Two land transfer agreements approved

The two land transfer agreements between USD No. 113 and USD No. 335, and USD No. 113 and USD No. 380 have been approved by the Kansas State Board of Education (KSBE). This decision was made during day two of the KSBE May meeting on Wednesday, May 15.

The two land transfers were included in the consent agenda and were not pulled out for separate discussion. Therefore, the transfers were approved 10-0. This means the land that housed the majority of the former Wetmore Academic Center students will be transferred out of the Prairie Hills USD No. 113 school district and into either the Jackson Heights USD No. 335 or Vermillion USD No. 380 districts. These transfers will go into effect on Monday, July 1, 2024.

Nemaha Central Petition

While it was anticipated that a recommendation about the land transfer petition filed by Nemaha Central USD No. 115 would be made to the KSBE by public hearing officer Scott Gordon during their May meeting, it was not. Gordon told The Sabetha Herald on May 1 that his recommendation would be given to the KSBE during their June meeting. They would also need to vote on the petition during their June meeting, due to the land transfer needing to be in effect by Monday, July 1.

With Gordon’s recommendation not being on the May meeting agenda, Gordon informed both parties — USD No. 113 and USD No. 115 — on Thursday, May 9, that his opinion was that “it would be a waste to do so [speak during the public forum] in May because the State Board will not have seen the petition and will not know what anyone is talking about.”

However, while he had his opinion about speaking to the board in May, he told both parties the rules for speaking during the public forum, stating that each person would need to sign up and would be allotted three minutes each.

Despite Gordon’s recommendations, three representatives from USD No. 115 came to the Tuesday, May 14, session of the KSBE meeting to speak directly to the board. Those representatives were Bern patron Ross Mosteller, Nemaha Central USD No. 113 Board President Amy Sudbeck and USD No. 115 legal counsel Joshua Ney.

Mosteller spoke to the board first saying he had emailed his full story to the KSBE board members. He asked for the board’s help in “completing the process of K.S.A. 72-532, the authorization to transfer school territory.”

“Ultimately, it is my understanding that the board of education has the authority to hear these arguments and will be in the future for a dispute that continues in our region,” Mosteller said, “as my community and my school of choice [Nemaha Central] finds ourself in that situation.”

Mosteller said that since 2012, 2/3 of the Bern students have attended school in Nemaha Central after Bern patrons were given the “promise that the land could follow the students.” However, Mosteller also stated that at the time of closure, the giving district — USD No. 113 — voted down the land transfer request, and the USD No. 115 superintendent at the time did not wish to pursue the land transfer process through K.S.A. 72-532.

He stated that following the closure of the Wetmore Academic Center in 2023, the landowner group in Bern was “reenergized with [USD] 115, [USD] 335 and [USD] 380.”

“I’ve been through the process of asking a local giving board of education [USD 113] to follow through on a promise that was made and that failed,” Mosteller said. “I’ve asked for help from the receiving district [USD 115], to help us get our land transferred, that has failed. I’ve been through the process of working through mediation with a state appointed mediator. That process failed. We just had a public hearing where nobody from the Bern community spoke against this transfer. Ultimately, I’m just asking, does [K.S.A.] 72-532 work? Will you all help us bring representation to my community and to us who have asked for this for 10 years?”

During Sudbeck’s allotted three minutes, she criticized Gordon’s recommendation about speaking to KSBE during the May meeting.

“In an email, the hearing officer for this case, Scott Gordon, explained that USD 115 could come in front of the board today, but that it would be a ‘waste of our time,’ because you would not even know what we were talking about,” Sudbeck said. “I doubt very much that you do not know anything about the land transfer petition between 115 and 113.”

Sudbeck continued saying that USD 115 has worked “tirelessly to obtain facts and keep feelings out of our decision to move forward with the land transfer petition.”

Sudbeck continued criticizing Gordon and USD No. 113.

“We have been advised by Mr. Gordon not to speak to the state board and that the state board has been advised to not speak to us,” Sudbeck said. “In no surprise, opposing counsel was very much on board with neither side being allowed to speak to the publicly elected board. The less you know, the more it benefits them.”

Sudbeck also claimed that a community member called to speak to the state board member “he helped elect” and that board member expressed “they were advised not to speak to their own taxpaying public on this matter.”

“Moreover, a motion to present oral arguments to the state board was filed by counsel for 115,” Sudbeck said. “It was almost immediately returned and rejected by the hearing officer. Thus far, it has not been found whether the filing was ever presented or considered by the state board itself. Scott Gordon made that call and did the board even know that oral arguments were requested? From the public’s angle, they are very concerned that this is an effort to silence them.”

Sudbeck said that as an elected official herself, she takes “very seriously” the ability to speak to her constituents.

“USD 115 very much respects the position of the board to act as the jury, so to speak in this matter,” Sudbeck said. “However, a defendable position cannot be made without facts. As elected officials, it is our duty to make informed decisions. If you have not watched the public hearing, watch it. Not one single person that resides in the area petitioned for transfer came to the meeting and asked for their land to stay with 113. Not one. This land transfer in no way creates an inequity to the transferring district and to pretend otherwise is disingenuous.”

Then, Ney came before the board to give his statement about how this was the “last chance” for USD 115 to speak to the board prior to the vote.

“…we find ourselves in May, the last chance to talk to you before you will consider a petition that spans over a year, over $100,000 on both sides being invested in this,” Ney said. “Countless volunteer hours. Countless hours of trying to come to the table to find agreement informally and then in mediation in December over the course of two days that my client paid for. That mediation just for the opportunity to reach agreement and now finally in the actual litigation in this petition.”

Ney said that when the scheduling order came out for the petition — which was filed in February 2024 — it was anticipated that the recommendation would be made to the KSBE in May, “so at least we would have a month to sort out what are the recommendations, etc.”

“I certainly don’t envy hearing officer Gordon’s place in trying to consolidate a huge record compiled of the course of many months from both sides into recommendations, but ultimately because I think that it is your decision, you should hear from the very least the parties in a similar way of the supreme court reviewing the initial determination of a district court or court of appeals,” Ney said. “So, I am here today to refile directly with you, petitioner USD 115’s motion for oral argument before the state board of education in which we request 30 minutes for each side to present to you during your June meeting before you deliberate.”

Ney’s comments wrapped up the public forum portion of the meeting and the KSBE did not make any comments.

Following the meeting, The Sabetha Herald reached out to USD No. 113 Superintendent for comments. Evans said that USD 113 representatives are being “respectful of the structure and guidance that Mr. Gordon has provided.”

“The USD 113 Board of Education, legal team and myself are respectful of the structure and guidance that Mr. Gordon has provided for following the policies of the Kansas State Board of Education, as well as the law established by the legislature for the transfer of land from one school district to another,” Evans said. “It must be frustrating for Mr. Gordon to have followed the policies and to then be criticized for this careful attention to detail and adherence to established protocols. While we are not enthusiastic about incurring more legal fees if required to present our case once again directly to the State Board of Education as requested by Mr. Nye, we are confident that we will again share information that overwhelmingly supports our position.”

Evans also said that USD 113 looks forward to making the case that the petition should be dismissed.

“115 has not met the material change of circumstances test,” Evans said. “And, an intervention by the state board in the drawing of local school district boundaries could lead to chaos and a lot of dominoes falling around the state if districts are incentivized to do land grabs.”

What’s Next?

The KSBE has set a special meeting for 10 a.m. Friday, May 24, to consider Josh Ney’s request of 30 minutes each at the June meeting. This meeting will be held via Zoom and will be live-streamed.

Gordon stated that “the petition and my recommendation will be published approximately two weeks prior to the June meeting. At that time, attorneys for each district will receive a copy of the same.”

The next two-day KSBE meeting will be held Tuesday and Wednesday, June 11 and 12. The Herald plans to cover the land transfer petition discussion at these meetings and will plan to release Gordon’s recommendation if provided prior to the June meeting.

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