In an opinion published April 3, the Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld the March 3, 2016, vote by the Stillwater Area School Board to close Marine, Withrow and Oak Park Elementary Schools. The nonprofit organization that brought the case against the district, 834 VOICE, will challenge the ruling to the Minnesota Supreme Court, according to Fritz Knaak, the group’s attorney.
“I have been directed by my client to petition the Supreme Court for further review,” Knaak said.
Using a rare legal procedure called a writ of certiorari, 834 VOICE challenged the decision of the school board by asking two questions: Did the school district follow the rules of a school closing hearing by imposing a time limit for speakers? And did the board have substantial evidence to support the claim that it is necessary and practicable to close the three elementary schools? In both questions, the three-judge Appeal Court panel ruled in favor of the school board.
Judge John R. Rodenberg wrote the opinion on behalf of the court.
“School-closing decisions are by their nature political decisions, entitled to judicial deference and respect because the decision to close a school is so important to the local community,” Rodenberg wrote. “For that reason, courts decline to substitute their judgment for the judgment of locally elected officials, who are both most familiar with the community’s issues and most directly accountable to the voters.”
Rodenberg cites Minnesota State Statute 123B.02 subd. 2 when describing how the school board is given the authority to close a school building.
“School boards are empowered by the Minnesota Legislature, and entrusted by the district residents who elect them, with the authority to conduct the affairs of school districts,” Rodenberg wrote. “This authority includes the power to open, close, or reorganize schools ‘as [the board] may deem advisable.’”
The hearing to close schools
When a school board seeks to close a school building, it is required by law to hold a hearing to gather public input. However, Rodenberg noted that previous case law — specifically Kletschka v. Le Sueur County Board of Commissioners — has not given local governments specific instructions on how the hearing should proceed.
“The Minnesota Supreme Court has previously declined to impose detailed requirements on local-government hearings,” Rodenberg wrote. “And we have specifically declined to impose any additional due process requirement on a school-closing hearing.”
In some cases when a school board acts in a quasi-judicial capacity, such as a teacher termination, the court has ruled that the board ought to hire a hearing officer so public comments can be given under oath. However, the court cites its previous opinion in the case of Bena Parents Association versus ISD 115 that a school board’s “role and range of discretion is different in teacher termination and school closing cases,” the latter not involving “the same opportunity for arbitrary action against an individual.”
“We therefore declined to require that school boards either take testimony under oath or engage the services of a hearing officer in school closing cases,” Rodenberg wrote. “The legislature, in enacting section 123B.51, subdivision 5, included no requirement of any minimum time that must be allotted to each person testifying at a school-closing hearing.”
The court of appeals then questioned if the procedure of the March 3 hearing conducted by the Stillwater Area School Board met the requirements of the law.
“We suppose that, at some point, restrictions on speaking time or other hearing procedures might so limit the opportunity to speak as to render meaningless the opportunity for the public ‘to give testimony for and against the proposal,’” Rodenberg wrote. “But where, as here, the hearing procedures established by a school board are reasonable and allow a meaningful opportunity for the public testimony contemplated by the statute, the procedures adopted by the board are entitled to judicial deference and respect.”
However, Rodenberg wrote that crafting hearing procedures is not in the scope of the Court of Appeals.
“It is not for us, as a statewide error-correcting court, to manage the details of the hearing procedures of the 512 Minnesota public school districts and charter schools,” Rodenberg wrote.
Substantial evidence to close
In its petition to the court of appeals, 834 VOICE asserted that the school board’s decision to close the schools was unsupported by substantial evidence. It was the role of the court to determine whether or not the board’s determination was supported by substantial evidence.
“It does not matter that a school board decides contrary to the many expressed opinions of the public,” Rodenberg wrote.
In their deliberation, the judges drew from the evidence presented in the court record from both 834 VOICE and the Stillwater Area School District.
“Given conflicting evidence and projections in the record, the board was required to exercise its discretion to resolve conflicts in the available evidence and to draw inferences from the data,” Rodenberg wrote. “Our deference to the board’s exercise of its discretion is at its apex in instances like this, where ‘the question is debatable and requires elected officials to exercise their administrative judgments.’”
While the board could have deliberated and concluded otherwise, Rodenberg wrote that the court found there was enough substantial evidence to support its determination.
“The board is the entity authorized by statute to consider and weigh competing evidence concerning proposed school closings,” Rodenberg said. “While [834 VOICE] may disagree with the board’s conclusions, evidence in the record supports the Board’s findings. And we defer to school-board findings that are supported by the record.”
Ultimately, Rodenberg wrote that it is not the role of the judiciary to make its own determination of school closures.
“While the record would have supported other conclusions, it is not for us to reweigh the evidence. Neither is it our role to assess the wisdom of the board’s decision. Our system of government depends on citizens’ selection and oversight of elected officials to make political decisions,” Rodenberg said. “As one speaker commented at the March 3, 2016 hearing, ‘If you decide to vote yes, I … will never vote for you guys, and I’ll go push so you all are not reelected.’ Influencing elected officials through the political process is not only an appropriate response to the actions of elected officials, it is fundamental to maintaining a representative democracy. Whether the board’s school-closure decision was a good one is a question not before us on certiorari review. The school-closure decision lies within the realm of decision-making entrusted by the legislature to the judgment of the board, and its decision is reasonably supported by substantial evidence in the record.”
The Stillwater Area School District released the following statement in response to the court’s decision: “We appreciate the court’s consideration of this issue. Our student, staff and families of varying perspectives have remained earnestly and deeply engaged throughout this process, and we are grateful to them. We are looking forward to working along with our communities to continue our transition into the start of the 2017-2018 school year.”
District officials declined to comment further. The board will meet with its attorney during the April 13 board meeting.
Following the court’s decision, 834 VOICE released the following statement, in part, “We fundamentally disagree with this decision. The majority of our community didn’t agree with the District’s decision to close three schools. Perhaps most disappointing is how this decision affirms just how much power a local school board has over the community. Once they have control over our tax dollars, they have the discretion to do almost anything they want until the next election. Unless the courts or the legislature are willing to protect communities from over-reaching, unnecessary, irresponsible school board decisions, the ballot box is our only recourse.”
Knaak said he will begin the petition to bring the case to the Minnesota Supreme Court to challenge the appellate court’s decision on substantial evidence.
“We will see if the Supreme Court will take up the issue whether of the court can make a determination on the quality of evidence,” Knaak said. “I think it is an interesting point and a reasonable argument.”
For his clients, Knaak said, the case is not over.
“I believe we will get an answer whether or not the Supreme Court takes up the case by the end of the summer,” Knaak said.
Contact Alicia Lebens at [email protected]