For a second time in the year since Roosevelt Elementary School was sold to Missoula Catholic Schools, Missoula County Public Schools finds itself faced with a lawsuit, filed this time by the nonprofit neighborhood group Good Schools Missoula.
The case alleges that the sale violated the district trustees’ obligations under state law by providing a sweetheart deal to Missoula Catholic Schools; it also contends that the Montana Constitution, which prohibits direct or indirect payment of public money or property to sectarian groups, was violated.
Dan Funsch, president of Good Schools Missoula, says the district set itself up to lose money on Roosevelt and that taxpayers, neighbors and parents are paying the price.
From 1999 to 2004, the district leased Roosevelt to Missoula Catholic Schools for $60,000 a year—$1.50 per square foot—and renewed their lease at the rate of $70,000 annually in December 2004, which was then far below the market value of $6-$12 per square foot for similar properties, the suit says. In the meantime, the district accommodated the Missoula Catholic Schools’ interest in purchasing Roosevelt by holding a November 2004 referendum at which voters approved selling the school. The trustees’ renewal of the five-year lease during ongoing talks about selling Roosevelt resulted in a lopsided scenario that favored the Missoula Catholic Schools, the suit says, because other interested purchasers were unfairly deterred by the provisions of the renewed lease agreement.
“Why would we give away public assets in sweetheart deals? That doesn’t make sense for anyone other than the private entity that’s going to get a great deal,” Funsch says.
The school district, Loyola Sacred Heart High School Foundation and the five district trustees who supported the sale—Chairwoman Jenda Hemphill, Toni Rehbein, Scott Bixler, Joe Toth and Rosemary Harrison—all are named defendants. Neither Superintendent Jim Clark nor Hemphill had seen the suit and withheld comment, and Loyola Sacred Heart High School Foundation representatives did not comment by press time.
In May 2005, Molly Moody and Linda Smith sued over the same sale, saying it didn’t comply with district procedures, but the case was dismissed in October.