Whether the Stillwater school board exercised reasonable judgment when it voted to close three elementary schools last year was debated Tuesday before the Minnesota Court of Appeals.
Three judges will rule by the end of April on a petition by 834 Voice, a parents’ group seeking a reversal of the board’s decision to close schools in Stillwater, Marine on St. Croix and rural Hugo.
The parents’ attorney, Fritz Knaak, said the school district failed to provide sufficient evidence that closing schools was “necessary and practicable” under state law.
“The Legislature recognizes that the closure of a school is a major issue in a community. There is not substantial evidence that justifies this decision,” Knaak told the panel of Judges Kevin Ross, Larry Stauber and John Rodenberg.
On the other hand, the attorney representing the school district, Peter Mikhail, alleged “very apparent errors” in the 834 Voice argument.
“This is a policy decision for a governing body of elected officials,” Mikhail said of the 5-2 board vote in March. “The board has wide discretion to deal with difficult arguments.”
The 834 Voice group argued in its petition that the closings resulted from an ill-informed effort by new Superintendent Denise Pontrelli to cut costs and transfer operating money to a new elementary school in Woodbury. She presented her proposal to the school board without proper public hearings, 834 Voice said, leaving board members to vote on incomplete information that included faulty demographic projections.
Both attorneys argued the validity of demographic information that was presented to the school board and used as evidence to close schools. They also debated the matter of equity — whether closing schools meant students at the remaining ones would receive equal attention from specialists, for example.
“It’s not the court’s burden to decide if the board made the best decision, only a legal one,” Mikhail said on behalf of the district.
But Knaak said the district had not demonstrated compelling evidence of the need to close schools.
“Everything they have, everything they’ve submitted, we argue has been effectively rebutted,” he said.
The dispute, now lasting more than a year, has embroiled hundreds of parents and led to deep mistrust in the district of about 8,300 students.
Monday’s hearing related to a narrower legal action taken against the district. A second lawsuit filed by 834 Voice, scheduled for trial in October, alleges the school district violated Minnesota’s open meetings, bonding and election laws. It also accuses district finance manager Kristen Hoheisel and former Board Member Kathy Buchholz of financial conflicts of interest involving their husbands.
A Washington County judge in August denied a petition asking that the Stillwater school district return the $97.5 million bond referendum to voters for another look. The referendum passed in 2015, months before Pontrelli revealed her plans to close schools.