The Sublette County Journal
Volume 4, Number 41 - 6/8/00
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Anonymous donors promise $150K if building is named the "Martha Ptasnic Learning Center"
by Rob Shaul
At its meeting Tuesday, the Sublette County Board of Commissioners unanimously agreed to table the transfer of $100,000 of county funds to the Pinedale Learning Center. The decision comes amid the swirling controversy over the Learning Center Board's decision not to renew Director Martha Ptasnik's contract. Ms. Ptasnik had worked at the Learning Center for 21 years.
Last year, Ms. Ptasnik and the Learning Center Board approached the Commissioners and requested the County set aside $100,000 of "last resort" money to complete construction of the Learning Center's new $750,000 building. The money was only to be used if all the other funding sources fell short of completing the building. This May, the Learning Center Board approached the Commissioners and said it was approximately $187,000 short, and requested that the $100,000 set aside last year be transferred to the Center. The Commissioners agreed, and set a public hearing for the transfer of funds at its June 6 meeting.
Since that time, it was learned that Ms. Ptasnik's contract was not renewed. The circumstances surrounding her dismissal and the way the situation was handled has come under scrutiny; and the board decision has been heavily criticized by members of the community loyal to Ms. Ptasnik.
Tuesday, the controversy spilled over into the Commission's Transfer of Funds hearing.
The Anonymous Donors
Commission Chairman Bill Cramer began the hearing by distributing a memo written that morning by County Clerk Mary Lankford. In the memo, Ms. Lankford wrote that she was contacted last week by a group of donors, who wished to remain anonymous. The group "is concerned about the recent actions of The Learning Center board and its Director and the effect of those actions on the potential donations needed to complete the building project."
Ms. Lankford writes that the group of donors is willing to donate $150,000 toward completion of the building project if two stipulations are met. First, in the event that the Learning Center program should ever fail or cease to exist, the building would revert to the property of Sublette County. Second, "The new building shall be known as: 'The Martha Ptasnik Learning Center.'"
The donors propose paying Sublette County the $150,000 and having the County then transfer the money to the Learning Center, instead of giving the money directly to the Learning Center Board.
In addition to the Commissioners, the Learning Center Board members in attendance claimed to have not seen the memo or heard the donor's proposal prior to Tuesday's meeting.
Transfer of Funds
After distributing the memo, the Commissioners solicited comments on the proposed transfer of funds.
Peggy Noble of Pinedale, the Learning Center Board Chairman, and Anita Sullivan of Jackson, the Executive Director, several other Board members, Learning Center teachers, and a few parents were in attendance and spoke concerning the transfer of funds.
Pinedale's Nora Farrand told the Commissioners her child had attended the Learning Center and she had a good relationship with Martha Ptasnik, however, she felt the county money was "given to the children of the Learning Center," and the question shouldn't dissolve into a "personnel issue" surrounding Ms. Ptasnik's departure from the center.
Dianne Oglietti, a Learning Center teacher, told the Commissioners she and the other instructors were "mandated" to come to the meeting. Ms. Oglietti added that she and the other instructors are torn between supporting the Learning Center and their loyalty to Ms. Ptasnik. "We don't want to see the program put in jeopardy," she told the Commissioners, adding, "But I do feel the board is accountable to the community for the reasons why Martha was let go." She concluded, "It's really hard to work for an organization for which we feel we have no trust."
Learning Center Board Chairman Peggy Noble of Pinedale began her comments by telling the Commissioners she felt "passionate" about the Learning Center because her son had gone through the program. "I'm sorry that a personnel issue has come up in the midst of this," she told the Commissioners, adding that the personnel issue was a job for the Learning Center Board, not the County Commissioners, to address. She urged them to follow through on the transfer of funds.
Stuart Thompson asked the Commissioners not to transfer the $100,000 and that a letter he'd written to Anita Sullivan be read aloud during the meeting. In it, he wrote Ms. Sullivan that he was "distressed about the dismissal of Martha Ptasnik," and was dismayed by the "callous and casual manner" in which the dismissal was handled. "Your actions have insulted the integrity of the Learning Center and staff," he wrote Ms. Sullivan.
After his letter was read, Mr. Thompson addressed the Commissioners. He told them that a group of about a dozen past contributors had decided to withhold any further donations to the Learning Center until the specifics of Ms. Ptasnik's dismissal is explained by the Learning Center Board. "A group of contributors is getting together," he told the Commissioners, "who, if they don't get some accountability, are going to take some action to get accountability."
Wendy Butler asked that her letter also be read aloud. She wrote the Commissioners that fully she agreed with the Learning Center Board's decision to dismiss Ms. Ptasnik. She alleged that Ms. Ptasnik had once wrongly accused her of child abuse.
Though the hearing was about the transfer of funds, each of the commissioners took time to comment about the dismissal of Martha Ptasnik. Gordon Johnston went first. "I and the Board had special trust and confidence in the Learning Center," he began, adding that because of that trust, he was willing to commit taxpayers' money to the project. "That situation has changed now." He told Ms. Noble and Ms. Sullivan that the decision to dismiss Ms. Ptasnik and the way the dismissal has been handled has "eroded to a great extent" his trust. He told the two women that the Ptasnik dismissal "was the sorriest piece of leadership and judgement I have seen in a long, long, time."
Despite his concerns, however, Mr. Johnston said he was willing to honor the county's commitment for the $100,000, but he wanted to wait until the Learning Center Board met and responded to the proposal and stipulations by the group of anonymous donors.
Betty Fear spoke next. On Monday, the Commissioners met for a budget work session and the Learning Center's $100,000 came up. According to Ms. Fear, the Commissioners were so upset over Ptasnik's dismissal, they considered not honoring their commitment for the money.
On Tuesday, Ms. Fear said she didn't want to know the reason Ms. Ptasnik was dismissed; however, she was concerned that earlier on the same afternoon in May, when Ms. Noble and Ms. Sullivan met with the Commission to request the $100,000 be transferred, they had already decided not to renew Ms. Ptasnik's contract. Yet, this was never mentioned that day when they met with the Commissioners.
"I don't feel we were dealt with honestly," Ms. Fear began. "I know you were advised by your attorney not to talk to us, but I also know at least one other person was told of the decision prior to our meeting that day." Ms. Fear concluded by saying these events caused her to question the leadership at the Learning Center.
Commission Chairman Bill Cramer spoke last. He said he was in favor of honoring the commitment for the $100,000. Concerning, Ms. Ptasnik, he told Ms. Sullivan and Ms. Noble, "you have to answer for your decision, not me."
However, Mr. Cramer said he was concerned about the Commissioners' responsibility to the taxpayers, and had asked County Attorney Dale Aronson for an opinion as to what protections could be afforded to the taxpayer. Mr. Aronson advised the Commission to ask the Learning Center Board for a "deed of trust" or something similar which would require that the building be turned over to the county, or some other type of remuneration, if the Learning Center's program ceased to exist.
Numbers and Dates
The Commissioners asked Ms. Noble and Ms. Sullivan what the financial situation of the Learning Center was at this time, and when the county's money was needed. Ms. Sullivan responded that the money was needed as soon as possible, and the next payment was due to the building's contractor on June 25.
Concerning the proposal by the group of anonymous donors, Ms. Noble told the Commissioners that the earliest her board could meet to discuss the proposal and stipulations was June 12.
Mr. Cramer suggested that the Commissioners go ahead and transfer the funds, but do it with strings attached pending the Learning Center Board's response to the donors' proposal, and the County Attorney's recommendation.
Both Betty Fear and Gordon Johnston said they would rather table the funds transfer until the June 20 meeting, at which time the Learning Center Board could report back with its acceptance or denial of the donors' stipulations and deed recommendation. Ms. Fear made the motion to table the issue, it was seconded by Mr. Johnston, and approved unanimously.
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