anything for at least six months,” she said. “If you have a quick decision like this [case] it usually means it’s pretty clear-cut.”
Doug Mason, one of the attorneys to represent Sublette County during the lawsuit, was also surprised by the quick results and pleased on how the Wyoming Supreme Court ruled.
“It’s too bad that we had to go to court over it, but it went well and I’m glad we won,” Mason said.
Woodbury said the lawsuit had been ongoing since she became the superintendent.
“It’s been a huge time taker that is really not focused on kids and teachers and learning,” she said. “It’s kind of like having an illness that is always out there nagging you.”
If the ruling had gone the other way, the district would have had a problem paying the state.
“We would have been scrambling and I don’t know if we would have given them a deed to the Aquatic Center, the 5th and 6th grade wing — or rather they would have said ‘well for the rest of eternity Sublette County will send us $100,000 a year,’” she said.
The district had used some of those funds to build the Aquatic Center.
“The contract [for the Aquatic Center] wasn’t due for completion until late ‘07 and that was part of our worry,” Woodbury added.
Woodbury is pleased with the outcome and glad that this issue is no longer lingering over her head and that the district does not have to pay the state.
“The ruling said in no way can you go back in time and try to collect money,” Woodbury said.
SCSD #1 business director, Vern McAdams was also pleased with the court’s ruling.
“We’re glad the court agreed with us— we’ve always felt that we were doing the right thing and it was nice to have the court confirm that,” he said.
McAdams said the way in which some people saw the issue was not accurate.
“The states made it into a moral issue and said if we kept the money other districts would suffer, which is not the case,” he said.
Each school district receives a set amount of funding from the state and that doesn’t change, McAdams added.
“There are those out there saying that the money wouldn’t go to other districts, [if we kept it] when those funds won’t go to other districts anyway,” he said. “School district funding is based on a formula and the state has no intention of sharing that wealth.”
McAdams said he and other board members went to the legislators in 2005 and 2007 and said they would give up most of the excess recapture funds if the money went to other school districts.
“We got laughed at both times,” he said. “It’s not a matter that [the other school districts] are broke because we won’t give up the money. They get exactly what the state allows for them.”
McAdams said that when the district was receiving excess recapture funds, it paid the state a large amount of money.
“In the seven years that we’ve had the excess recap funds, we’ve paid over $327 million to the state, and that’s how much we’ve paid already,” he said “That’s even after keeping some of it — they wanted it all.”
The money collected by the state goes into a foundation account to be spent on a variety of things, such as scholarships.
McAdams said the state has been putting the money into good use; however, he worries that funds will be used for transportation.
“By leaving the money with us, it’s more likely to get spent on education,” McAdams said.
This June, the legislators passed a law that cleared up the “permissive” language on the mandate and now school districts have to hand over 100 percent of their excess recaptured funds.
McAdams said he doesn’t see this amendment being overturned in the future.
“There are too many people on the other side of the state supporting it,” he said. That side of the state also has large populations.
“Unfortunately we’re stuck with Amendment B,” Woodbury said.
The SCSD#1 put aside a portion of the roughly $55 million to be used on construction, health care funds, bonds, employee benefits and as a cushion in case it lost its lawsuit.
“We put a lot of money away for different things,” McAdams said.
There are enough funds available to build the elementary school without the help from the School Facilities Commission.
However, McAdams doesn’t recommend that idea. If the board decided on that idea, it would require all the money it has put away, he said.
“We should let the School Facilities Commission do its part and then we could pay for the enhancements and we’re not totally at its mercy in deciding what to do with the old buildings,” he said.
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