School District Dealing With Lawsuit Costs

GOWANDA — Just one week before the $31 million capital project vote, Gowanda Central School district resident Charles Toy filed a lawsuit against the school regarding the district’s handling of the project.

According to board member Mark Nephew, the case was dismissed due to jurisdictional matters; however, the district must still deal with the thousands of dollars in legal fees accrued in the process, which was a topic at the most recent board of education meeting.

Though not on the agenda, the issue of the lawsuit was raised by Lynn Guzzetta, board of education member, who asked Superintendent Robert Anderson about the expected legal fees.

“The minimum right now is about $18,000 for our defense,” he said.

Guzzetta inquired as to how the district would deal with this cost, which was incurred just before the capital project vote on Dec. 13. In a phone interview after the meeting, Nephew explained that a week before the vote, a hearing took place for the lawsuit, which was filed with the state Supreme Court. Multiple points were brought up, including an allegation that the district, according to the proposed capital project, was planning to pay more than the assessed value for a parcel of land that will allow the school to expand the baseball fields.

Another allegation was the district failed to remain impartial in their presentation of the capital project and advocated for its passage.

“The lawsuit was dismissed because it was filed in the state supreme court as opposed to the issue being brought to the state education department first,” Nephew said. “If they had filed it with the state education department and then gone to the state supreme court, they could have listened to the case and made a decision.”

Nephew went on to explain that the goal of the lawsuit was to postpone or cancel the capital project vote.

Due to the fact that the case was dismissed, the vote moved forward as planned, and both propositions of the two-part contingency project were passed. During the Board of Education meeting, Anderson explained that according to the school’s attorney, Jeff Stone of Hodgson Russ Attorneys LLP, there were four to five attorneys working for the district for approximately five days and that their legal fees could be put under the incidental line of the capital project budget, “so it would be aid-able,” Anderson pointed out.

Board member Janet Vogtli said that purchasing property that is more than the assessed value is something that public entities such as hospitals, usually cannot do. Board President Cindy Sutherland responded, “I don’t know that it’s a good idea to have a discussion about the things that were brought up in the lawsuit, as much as do we want to make up the cost of what the lawsuit cost the district?”

Sutherland also mentioned the problematic timing of the lawsuit. “I have a problem with a lawsuit that is filed and a court date that is scheduled one day before the vote when these issues have been out there for months,” she said.

Anderson said that the district was served papers on Dec. 6. “The timing, I guess you could say, would be curious,” he stated.

Board Vice President Edward York pointed out the vote is over and the project has been passed, which means it may be in the district’s best interest to avoid going after anyone to recoup the legal fees. “That, in itself, would be an expense if we were not successful,” he stated. “I would like to see our community come together and work toward positive results. If we can recoup some or all of the costs by putting it into the project, it would be aided.”

Guzzetta agreed that the simplest way to deal with the legal fees would be to put them into the capital project budget; however, she said she would like more information about the district’s procedures in handling the capital project.

The board agreed to take up the matter in the near future. The next meeting of the Board of Education is Wednesday, Jan. 9, in the middle school library. The workshop portion of the meeting begins at 6 p.m., which will be followed by the regular board meeting at 7 p.m.