Judge explains history, value of school land
by PHILLIP WILLIAMS
Dec 19, 2013 | 1197 views | 0 0 comments | 18 18 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Upshur County Judge Dean Fowler explained to the New Diana School Board on Monday night how the county’s school districts financially benefit from county-owned “school land” in West Texas.

Appearing at the request of New Diana ISD Supt. Carl Key, Fowler said some persons are circulating “misinformation” about the property and “They refuse to come before me or the court. . . (They) try to make all kinds of allegations against us.”

Fowler, who is opposed for reelection by Ronnica Ridgeway in the March 4 Republican primary, did not elaborate on the purported “misinformation” during the 25-minute presentation, in which he detailed the history of the land in Baylor and Throckmorton Counties, and how revenue from it is distributed among the nine school districts lying wholly or partly in Upshur County.

Upshur owns 17,712 acres in Baylor and Throckmorton Counties—8,856 in each county—and all revenue from there must go into either a Permanent School Fund, or into County Available funds which are annually distributed among the schools, the judge explained.

Assets received from below ground go into the permanent fund, while the available funds come from surface lease revenue, such as surface damages and a cattle lease, Fowler said.

The county government can receive no revenue from the property “to reimburse ourselves for any expenses” related to it, he noted.

The County Available funds are distributed among the nine districts on a pro-rata basis, depending on the average “population and attendance of your students that reside in Upshur County,” the judge said. He pointed out that New Diana ISD is the second largest district in the county (next to Gilmer ISD).

The County Treasurer recommends the annual amount to be distributed among the districts, which was $240,000 this year, said Fowler. In addition, the county retains $150,000 in the fund, partly to pay property taxes on the land, he added

The Permanent School Fund has $1,134,000, but for it to be released to the county’s schools, all nine districts would have to request it, and it would be distributed on a pro-rata basis, the judge said. For now, it is in an account drawing a small amount of interest, he said.

One problem with the land, Fowler pointed out, is that “We need to determine what percentage of the minerals we own.” He indicated that a court battle in the late 1940s had left that unclear, and said that the county’s schools have hired a landman to tell the County Commissioners Court that information, and that the court believed the schools should pay that individual.

Pointing out that the landman is professionally liable for his findings, Fowler said that “once I get a title opinion from someone out there (in West Texas),” he would be “pretty confident that’s what we own.” He added that “we are absolutely clear where the property lines are.”

School Board member Don Gross, who is running against incumbent Pct. 2 Comm. Cole Hefner for that post in the May 4 Republican primary, asked Fowler if the school districts’ hiring the landman was permissible under the state Constitution. Fowler said he believed so, and that an Attorney General’s opinion which Gross had brought to his attention pertained to another type of matter.

In 2009, Fowler said, the court advertised for bids on mineral leases and signed one with McCabe Petroleum, which gave the county a 1/6 royalty on 906 acres. Four wells were produced on that property and $179,000 is in escrow, awaiting the court to sign division orders, Fowler said.

“We don’t want to sign those division orders until we know exactly what we own out there,” he explained.

This year, Fowler said, the court sought bids on a different 860 acres and obtained a 3/16 royalty, but that lease hasn’t been executed. (After his presentation, he told The Mirror that the court had made some changes to the lease, and that the man who obtained it has not returned the “corrected” document).

The judge also said the county had originally been offered only $8,000 for surface damages to four sites, but “we told them absolutely not” and got a contract that brought in $49,000 for the County Available Fund.

In 2002, the year before Fowler took office, the court leased to Spade Ranch of Lubbock, and renewed that lease in 2007 for $186,976 annually, he said. But in 2012, the court went out for bids on the surface lease, which Calthon Cattle Co. received for $242,654 annually, Fowler said.

And Calthon must spend $3 per acre annually for land management as “there’s two things that grow on that land—that’s prickly pear and mesquite trees,” Fowler said. So the county has Calthon build stock ponds, fencing and maintain roads, he said.

In addition, Fowler said, “Spade’s lease at the time said they were entitled to surface damages, so we changed that.” Replied School Board member Donald Willeford, “I praise y’all for that.”

The County Judge also traced the history of how Upshur County came to possess land in West Texas to benefit its schools.

He said one main reason Texas fought for independence from Mexico in the 1800s was that Mexico didn’t provide a public school system in Texas. After Texas achieved independence in 1836, he said, it established public schools and financed them by giving land grants from 1840 to about 1900.

The Texas Legislature gave Upshur County the Throckmorton County acreage in 1856, and the Baylor County land in 1857, Fowler said. He said he had certified copies of the actions signed by then-Gov. Elisha Peace, who, along with one other man, preceded Sam Houston as governor.

“The property was granted to the school commissioners of Upshur County,” and over time, the Commissioners Court held it in trust, Fowler said.

In 1925, there were mineral leases on the land, called mineral conveyances. Then in 1949, a court fight ensued, and Fowler said he believed it involved whether the Upshur County Commissioners Court had given away its minerals, or leased them. He said he believed a judge found that Upshur didn’t own 100 percent of the minerals.

Fowler, who is an attorney, thinks the parties in the dispute reached a settlement. He told the New Diana board that the 1949 court judgment entered in Throckmorton County showed the judge decided the land had several mineral owners. And while the county owned half the undivided interest of minerals, Fowler said, the judge’s opinion is hard to read (and, he told The Mirror, difficult to interpret as well.)

The Upshur Commissioners Court requested proposals for a mineral lease in 1968, he added, but no record can be found of whether one was granted.

Fowler also noted that he believes fewer than 10 Texas counties still own school land. He said the West Texas property is worth about $17 million, and that he told a prospective buyer the Commissioners Court wouldn’t sell it.

Also attending Monday night’s meeting were two County Commissioners, Hefner and Paula Gentry of Pct. 4. At the end of his presentation, Fowler introduced them to the board, but they did not participate in the discussion.
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