SHERIDAN — For close to 90 years, the Whitney Benefits foundation has operated in Sheridan County as a philanthropic organization dedicated to advancing educational opportunities for local residents. While Edward A. Whitney’s will has endured years of scrutiny and challenges, it may be facing another — this time from Sheridan County School District 2.
Earlier this year, SCSD2 Board President Richard Bridger submitted a letter to members of the Whitney Benefits board asking SCSD2 appointed members to consider an attorney interpretation of the will that allows for foundation funding to go directly to the school district.
Whitney Benefits board members are appointed by the three Sheridan County school districts and make decisions on how foundation money is appropriated.
According to Whitney Benefits board member Roy Garber, SCSD 2 Superintendent Craig Dougherty approached Whitney Benefits President Tom Kinnison at least three times in the spring and summer of 2013, asking for $10-20 million for a community recreation building the district was pursuing.
The school district has hired or worked with consultants to establish cost estimates and a market analysis for the recreation facility. This included spending more than $17,000 on a Ballard*King and Associates study that showed such a facility could operate at a $1.7 million to $700,000 deficit. Work done with TSP, Inc. architects in Sheridan showed the building could cost approximately $45 million.
In addition, emails exchanged between SCSD2 Superintendent Craig Dougherty and Sheridan College President Paul Young indicate the school district had considered moving forward with a bond issue in May 2014 (See The Sheridan Press, Feb. 6, 13, 15, 22).
Kinnison told Dougherty that a project of that type was not in the scope of Whitney Benefits, which is restricted in its giving by the instructions laid out in the Whitney will. Kinnison mentioned the request to the rest of the board, which concurred with the decision that the project was not one that Whitney Benefits could legally support.
WHAT THE WILL SAYS
While Whitney’s will actually does include mention of money from his estate being used for construction of a community building, there are restrictions on that idea.
“…trustees may use from the income of the fund, such a sum as they may deem necessary for the purchase of ground and the erection thereon of a suitable building for office purposes, and in connection therewith reading rooms, rest rooms, gymnasium, and such other similar uses, as they deem fit, for the advancement of the education and benefit of the residents of the county of Sheridan, Wyoming…”
To this end, Whitney Benefits boards have, over the past many decades, looked at the possibility of erecting a community center several times.
The first attempt, in 1938, ended in state district court (see related story) with the court stating that the board could not partner with the county on such a building, as it would be owned by the county and not Whitney Benefits, which would run contrary to the will. The court found that Whitney Benefits cannot donate money to a community center, but must actually be an owner of the property.
According to the book “The History of Whitney Benefits,” written by local author Sam Western, the board again pursued the idea of a community building in 1948 by sending out a community survey, but results of the survey were not noted in board notes and no action came of it.
In the 1950s, the IRS began pressuring Whitney Benefits, saying that with no community building in place, the organization was not complying with the will.
This began a series of conversations in the early 1960s that resulted in Whitney Benefits partnering with the YMCA to erect a building on land owned by the YMCA. Some of the land was deeded to Whitney Benefits and the building was also partially owned by Whitney Benefits.
According to Western’s book, “To satisfy the demands of the will, Whitney Benefits and the YMCA had to have separate facilities under the same roof.”
The co-ownership arrangement continued for many years, with Whitney Benefits conveying a portion of the property back to the YMCA in 1995. Financial ties between the YMCA and Whitney Benefits ended in 2008, though Whitney Benefits continues to own the soccer fields and leases them to the YMCA for a small annual fee.
The board again investigated a community center in 2000 after purchasing property on Sheridan Avenue (Whitney Plaza) that was intended to serve as a location for the new building.
The organization gathered input from close to 70 individuals and groups on what a community center should include and how it should be operated. The board also commissioned a study to estimate how much it would cost to build, operate and maintain the facility.
Ultimately, the prospect for a Whitney owned and operated facility failed as the board decided that the cost was too much and the focus should remain on education rather than recreation.
“We basically came to the conclusion that even though Whitney Benefits has a lot of money, we really couldn’t afford on our own to build and operate it and there were no other groups that had the resources we did to participate in it,” Garber said. “It became very large, very expensive to construct and very expensive to operate.
“We would have been the entity putting up most of the money and we didn’t think we could afford and nor did it fit the educational requirements that we think are set out in the will,” he continued. “And Sheridan is blessed to have one of the biggest YMCAs per capita in the United States. It is a pretty fantastic facility for a community this size. It would have been in competition in many ways and overlapping services.”
A DIFFERENCE OF OPINION
On Dec. 13, 2013, on behalf of the SCSD2 Board of Trustees, Powell-based attorney Tracy Copenhaver wrote a letter addressed to SCSD 2-nominated Whitney Benefits board members, giving his interpretation of the Whitney will and stating his belief that Whitney Benefits could in fact, provide funding to school districts.
After quoting the will’s mention of a community building, he states, “This seems to be a rather broad grant of authority to construct facilities that will advance the education and benefit the residents of Sheridan County. Any such building was required to be constructed in the City of Sheridan.”
The letter also notes that the Whitney Benefits board would begin receiving proposals from the school district for funding. Members of SCSD2 met with the Whitney Benefits board Feb. 18 and discussed proposals, but a public records request indicated only that the district hoped to expand opportunities in recreation and the arts and to improve graduation rates.
Copenhaver’s letter ends by stating, “…I hope that those Whitney Board members appointed by the Sheridan County School District #2 Board of Trustees will look favorably on those proposals coming before the Whitney Board later this spring.”
However, in a response letter from the Whitney Benefits Board of Trustees dated Feb. 19, foundation President Tom Kinnison notes that, “The plain language of Mr. Whitney’s will, read fairly in the context of its stated purposes, does not provide anywhere for the payment by Whitney Benefits of any direct grants to local school districts.”
He concludes the letter by pointing to the board and SCSD2’s long history of cooperation on education issues and noting that the board has always tried to operate, “in accordance with the express directions and wishes of Mr. Whitney, as set forth in his will. We believe those directions are much less expansive than does the school district as reflected in Mr. Copenhaver’s letter.”
Garber said that Whitney Benefits has partnered with the county’s school districts in the past for programs and sees opportunities for other partnerships, but not financial support of a proposed community recreation center to be owned and operated by SCSD2.
“I think our board is interested in education in all facets in Sheridan County and we are trying to sue the foundation money wisely and in as many areas as we can,” he said. “There are some things we can do and some things we cannot do. Why don’t we look at what we can do.”
In an earlier interview with The Press, Garber also expressed concern about SCSD2 retaining an attorney to interpret the will.
“I’m not sure if the intent of the letter was to say (they’re) going to threaten the will,” Garber said. “But, I’m not sure why you would get an attorney opinion if you didn’t have some intent to follow through some how.”