One SOS member speaks out on WAPS’ lawsuit


(5/22/2019)

From: Gretchen Michlitsch

I am a member of Winona’s Save Our Schools (SOS) Committee. Our committee consists of public-school supporters and advocates who care about the long-term educational and financial health of Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS). We support Winona’s students, Winona’s teachers, and the Winona community. We are not currently recruiting new members because we are being sued by the WAPS district.

Why are we being sued? Last December, the WAPS Board of Directors voted five to one to sue us. Why? I don’t know. Notably, no School Board member who voted to sue us ever reached out to communicate with the members of our group about any of this, except through threatening letters from their lawyers. And the meeting when they discussed it was top secret. So, I don’t know what led the board to vote the way it did; I can only think that they did not know what they were doing to us.

What do the School Board’s lawyers allege in the board’s lawsuit? They allege “slander of title.” What is slander of title? First of all, it is not something that we did and, second, it occurs when someone maliciously publishes a false statement about a property and that false statement causes harm.

To be clear, SOS published no false statements when we filed “notices of lis pendens” and we did not file those statements with any malice whatsoever and we did not cause harm by filing them.

The claim that WAPS alleges in court is that SOS slandered the titles of Madison and Rollingstone elementary school buildings when we filed notices of lis pendens (notifying interested parties that there was litigation pending, potentially impacting the real estate property) on the titles of those buildings in conjunction with our May 2018 appeal of the School Board’s decisions to close the two schools.

In reality, filing the notices was the appropriate, upright thing to do, as it provided appropriate, useful information to potential buyers and also maintained the possibility of reversing the School Board’s school closing decisions if we won our appeal.

In reality, the lawsuit against SOS appears to be a SLAPP suit — a “Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation.” It’s a typical SLAPP suit claim, and such suits are often used as a tool to silence people who speak out on an issue by burdening them with the costs of defending themselves against a lawsuit, coercing them into silence. In many states, SLAPP suits are illegal.

When WAPS sued us, it did not have standing — it had no right to sue us — because it no longer owned the buildings and, also, our notices of lis pendens, while they were not filed maliciously or falsely, had caused the district no harm. So they apparently recruited someone who then owned one of the buildings to sue us with them, with the school district and the taxpayers paying the bill. Since then, the person who owned the elementary school building has sold it; having bought it for about $80,000 in September, he sold it for about $120,000 early this year.

A recent headline in the Post mentioned that the school district faces over $10,000 in legal fees to sue SOS. And that’s just the beginning. That’s just up to the hearing last week on its “motion for summary judgment.” On top of its own ongoing fees, the district also risks having to pay sanctions for bringing the case for improper reasons. Is this kind of pointless spending good for the district? Is it good for the district to sue its supporters, who would dearly like to see a vibrant, financially healthy public school system in Winona?

SOS sent a settlement offer to the district’s lawyers early this year. There is no indication that our offer was even presented to the School Board, which bears financial responsibility for the district. Nor had board members previously been able to get an answer to their question of how much money the school district has devoted to this frivolous lawsuit. The superintendent even canceled a meeting that the board had voted to schedule with its lawyers so that the new board could be updated on this case. What the current School Board can do now is direct its lawyers to negotiate a settlement with SOS.

 

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