The Stillwater school district says it is within its legal rights to close three elementary schools that had been designated for upgrades in its successful $97.5 million bond referendum last year.
According to a Washington County court filing, attorneys for Independent School District 834 also denied administrators were considering closing the schools before voters were asked to support the referendum to improve the district's nine elementary schools.
Peter G. Mikhail, an attorney for the district, wrote that state law gives the school district "discretion to abandon a project that was the subject of a bond referendum and dictates how the proceeds may be used in such circumstances."
The filing came in response to a court petition earlier this month by school parent Melissa Douglas, who alleges that the district had misled voters.
She is asking a judge to force the district to comply with what she believed were the terms of the bond referendum, or to order a new vote.
Douglas said Wednesday the five board members who voted to close the schools "are openly and vigorously arguing in a court of law that they are not bound by any past commitment to voters, residents or taxpayers."
Her petition came two days before the school board voted 5-2 approving a consolidation plan by Superintendent Denise Pontrelli that includes closing schools in Marine on St. Croix, Stillwater and Hugo.
Pontrelli said the plan, called Building Opportunities to Learn and Discover or BOLD for short, will eliminate disparities in class sizes, invest money in people rather than buildings and shift many of the district's 8,300 students to new schools by 2017.
But many parents and several elected leaders objected to the school closings, saying they felt betrayed by the school district's plans in light of the referendum's stated goals.
The district, in its response filed March 18 in Washington County District Court, "specifically denies that it will use, or that it has ever considered using, any of the bond proceeds to close schools." The district also argues the court lacks jurisdiction to review the decision.
Douglas believes voters would have defeated the referendum had they known the district intended to close three schools, and attached three affidavits (including her own) to support that charge.
The district, in its response, said it's impossible to determine voters' reaction "under a hypothetical set of facts" and that the affidavits don't represent a fair and scientific sampling of more than 8,000 voters.
The bond issue passed with a 15 percent voter turnout. Projects approved in the bond issue include $25.7 million for a new elementary school in Woodbury, $48 million for an addition to Stillwater Area High School to accommodate ninth-graders and $7.9 million for athletics upgrades.
A hearing on the dispute is scheduled for June 17 before District Judge John McBride.