A decision by the Stillwater school district to close three schools was “supported by substantial evidence” and leaves no reason for judges to intervene, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled Monday.
The three-judge panel rejected a petition by 834 Voice, a parents’ group, to reverse the decision last year of district officials and school board members to close elementary schools in Stillwater, Marine on St. Croix and Hugo.
The group’s challenge to speaking-time limits at a public hearing and other aspects of the process leading to the decision also failed, Judge John Rodenberg wrote on behalf of the panel that included Judges Kevin Ross and Larry Stauber.
School district officials issued a statement saying they appreciated the court’s consideration and were grateful to the students, staffers and families “of varying perspectives [who] have remained earnestly and deeply engaged throughout this process ...
“We are looking forward to working along with our communities to continue our transition into the start of the 2017-2018 school year.”
An attorney for 834 Voice could not be reached for comment.
The dispute has lasted for more than a year, drawing in hundreds of parents and creating serious divisions in the district of about 8,300 students.
Opponents of the decision doubted the demographic projections on which district officials said the closures were based. They took issue with the fact that the closings were announced only after voters approved a nearly $100 million bond issue for the district.
The appellate court decision echoed the argument of school district attorney Peter Mikhail that this was “a policy decision for a governing body of elected officials,” which voted 5-2 to support the administration’s proposal to close the schools. “The board has wide discretion to deal with difficult arguments.”
Mikhail declined to comment on Monday, saying he won’t be able to address the school board for a number of days. “I am guarded about sharing with the press before speaking to my client,” he said.
Superintendent Denise Pontrelli contended that closures of Marine, Withrow, and Oak Park elementary schools were necessary “because school enrollment is declining, the district is operating schools below capacity, students are having inequitable educational experiences, and budgetary constraints are creating instability in student programming,” the appellate panel noted.
Speakers at the public hearing were limited to three minutes each. But 45 people spoke in a session that lasted several hours, and the board accepted a 305-page report from the dissenters, the judges said.
The board was dealing with conflicting evidence at times, the panel ruled, but “while the record would have supported other conclusions, it is not for us to reweigh the evidence. Neither is it our role to assess the wisdom of the board’s decision. Our system of government depends on citizens’ selection and oversight of elected officials to make political decisions.”
The dispute isn’t over.
A second lawsuit filed by 834 Voice, scheduled for trial in October, alleges the school district violated Minnesota’s laws on open meetings, bonding and elections.