CASPER, Wyo. — State Sen. Phil Nicholas says his efforts to secure a $4 million appropriation for the Snow Range Academy to buy a new building aren't a conflict of interest, even though the charter school is a client of his law firm.
The state superintendent of public instruction, who has repeatedly clashed with Nicholas, doesn't agree.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill said she has long been skeptical about how Nicholas and the Snowy Range Academy, a charter school in Laramie, obtained the $4 million from the Legislature. Nicholas was co-chairman of the Joint Appropriations Committee when the money was allocated as a $4 million line item in the budget. After the money was slated, a footnote in the budget ordered it be spent on the academy.
Nicholas shrugged off any accusations of wrongdoing, saying the claims are suspect because they come from Hill, who is facing a special investigatory committee in the House due to accusations that she misused federal funds during her tenure as the most powerful education official in the state.
"She's just trying to rally her base," Nicholas said. "Just because I am an attorney and represent somebody doesn't mean I have a conflict of interest."
Hill has accused Nicholas of being part of a cabal of lawmakers who have targeted her because she is not part of the "good ol' boys" network in state government. Nicholas was a member of the legislative leadership that pushed Senate File 104, the bill that stripped Hill of much of her power and turned oversight of the Wyoming Department of Education over to a director appointed by the governor.
Hill said she became wary of the appropriation when representatives from the Snowy Range Academy sat in on an executive session of the State Building Commission, which is composed of the state's five elected officials and four legislators - one of whom is Nicholas.
Members of the public cannot attend an executive session of state commissions, boards and other groups unless they are invited to speak. Guests must leave the room when the discussion doesn't pertain to their business.
"Normally there's no way in the world that someone would be able to sit in like that during an executive session," said Kevin Lewis, a senior member of Hill's leadership team.
In a letter to other members of the commission, Hill said she shared concerns with Gov. Matt Mead about the uninvited presence of Snowy Range Academy officials during the October commission meeting and questioned whether their presence violated the state's open-meetings laws. Hill and the governor sought an opinion from then-Attorney General Greg Phillips.
Phillips said his office was unable to determine if there was a violation of the law, but the opinion did state that every effort should be made to ensure that only those individuals necessary for an executive session be allowed into the session.
Snowy Range Academy has had problems securing a long-term home since the school began in 2002. When school officials were on the hunt for a building more than a decade ago, there were no available education facilities available in Laramie. An empty Wal-Mart building was the school's best option.
When the school's contact was set to expire in 2012, there were no vacant schools for the charter school to use. Buying the building was the best of very few options, Nicholas said. The cost of building a new facility would be more than $28 million and moving the school to Laramie Junior High School would cost more than $16 million, according to a study funded by the state School Facilities Department. The school recently signed a contract with the owner of the building that will extend the lease until 2015.
State laws outline a different set of rules for buying property for an educational facility such as the Snowy Range Academy charter school. In a footnote in the 2012 biennium budget, the rules were changed. The School Facilities Department never dealt with the state's charter schools, but the budget footnotes devised a specific framework for charter schools to receive money from the department's budget. Snowy Range Academy was the only charter school in the state to fit the description, Hill said.
Other agencies in the state don't buy land or buildings this way, said Sam Shumway, an attorney for the Wyoming Department of Education.
"Facts are facts," Hill said. "Senator Nicholas thinks everybody serves him. He has it upside down. The senator works for the people, not the other way around."
Nicholas said he didn't financially benefit from the deal.
"They are my constituents," he said. "They need a building and there's no available space."
The lack of available space in Laramie is a weak argument, Lewis said. Laramie High School is building a new facility set to open in 2015. There has yet to be a feasibility study, but using the old Laramie High School could be a potential option for Snowy Range, he said.
Nicholas, who has served as legal counsel for the school for more than 10 years, said it was his job to secure a space for the district before its lease expired. The school's 2012 annual report stated that the academy's administrators were "working closely" with Nicholas.
Snowy Range Academy doesn't have the money in its pocket yet. The State Loan and Investment Board still needs to approve the $4 million appropriation, Nicholas said.
Hill said that the $4 million won't be the only appropriation that Snowy Range needs. She estimates that the charter school will need between $9 million and $10 million dollars to renovate the facility.
The appropriation has started a debate about how the Legislature should amend state law.
The appropriation is an example of micromanaging by the Legislature, Hill said. Instead of securing a funding mechanism with footnotes in the budget, there needs to be a law in place that addresses the issue of how charter schools can secure money for facilities, she said.
"Will other schools have the same access to Nicholas?" she asked.
She wants the Legislature to define the process of how a charter school can obtain funds with legislation rather than footnotes.
"We need processes that are clear and accessible to everyone," she said. "I want all charter schools to have this opportunity."
Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, said using footnotes in the budget bill is a legislative tool lawmakers can use to cram in things that, in some cases, should be addressed as bills.
"It's knowing the rules of the game," he said. "But as a policy it's better to have stand-alone bills."