A question 50 years in the making may be answered soon.
A petition filed by the USD 257 Board of Education is asking a legal authority — Judge Robert Fairchild of Lawrence — to examine the school district’s ties to the Bowlus Fine Arts Center.
Last August, school board members, who also serve as trustees to the fine arts center, directed attorneys from Johnson Schowengerdt P.A. to file a petition asking the court to review Thomas Bowlus’s will and charitable trust, which paid for the fine arts center’s construction as well established an endowment in the early 1960s, and gave the school district responsibility for the center’s operations.
School officials say the main purpose of the court hearing is to ensure the Center’s future by learning exactly what the parameters of the trust are, including whether the school district could hold what are considered fine arts classes elsewhere without violating the trust’s terms.
Tony Leavitt, president of the school board, noted in September the petition poses “the hard questions that I think people have purposely avoided since the Bowlus was put in place.
“We have to find out what the guidelines are. There have been a lot of presumed facts that have been shared throughout the years between the public and trustees. But I’m not sure they are the facts and it’s important for the community to know.”
The hearing is scheduled for 10 a.m. Tuesday in Allen County Magistrate Court in the courthouse and is expected to last a matter of minutes at the most.
THE DISTRICT’S petition asks a series of questions:
— Does the will require school classes to be held at the Bowlus, or simply require Bowlus trustees to manage the facility in a way that ensures area youth the opportunity to appreciate “things artistic, musical and cultural.”
— If classes must be held at the Bowlus, how many should there be, and how many classrooms need to be available?
— Does a 1966 court ruling that classes be held at the Bowlus still apply, or was the court limiting the language to discussing whether the former Allen County Community Junior College had a share in the legal title to the Bowlus?
— If the court decides the Bowlus must be used for fine arts classes, how much discretion does the district have in defining “fine arts” as it relates to subjects and classes held in the facility? (That issue took center stage in a 2014 failed bond issue in which USD 257 voters rejected plans to build a new school on the outskirts of town. A proposal was to pull most basic arts courses from the Bowlus, and replace them with more technical courses dealing with the arts, such as video or stage production or music composition using digital tools.)
— Does USD 257’s budget make it impractical to continue to pay to use the Bowlus for classroom space, if less expensive venues are available on campus?
— Is there a situation in which the Bowlus could be forfeited to the Kansas University Endowment Association, or was the provision in the Bowlus will only applicable when time restrictions were put into place for the facility’s original construction?
— Are school board members, singularly or as a group, allowed to remain on the school board, but resign as trustees, and appoint another entity to serve as the center’s administrators?
THOMAS BOWLUS, a local banker and benefactor, died in 1960. In his will he directed his home in the 200 block of East Madison Avenue be razed and a fine arts and cultural center be built there.
The will gave the school district — those days, it was Iola School District 10 — a set amount of time to accept the gift and build the center.
As the petition notes, the Bowlus was the subject of significant litigation in the 1960sl.
The Allen County District Court ruled in 1966 that the Bowlus property was not an outright gift, but should be considered a charitable trust whose purpose was for the benefit of students within the school district and the community at large.
That meant there were were strings attached. If the district did not meet certain terms of Bowlus’ will, the center would become property of the KU’s Endowment Association.
And as has been pointed out, because the Bowlus built to benefit the community, it means the community also has a seat at the table at Tuesday’s hearing.
Melissa Dugan, an attorney out of Chanute, was appointed guardian ad litem to represent the community and schoolchildren. Typically, guardian ad litems are used in juvenile court or during divorce or custody hearings. Attempts to reach Dugan, who was out of town this week, were unsuccessful.
There also is a venue for others to have a say in the hearing, if they choose.
Community members wishing to file any “pleadings or written defenses” regarding the petition or questions to the judges must do so by the start of the hearing. Others may appeal to the judge to hear their comments “in standing” by demonstrating sufficient connection to the case.