An Anoka County judge has dismissed the final counts of a lawsuit against the Stillwater school district, but the attorney who filed the suit questioned why the dismissal came during out-of-court attempts by the parties to reach a settlement.
The suit, filed by a parent-led coalition known as 834 Voice, alleged open meetings violations and financial conflicts of interest. It was the last remaining legal challenge related to the district’s decision in 2016 to close three elementary schools.
The group suffered no injury “distinguishable from citizens generally” and therefore lacked legal standing to pursue the suit, District Judge Daniel O’Fallon wrote in his Monday order. He dismissed one count claiming the board violated Minnesota’s Open Meeting Law because “plaintiffs have failed to identify a specific individual or a specific e-mail (or chain of e-mails) which they allege violated the law.”
A second count, alleging conflicts of interest involving former board member Kathy Buchholz and finance director Kristen Hoheisel, also was dismissed. O’Fallon wrote that courts can’t direct school districts in how they award contracts but can only stop them from doing so illegally.
“There are no allegations being made that anyone, including the named board member and district employee, acted in an arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable manner,” O’Fallon wrote. “This is nothing more than the plaintiff’s continued attempt to throw everything against the wall and see what sticks.”
O’Fallon dismissed four other counts from the suit in March.
Fritz Knaak, the attorney representing 834 Voice, said Wednesday he was puzzled why O’Fallon would dismiss the remainder of the suit before mediation ran its course. Knaak said 834 Voice and the school district started meeting with a mediator about two weeks ago and that he had notified the judge of them doing so.
“We’re very close to getting the matter resolved,” Knaak said, declining to explain the nature of the discussion. “I hope we can resolve this so my client won’t have to appeal what is a seemingly hostile and error-ridden opinion.”
It was in December 2015 when Superintendent Denise Pontrelli proposed to close Marine, Withrow and Oak Park elementary schools in the north end of the district. Doing so, she said, would better balance enrollments and accommodate population growth to the south.
The district also built and opened a new elementary school, Brookview, in northeast Woodbury.
The 834 Voice group said shuttering the schools — which closed in June — would result in larger class sizes, reduced access to teachers and longer bus rides.
Pontrelli, in a statement issued Wednesday, said district administrators recognize the “difficult time within our community” experienced by residents on both sides of the issue. “We hope with this decision we can find a way to move forward together on our common purpose — our kids,” she said.
In May, the Minnesota Supreme Court declined to review an April state appeals court ruling that said the school board’s decision to close the schools was “supported by substantial evidence” and required no judicial intervention.
In a third legal action that ended in August 2016, a Washington County judge denied a petition asking that the Stillwater school district return a controversial but successful 2015 bond referendum to voters.