SCSD2: Whitney board member escalating conflict

SHERIDAN — In an ongoing dispute between Sheridan County School District 2 and Whitney Benefits, district board President Richard Bridger has accused members of the Whitney Board of fighting a private battle publicly.

“As a Board, we would certainly prefer that any necessary discourse between our entities take place openly, honestly, and professionally, between our boards, rather than through the media,” Bridger wrote in a letter addressed to the Whitney Benefits Board of Trustees and dated March 7.

Bridger’s most recent letter asserts that Whitney board President Tom Kinnison “has otherwise made it well known that he intends to escalate a conflict” and that Kinnison “appears to be on a personal mission to publically attack SCSD2 at every opportunity.”

 

Where it started

The recent dispute between the school district and the local foundation stems from a proposed multi-purpose recreational facility that SCSD2 has been discussing for the past two years. It was first mentioned publicly on Jan. 27 at a Whitney Benefits education summit by Bridger. At the event, Mayor Dave Kinskey responded to Bridger’s remarks, mentioning several specific figures related to the building, suggesting that the project had already been discussed in detail by the district.

Since then, The Sheridan Press has examined public meeting minutes of the school district back to January 2012, but found no mention of the facility.

The Press has also submitted numerous public document requests under Wyoming open records laws that have shown SCSD2 has done significant investigation into the project including paying more than $17,000 to Ballard*King and Associates, a Colorado consulting firm, to conduct a market analysis related to the building. Documents received also showed that the district had already worked with local architects to determine the cost of the facility with estimates coming in near $45 million.

Despite SCSD2 Superintendent Craig Dougherty’s claims in a Feb. 5 interview with The Press that the project was not far enough along in the planning process to warrant a timeline for a bond election, multiple documents obtained by The Press contradict that claim.

In an email discussion between Northern Wyoming Community College District President Dr. Paul Young and Dougherty, it became evident that SCSD2 had plans to put forth a bond issue as soon as this May. Dougherty also stated that the school district, formally or informally, never approached Whitney for funding for the project. Whitney board members have said Kinnison was approached as least three times by Dougherty, who asked for between $10-20 million for the project.

 

Asserting influence

Since January, members of the Whitney Board have expressed concern that SCSD2 has been attempting to influence district-appointed Whitney board members to hold loyalties to the school district in their future Whitney decisions.

SCSD2 also obtained an interpretation of the Whitney will from Powell-based attorney Tracy Copenhaver. Copenhaver’s opinion letter asserts that Whitney can give funding directly to the school district, rather than only to the local community college. Whitney board members have described the lawyer’s letter as a “thinly veiled threat.”

Bridger addressed some of those concerns in his March 7 letter.

Bridger wrote that the Copenhaver letter was sent “to your board” to request that “SCSD2 be allowed to present its proposal at your next board meeting.” However, the Copenhaver letter was not addressed to the board as a whole but rather only the 10 foundation board members who were appointed by SCSD2.

Bridger’s most recent letter also states that “SCSD2 has no intentions of bringing any sort of legal action to ‘threaten’ Mr. Whitney’s Will.” Yet, Whitney board member Roy Garber had said in previous interviews with The Press that he was unsure, “why you would get an attorney opinion if you didn’t have some intent to follow through somehow.”

Bridger also questioned whether Kinnison’s letter expressed concerns of the entire board, or only Kinnison. Bridger has said publicly that the letter from Kinnison dated Feb. 19 was not sent to the school board for review prior to being published by The Press, which he cites as an example of how Kinnison is trying to escalate a public conflict.

However, the Feb. 19 letter was requested by The Sheridan Press from both entities Feb. 20 and received from both entities prior to publishing in The Press. Whitney Benefits provided The Press with the document on Friday, Feb. 21, and SCSD2 provided The Press with the document on Monday, Feb. 24. An article relating to the letter was published by The Press on Feb. 27, more than a week after the document was issued to the district for review.

 

Sticking to their story

In Bridger’s March 7 letter, he maintains that the recreational facility is still in exploratory phases and that no formal action has been taken on the project.

The project has never been discussed or voted on in a public meeting, but a committee was formed to investigate the project, taxpayer funds were spent on consultants and planned bond proposals were generated.

Kinnison has indicated he intends to respond to Bridger’s recent accusations but was unavailable for further comment.

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