Court date could be in December for District 834

The second of three lawsuits directed at Stillwater Area Public Schools in response to a March 3 vote to close three elementary schools moves closer to its day in court. The Minnesota Court of Appeals is currently scheduling oral arguments for the writ of certiorari brought against the district by parent group 834 VOICE.

“I believe we will have oral arguments scheduled before Christmas,” said 834 VOICE attorney Fritz Knaak.

In an email, Kennedy and Graven Law Offices — which represents the school district — concurred with Knaak’s assessment, stating they expect oral arguments within eight to 10 weeks.

In the March 21 petition to the court to accept the case, Knaak argued the Stillwater Area School Board acted as a quasi-judicial body — it used powers and procedures resembling those of a court of law or judge — when voting to close the three elementary schools. In its role as a higher court, the panel of judges will review the evidence presented to the school board while it was making a decision to close the schools. Knaak wants the appeals court to determine if — as a quasi-judicial body — the board had enough information to make its decision.

As part of the court’s procedure, Knaak submitted his first brief to the court Sept. 7 and outlined his argument, in which he heavily cites MN Statute 123B.51 subd. 5, “The board may close a schoolhouse only after a public hearing on the question of the necessity and practicability of the proposed closing.” Knaak alleges that during the public hearing March 3, the district administration, led by superintendent Denise Pontrelli, did not adequately state the necessity and practicability of the closings.

“There is no assessment as to why closing any of them [Withrow, Marine and Oak Park Elementary] was actually necessary based on either current or historical budgetary problems that were referenced, or whether real savings would actually be achieved,” Knaak wrote in his brief.

The district’s attorney Peter Mikhail responded to Knaak’s charges in a brief Oct. 7, which states that the district followed the requirements outlined in the law.

“These are legislative and administrative considerations,” Mikhail said. “Any dispute about its wisdom raises a political question for elected officials, not a legal question for the courts.”

Mikhail recognizes that decisions involving the closing of schools can have “heartfelt opposition.”

“The public may vigorously disagree,” Mikhail wrote. “But public hearings do not shift any decision-making authority to the public: they do not impose on the board a legal — as opposed to political — burden of persuading the public of the wisdom of its decision.”

In the initial stages of the case, only evidence from the March 3 public hearing was placed into the record. However, the court also allowed the district to place into record all public meetings — including meetings of the board, learning sessions, listening sessions and three public hearings — from Dec. 17, 2015 to March 3. Knaak filed his reply brief Oct. 17 and triggered the scheduling of the oral arguments.

“I feel very confident in the case that we presented to the courts,” Knaak said. “It is a very interesting case and my sense is that the court is moving right along.”

In reading the district’s response, Knaak said he wasn’t surprised by anything in its content.

“We anticipated that they would rely on an argument that the courts would defer to their judgement,” Knaak said. “They presented a volume but not substantial evidence.”

In a prepared response, Kennedy and Graven stated: “The school district has a strong legal position in the case before the Minnesota Court of Appeals. The school board made some difficult decisions in the BOLD plan [to close three elementary schools] in order to better serve all the students in the district. Of course, we would prefer not to spend district money and time in litigation, but we have no choice. We will make our case to the court; and we know the court will be thorough and thoughtful in its consideration of the issues presented by the parties.”

Contact Alicia Lebens at [email protected]