It is ironical, and sad, that the upcoming Friday and Saturday celebration (September 26 and 27) of the 50th anniversary of the Bowlus Fine Arts and Cultural Center will be occurring at the same time that the Center is looking into its own open grave.
The Iola Register of Sept. 3 reported the details of the public forum held by the Board of Education of USD 257 about the proposed bond issue to build new elementary and high schools. This proposal will be on the November 4 ballot. The Register reported as follows: “[Superintendent of Schools Jack] Koehn also spoke about the district’s plans for the Bowlus Fine Arts Center if the bond issue passes. The high school would utilize the Bowlus for career and technical programs, rather than fine arts classes.”
The beneficiaries of the “Fine Arts and Cultural Center” established by Tom Bowlus through his will are the local school children and the citizens of the Iola area. Under the terms of Tom Bowlus’ will, the education of our local youth “… should include an appreciation of things artistic, musical and cultural, as well as things academic and scientific. It is to that end and for such purposes that I dedicate the aforedescribed premises.”
The Center was erected between 1962-1964 and was constructed to comply with the terms of the Bowlus will. As such, the Center includes an education wing for fine arts classes: vocal and instrumental music, speech, drama, and art. Iola High School and Iola Junior High School (later Iola Middle School) students used the education wing fully for 40 years. Until 2005 there was never any question as to whether the Board of Education of USD 257, which is also Trustee of the Thomas H. Bowlus Trust, was using the premises fully and in conformance with the terms of the Bowlus will, which it is legally bound as Trustee to implement.
In the year of 2005 the Board began the process of removing various of the Iola Middle School fine arts classes from the Bowlus Center so that, as of several years ago, none remained there, and the classrooms have been used only for the Senior High School fine arts classes: vocal and instrumental music, speech, drama, and art.
This reduction in the number of fine arts classes has raised the question of whether the Board as Trustee has violated the terms of the will. Now, with the planned withdrawal of the remaining fine arts classes, the Trustee arguably has breached the terms of the will. The District Court of Allen County, Kansas, has continuing jurisdiction over the Bowlus Trust and the Trustee. There are two documents which govern the operation of the Center: Tom Bowlus’ will and the Court’s Memorandum Decision of October 4, 1966. In its Memorandum Decision the District Court stated: “… the ‘Fine Arts and Cultural Center’ may and should be used to a major degree for the teaching of fine arts subjects to, and demonstration of the performing arts by, the youth of the community … .” (emphasis added)
The planned non-conforming use of the premises for career and technical programs, or for any other classes which are not truly fine arts subjects as required by Mr. Bowlus, likely will result in forfeiture of the Bowlus Center by the Board of Education as Trustee of the Bowlus Trust. To ensure that the Center is used solely for the education of the children in the fine arts and for cultural purposes, Tom Bowlus provided in his will that “… in the event any other use is made of such premises then and in that event the TRUST, insofar as SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 10 [now USD 257] is concerned shall fail …” and the trust assets, including the building itself, will pass to the alternate beneficiaries under Mr. Bowlus’ will.
Although the District Court of Allen County, Kansas, has not yet had occasion to construe the will as to which assets will be received by each of the alternate beneficiaries, likely the real estate, including the Bowlus Center, and $50,000 will pass to the City of Iola, and the contents of the Center and the balance of the trust fund of approximately three quarters of a million dollars will pass to the University of Kansas Endowment Association.
In the event that the District Court determines that the trust assets pass to the alternate beneficiaries because of the Trustee’s actions, the District Court will also be the one to determine what personal liability, if any, there may be of the members of the Trustee to the several thousand present and future trust beneficiaries (the school children and the citizens of the Iola area) if they lose the Bowlus Center as a result of the Trustee’s breach of its fiduciary duty to uphold the terms of Tom Bowlus’ will.
The Board of Education as Trustee apparently has absolute confidence that the career and technical programs to be held in the Bowlus Center constitute “fine arts subjects” in compliance with the terms of the Bowlus will and of the District Court’s Memorandum Decision discussed previously. Before embarking on this perilous course which, if the Trustee is wrong, could result in forfeiture of all of the trust assets, including the Bowlus Center, the Trustee presumably obtained a written legal opinion which is ironclad in support of this position.
As a citizen of the Iola area and hence one of the beneficiaries of the Bowlus Trust, I call upon the Trustee to post by no later than this Friday, September 26, on its website the complete text of this legal opinion. I have reviewed on the district’s website the list of the new classes that will be placed in the Bowlus Center, and this legal opinion presumably has analyzed each class to determine if it complies with the requirements of the will and the Memorandum Decision. TRANSPARENCY by the Board of Education as Trustee to the trust beneficiaries on this essential issue of the possible demise of the Bowlus Center demands that the Trustee fully disclose this legal opinion.
Even then, of course, it is only an attorney’s opinion, and in the end the only opinion that matters is that of the District Court at such time as it should have occasion to rule on this. Most of us would not risk the loss of all of our personal assets on the as yet unmade ruling of a court. I am appalled as a beneficiary of the Bowlus Trust that the Trustee has decided to gamble on the possible loss of all of the trust assets of which I and several thousand other people are the beneficiaries.
It is a community tragedy that the very existence of the Bowlus Fine Arts and Cultural Center has needlessly been put in jeopardy. If you value the Bowlus Center, then vote NO on the school bond issue on November 4. Since the Iola sales tax issue is linked to the bond issue and has to pass also for the new schools project to proceed, Iola voters should also vote NO on the sales tax issue.