by SARAH SQUIRES
In a split vote last December, the Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) Board voted to sue the local group Save Our Schools (SOS). In January, a new board took seats at the table. While the lawsuit has progressed and attorneys’ fees have mounted since, the new WAPS Board did not meet to discuss the matter for seven months, first airing the issue in closed session in July. It met again last month, when the group convened to speak with its attorney. On Thursday, the WAPS Board is slated to take action on the lawsuit under a blank agenda item labeled “litigation.”
New WAPS Superintendent Annette Freiheit said she was not sure how the board planned to proceed, other than the vote will determine what the district’s next actions will be in a lawsuit that has two options for resolution: an out-of-court settlement, or a trial.
Tens of thousands of dollars are at stake. While the WAPS Board had not yet met with attorneys to provide direction on the litigation, in June, WAPS attorneys asked the court to order one lone member of SOS to foot the district’s attorney fees: Gretchen Michlitsch. The total, at last count in May, was $10,600.
The district’s options, according to Freiheit, include “not to do anything and just leave it,” or to continue pursuing damages. “I think that’s what the board is going to have to decide.”
The tale of two court battles
The lawsuit is the tail end of a long dispute between WAPS and SOS that began in 2018 when the WAPS Board voted to shutter Madison and Rollingstone elementary schools. SOS appealed the closures with the Minnesota Court of Appeals, which agreed to hear the case.
SOS hoped the court would reverse the decision to close the schoolhouses, and applied notices to the titles of the school buildings called notices of lis pendens that indicated the properties were the subject of litigation.
Then WAPS Superintendent Rich Dahman assured the board that the notices would not affect the sale of the school buildings, and the district sold the two properties to private owners. Following the sale, citing a desire to provide the new owners with clean titles, a divided WAPS Board in December 2018 voted to sue SOS for adding the notices to the titles of the schools.
SOS removed the notice on the Rollingstone property in February after the first new owner, MC Properties, sold the building to the city of Rollingstone. SOS then removed the notice from the Madison title in May after the Court of Appeals upheld the district’s decision to close the school.
But district attorneys continued the litigation against SOS, calling the placement of the notices a “slander of title” case. In June, WAPS attorneys asked the court to collect damages from the district’s attorney fees from Michlitsch. At that time, new board chair Nancy Denzer said she did not know how that decision was made, since the new board had not yet met to discuss the lawsuit. “I’ve never been there at a closed meeting. The new board members do not have information [on the progress of the suit],” she stated. “That’s just how it’s been.”
A closed session had been scheduled for March to update the new board members on the suit. That meeting was canceled at the last minute, despite the objections of new board member Karl Sonneman, who was a member and attorney for SOS before he ran for office and won a seat on the board.
The case progresses
Last month, Judge Matthew Opat denied a motion made by WAPS attorneys asking that the court rule in the district’s favor and avoid a trial.
In order to prove its slander of title case, WAPS must prove that SOS had no legal standing to file the title notices, and that it did so knowing its actions were false and acted with malice.
In Judge Opat’s filing, he sided with the district in ruling that SOS did not have proper legal standing to file the notices because it had not filed a complaint in district court asserting rights to the school properties. He wrote that the notices were “procedurally defective” under state law and “void and inoperative as of the day it was filed.”
But Judge Opat wrote that the filling of the notices and SOS’ “subsequent actions all indicate that they acted in good faith.” He added that SOS “has provided evidence that conclusively establishes a rebuttable presumption in its favor that it acted in good faith, believed their claim to be valid, and acted in order to protect that claim” in filling the notices.
SOS argued against WAPS’ damages in the form of attorney fees, stating that the lawsuit was unnecessary because the Court of Appeals ruling would have eventually decided the matter. But Judge Opat rejected the argument, writing, “Property rights are significant and valuable, and property owners are allowed to take reasonable actions, including litigation, to defend those rights.” He wrote that the district would have to prove its damages at trial.
Thursday night’s WAPS Board vote could determine whether the matter will face a trial — and mounting attorney fees. While WAPS’ courtroom costs for the appeal of the school closure case were covered by insurance, the lawsuit against SOS is not.
Keep reading the Winona Post for more on this story.