Washington County Judge Dismisses Lawsuit Against Stillwater Area Public Schools

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A Washington County District Court Judge dismissed one of three lawsuits brought against Stillwater Area Public Schools following the approval of the BOLD plan that calls for the closure of three elementary schools.

Judge John R. McBride on Tuesday morning issued an order dismissing 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.

In his order, McBride said the claim in Douglas’ petition that the district must gain voter approval on its plan to close the schools was based on a “misreading of state statute.”

“By electing to close three schools, the district had abandoned a portion of the project authorized by referendum,” McBride wrote in his order. “Minnesota statutes do not require the district to make improvements to facilities that are being closed and projects that have been abandoned. Nor do Minnesota statutes require the district to submit the decision to abandon part of the project to the voters by way of referendum.”

Douglas said she is disappointed in the judge’s decision, and plans to appeal.

“This ruling is bad news for Minnesota voters,” Douglas said. “It tells us that we can’t rely on official notices published in our local newspapers, mailings from our school principals or public meeting presentations when making a decision on a proposed bond referendum. It tells us that is OK to advertise a bond as health and safety improvements to elementary schools and then to use those funds for new offices for district administrators.

“It gives unprecedented discretion to school boards and administrators never envisioned by the legislature,” she continued, “and strips that authority from taxpayers and voters.”

McBride’s decision was limited to the proper use of the bond proceeds following the referendum. It was not related to BOLD or the closure of the three elementary schools.

A review of the board’s decision to close Withrow, Marine and Oak Park elementary schools is currently pending in the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

A lawsuit filed by 834 Voice in district court on April 13 alleges the school district illegally closed three schools; school district leaders violated open meeting laws; and failed to disclose conflicts of interest related to the bond.

Since the lawsuits were filed, Superintendent Denise Pontrelli has said the legal claims against the district are without merit.

“We appreciate the judge’s thoughtful deliberation on this case,” Pontrelli said in a prepared statement. “A significant amount of district resources, both time and money, were spent in responding to the case. We know this has been a difficult issue within our community, but we hope with this decision we can come back together to focus on our common purpose—our kids.”

Judge John McBride Order: Stillwater Schools v. Melissa Douglas

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