Yes folks the Great Falls Public School District is a lot like slapstick, only it’s real.
For those of you too young to remember, Laurel and Hardy were a comedy double act who appeared in 107 films together during the 1920s and 30s. Their first official film together was “Putting Pants on Philip”, which I find particularly fitting, pardon the pun, since I often wear a kilt proudly. It was about a young Scotsman clad in a traditional kilt who had newly arrived in the United States.
The catchphrase, “Well, here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into!”, first used in “Murder Case”, 1930, is probably recognizable to most people and it is particularly appropriate for this article. Why?
Because the Great Falls Public School District has really done it now. In order to provide more parking for Great Falls High they have, in my opinion, possibly violated the law by recently purchasing the Campfire property at 1925 2nd Avenue South without the required vote of the electorate to construct a relatively small parking lot that if developed to City standards would only accommodate 9 to 10 parking spaces.
The purchase price was, according to the Buy-Sell agreement, $100,000. Add to that the cost of demolishing the existing historic structure and the cost of constructing the parking lot and site development, in my opinion could be close to $20,000 per parking space.
“The purchase price was, according to the Buy-Sell agreement, $100,000. Add to that the cost of demolishing the existing historic structure and the cost of constructing the parking lot and site development, in my opinion could be close to $20,000 per parking space.”
Here’s the fine mess.
Montana law dictates how school districts can acquire properties, and the process that must be followed. The MCA Statutes cited here directs that process.
20-6-603. Trustees’ authority to acquire or dispose of sites and buildings — when election required.
(1) The trustees of a district may purchase, build, exchange, or otherwise acquire, sell, or dispose of sites and buildings of the district. Action may not be taken by the trustees without the approval of the qualified electors of the district at an election called for the purpose of approval unless:
(a) a bond issue has been authorized for the purpose of constructing, purchasing, or acquiring the site or building; (b) an additional levy under the provisions of 20-9-353 has been approved for the purpose of constructing, purchasing, or acquiring the site or building;
(c) the cost of constructing, purchasing, or acquiring the site or building is financed without exceeding the maximum general fund budget amount for the district and, in the case of a site purchase, the site has been approved under the provisions of 20-6-621; or
(d) money is otherwise available under the provisions of this title and the ballot for the site approval for the building incorporated a description of the building to be located on the site.
(2) Except for land that is granted to or held by the state in trust or land acquired by conditional deed under the provisions of 20-6-605, the trustees may, upon approval by the electorate, accept as partial or total consideration for the exchange of the land a binding written agreement by a public or private entity seeking the exchange to use the property to provide a service that benefits the school district. The deed for the exchange of land must contain reversionary clauses that allow for the return of the land to school district ownership if the binding written agreement is not complied with.
(3) When an election is conducted under the provisions of this section, it must be called under the provisions of 20-20-201 and must be conducted in the manner prescribed by this title for school elections. An elector qualified to vote under the provisions of 20-20-301 may vote in the election. If a majority of those electors voting at the election approve the proposed action, the trustees may take the proposed action.
First, a Bond issue was passed in 2016, $98M, and authorized, in which the ballot language included expenditures for “acquiring property contiguous to or in the vicinity of the Great Falls High School Campus for additional parking”
Does that satisfy the above referenced Montana Statute? In my opinion, NO, and here is why.
According to Black’s Law Dictionary (7th edition, 1999), which defines “Contiguous” as “touching at a point or along a boundary; adjoining”. Following that definition which is commonly held in zoning and planning issues, the Campfire property is not contiguous because it is separated by a public right-of-way, a street, 2nd Avenue South.
Is the Campfire property then, as the ballot language states, “in the vicinity of the Great Falls High…”? The answer to that is YES, in a very general sense.
But here’s the problem. Montana Statute 20-6-621(2) states:
“A site approval election is not required when the site was specifically identified in an election at which an additional levy or the issuance of bonds was approved for the purchase of the site.”
Selection Of School Sites — Approval Election
20-6-621. Selection of school sites — approval election. (1) (a) Except as provided in subsection (1)(b), the trustees of a district may select the sites for school buildings or for other school purposes, but the selection must first be approved by the qualified electors of the district before a contract for the purchase of a site is entered into by the trustees.
(b) The trustees may purchase or otherwise acquire property contiguous to an existing site that is in use for school purposes without a site approval election. The trustees may take an option on a site prior to the site approval election. (2) The election for the approval of a site must be called under the provisions of 20-20-201 and must be conducted in the manner prescribed by this title for school elections. An elector who may vote at a school site election is qualified to vote under the provisions of 20-20-301. If a majority of those voting at the
election approve the site selection, the trustees may purchase the site. A site approval election is not required when the site was specifically identified in an election at which an additional levy or the issuance of bonds was approved for the purchase of the site.
(3) Any site for a school building or other building of the district that is selected or purchased by the trustees must:
(a) be in a place that is convenient, accessible, and suitable;
(b) comply with the minimum size and other requirements prescribed by the department of public health and human services; and
(c) comply with the statewide building regulations, if any, promulgated by the department of labor and industry.
The key words are : specifically identified. Was the Campfire property specifically identified in the 2016 Bond Election ballot? The answer is NO.
Is the Campfire property contiguous to the Great Falls High School property? The answer is again, by definition is, NO.
And finally, did the Warranty Deed recorded in the Cascade County Clerk and Recorders office on March 19, 2018, and further amended due to a correction of the Seller’s name, recorded on March 25, 2018 constitute a purchase? The answer is YES.
And was that purchase carried out in accordance with Montana law? It appears that in the absence of a prescribed election, the answer is NO.
The legality of the school districts purchase is a question that will ultimately be decided in a court of law. However, I don’t think there’s any question that up to $20,000 per parking space is not a wise use of taxpayer funds by the school district. Perhaps when looking for reasons why the recent school levy failed the public officials and employees at the District should start with this kind of decision making rather than blaming this blog and the people who read it.