Stillwater School Closings Argued Before the Minnesota Court of Appeals

The Minnesota Court of Appeals heard oral arguments Tuesday relating to the Stillwater Board of Education’s decision to close Withrow, Marine and Oak Park elementary schools.

A panel of three judges — Kevin Ross, Larry Stauber and John Rodenberg — heard 15 minutes of oral arguments by 834 Voice attorney Fritz Knaak and Stillwater Area Public Schools attorney Peter Mikhail before the panel will determine if the school board provided sufficient evidence that closing the three schools was “necessary and practicable,” under state law.

The court will rule on 834 Voice’s appeal of the school closures by the end of April.

“The Legislature recognizes that the closure of a single school is a major issue with respect to a community — and I think the fact that we are dealing with three here is meaningful,” Knaak argued in court. “There should have been a separate determination (that closing three schools was necessary and practicable) in this instance for each of those three schools. It is meaningful because the Legislature finds the closure of one school significant … this isn’t just a single, local community that is being impacted, it’s actually several communities that are being impacted… There is not substantial evidence here that justifies this decision.”

Peter Mikhail, representing Stillwater schools, disagreed — arguing that there are “very apparent errors” in 834 Voice’s argument — and that declining enrollment and financial inefficiencies are evidence of the need to close the schools.

“This is a policy decision for a governing body of elected officials,” Mikhail argued. “It’s our birthright to disagree with decisions elected officials make. When it is a controversial decision, the more profoundly we disagree, the more tempted we are to ask a court to remove that decision from the democratic process. It is important, and the court reminds us, that the court’s view is limited. The board has wide discretion to deal with difficult problems.”

Knaak argued on behalf of 834 Voice that Superintendent Denise Pontrelli presented her BOLD proposal to the school board without proper public hearings — and did not show sufficient evidence that it was necessary and practicable to close three schools.

Shortly after coming on board as superintendent, Pontrelli told the board her team revealed a “game changer” of a demographic study that found “new facts” providing evidence they needed to close three schools, Knaak argued.

“My clients were interested in what the evidence in this new study was to support closing three schools — and that evidence never appeared,” Knaak said. “The fundamental problem here is the record of evidence (to close three schools) is not clear.”

Both attorneys debated about the validity of demographic information — the Hazel Reinhardt study — that was presented to the school board and used as evidence to close schools.

“When we have competing interests, one an expert and another an opposing group that pulls a single piece of data out and comes to a different conclusion, it is for the board to decide which one is more credible,” Mikhail argued. “The long range study that was done before this controversy came about involved the board members and the community came to the conclusion that enrollment in the north would be steady or declining, that is not a new fact. It is not a post-hoc justification, it has been a guiding prediction for this board’s business for years.”

The declining enrollment is a result of families choosing to send their children to charter schools, open enrollment out of the district, enroll at private schools and homeschool, Mikhail said.

The capture rate for the district is 72.3 percent for the district, he argued. The capture rate for the schools that are closing is a “tick below 60 percent.”

“We have declining enrollment, resulting in capacity and financial efficiency problems resulting from that, and in every case, that’s been in front of this court or the Supreme Court on school closings what do we have?” Mikhail argued. “We have declining enrollment, and financial problems resulting from that.”

In addition,Mikhail argued, the Bridge to Excellence Plan lays out the district’s focus on programming, but it is expensive.

“The administration — in that plan — was charged to find, on an annual basis, $1.14 million somewhere in the budget, in an era when every year we have budget cuts,” he said. “What we can do is reconfigure the district. Sometimes economics is cold-hard facts, and if the board decides to go with cold-hard facts that is their decision… What we have here is a fact dispute.”

During the oral arguments, both attorneys briefly debated about equity, transportation and due process with regards to the public hearings.

“It’s not the court’s burden to decide if the board made the best decision, or the right decision,” Mikhail said. “Only whether it made a legal one.”

In closing arguments, Knaak reiterated that the district has not demonstrated “substantial, meaningful evidence” to justify the closing of three schools under state law.

“When you have one of the board members at the March 3 hearing looking at a resolution filled with supposed facts that they are supposed to be finding based on the information that they had say:‘I haven’t seen half of this stuff,’ and more to the point saying, ‘this isn’t the way this is supposed to be done,’ it’s not the way it should be done,” Knaak said. “They have to provide something substantial, in the record, to serve as the basis of review by this court.”

The three-judge panel will take the written and oral arguments into consideration, and must rule on the case in the next 90 days.

Stillwater Area Public Schools also faces two other lawsuits in district court.

In a case that will be tried in Anoka County, 834 Voice alleges the district violated Minnesota’s open meeting law on multiple occasions, illegally closed school, violated bond and election law and conflicts of interest.

A Washington County judge dismissed Melissa Douglas’ writ of mandamus petition to require Stillwater Area Public Schools to improve all nine elementary schools in accordance with the May 12, 2015 bond question approved by voters, or seek new voter approval for a changed purpose. Douglas has been appealed the decision with the Minnesota Court of Appeals.