CHEYENNE, Wyo. — The state Building Commission voted Tuesday to spend up to $4 million to purchase a building in Laramie for a charter school despite strong opposition from state Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill.
Hill contended the process surrounding the purchase was tainted because a representative of Snowy Range Academy attended an executive session of the commission on Oct. 25, when the issue was discussed.
The members of the commission who voted in favor of the purchase were Gov. Matt Mead, Secretary of State Max Maxfield and Treasurer Mark Gordon. Auditor Cynthia Cloud was excused.
The 180-student Snowy Range Academy is entering its 12th year of operation. It currently is housed in leased space in the former Laramie Walmart, which the state now wants to buy.
The Wyoming Legislature allocated $4 million in the state capital construction budget earlier this year to purchase the building.
Hill said there is no question that students at the school are thriving.
But she again raised the issue of the October executive session and suggested the school had been given an advantage because of the presence of an academy representative during the closed session.
Executive or closed sessions are allowed by state law for a variety of reasons, ranging from personnel matters to national security to real estate transactions. Usually, executive sessions are closed to the general public as well as the news media.
Hill also raised past conflict-of-interest concerns about state Senate Majority Floor Leader and former Joint Appropriations Committee Co-Chairman Phil Nicholas serving as an attorney for Snowy Range Academy during the allocation process.
“I believe the Legislature needs to ensure that all charter schools have access, not just those who have certain legislators as counsel,” Hill said.
Hill claimed that Nicholas was responsible for getting the money for the purchase in the budget when he was co-chairman of the Joint Appropriations Committee. However, the money wasn’t allocated until this year — after Nicholas left the committee to become floor leader.
Nicholas, of Laramie, has dismissed Hill’s conflict-of-interest claim, saying he did not benefit financially from helping a constituent — in this case, the school.
Nicholas is one of the legislative leaders Hill has accused of being part of a “good old boys” network that pushed through Senate File 104 in January. The new law stripped Hill of many of her administrative duties and put the Wyoming Department of Education under a new, governor-appointed director.
A special state House committee is scheduled to meet Aug. 7 in Cheyenne to began its investigation of Hill’s performance, including questions raised by an earlier probe about possible misuse of funds and a hostile work environment in the Department of Education.
During Tuesday’s commission meeting, Marguerita Rovani, founder and current operating manager for the Snowy Range Academy, said she worked for 15 years with various Joint Appropriations Committee members on the needs of the school, including former Sen. Mike Massie of Laramie.
Rovani said that since 2009 she has worked with the state School Facilities Comission, with Nicholas as the school’s legal counsel and, more recently, with Sen. Chris Rothfuss of Laramie, a Joint Appropriations Committee member.
She noted that by purchasing the building, the school will be able to leverage federal grant money. The school currently can’t obtain federal funds because it leases the building.
The School Facilities Commission gave the building a very good rating, so it will not need extensive repairs or renovations at state expense.
Mead said the School Facilities Commission conducted a survey that ranked the purchase of the Walmart building as the least costly of six options for the school.
He also said the state attorney general told him the Building Commission didn’t have to publish the minutes of the October executive session.
Hill continued to object to the way the purchase had been handled.
“I think the process has been circumvented,” she said. “Charter schools should have access to the same resources as public schools.”
Maxfield tried to get the discussion back on track after discussion continued about the October executive session.
“We’re mixing this with political issues, and it should not be,” Maxfield said.
He added that while he agreed with Hill about charter schools, that issue was beyond the commission’s role, which is dealing with buildings.
The commission’s task, he said, was to decide whether the state should spend $4 million to buy the building leased by the school.
“I think we need to stay focused on that narrow question and leave the politics out of it, leave the personalities out of it,” Maxfield said.
Hill retorted, “It’s not political. It’s about process.”
Officials said there must be an appraisal costing about $7,500 before the state buys the property.
After the building is sold, according to a budget footnote, it will be transferred to Albany County School District 1. The school district then will be responsible for maintenance and operation of the academy.