A Fairbanks-based Girl Scouts council that fought a nationally ordered hike in membership dues has won a partial victory before the Alaska Supreme Court.
The Farthest North Council in 2017 sued Girls Scouts of the USA over the national nonprofit corporation’s decision to increase membership dues to $25 a year. The council argued the hike approved by the corporation’s board of directors was not authorized by its governing documents.
A Fairbanks Superior Court judge backed the national organization.
But last week, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled corporate governing documents “vest authority to establish membership dues” solely in the Girls Scouts’ national council and not the board, Justice Susan Carney wrote in the opinion handed down Friday.
The national council is made up of about 1,500 people, including some elected by local councils such as Farthest North, and meets every three years. The board is much smaller and includes Girl Scouts executives and officials.
The ruling reverses the lower court’s decision, granting partial summary judgment to the Fairbanks council. But it remands back to the lower court a decision on several other counts including the council’s request for an injunction barring future enforcement of higher dues and allegations of wrongful charitable solicitation and unfair trade practices.
Farthest North is a small council spread over a massive area. It has 1,200 child and adult members, the majority in Fairbanks and North Pole but also scattered across the northern half of Alaska in Nome and Utqiagvik and villages including Anaktuvak Pass, Point Hope and Kaktovik, according to council CEO Suellen Nelles.
Girls in the council sell 140,000 boxes of cookies a year -- or about 200 boxes per Girl Scout.
Farthest North began objecting to the membership dues increases in 2012, Nelles said Monday. By the time the dues rose to $25 in 2016, families were expressing concerns they could no longer afford scouting.
"We’re very pleased that the court saw it the way we interpreted the governing documents,” she said. “Had we wished this hadn’t needed to be litigated? Definitely. To me, it’s a distraction to the mission.”
Girls Scouts of the USA emailed a statement Monday expressing disappointment with the ruling “to reverse the Alaska Superior Court, which had decisively found that the National Board of Girl Scouts of the USA has the power to set membership dues” between national council sessions.
The corporation said it is reviewing options for further action.
Asked if any other councils have taken similar action, GSUSA sent another statement saying no other council "has filed a lawsuit now or any time previously regarding membership dues, and none have joined this lawsuit.”
It wasn’t immediately clear if the case had any larger precedent for the roughly 2.5 million girls in other councils around the country -- or even in Alaska.
The state’s other Girl Scouts council, representing members south of the Alaska Range, did not join the lawsuit.
The Anchorage-based Girl Scouts of Alaska council has never contested membership dues but offers scholarships to girls or families who can’t pay, according to CEO Leslie Ridle, who declined to comment on any consequences from the court ruling because she hadn’t been briefed on it yet.
“Girl Scouts still is one of the very most cost-efficient programs for families,” Ridle said. “We don’t turn people away for cost but it’s still a very cost-effective program for families."
The National Council voted to increase membership dues nine times between 1941 and 2009, according to the Supreme Court opinion: The council in 2009 established $12 dues, but the board raised dues to $15 in 2012 and to $25 in 2016, both times without council approval.
Farthest North after the first increase wrote the national corporation saying it “would not participate in the collection of what it considered to be ‘unauthorized dues,’” the decision states. The group collected $15 from each member, but forwarded only $12 from each to Girl Scouts of the USA. The remaining $3 was placed in a separate account.
The national group told the Fairbanks council in 2016 it was in breach of its charter agreement and refused to enroll any Far North members, allow them to participate in activities or insure them.
The council sued a few months later.
The dues increase to $25 had become “a deciding factor on joining Girl Scouts,” Nelles said.
The separate accounts were created to allow Farthest North to allow members to continue to register but also give the council the ability to recoup contested dues in case they prevailed in court, she said. The council board has been subsidizing dues with money from the operating budget so that girls pay $20 and adults pay $15.