Board to meet in closed session to discuss ‘potential litigation’ following threatening letter to SOS
by NATHANIEL NELSON
and SARAH SQUIRES
As Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) has closing the sale of Madison Elementary School in sight and amid a Minnesota Court of Appeals lawsuit challenging its closure and sale, the WAPS Board will meet in closed session to discuss further litigation “involving title to property sold, or to be sold, by the district” on Thursday.
WAPS Board members Ben Barrato, Jay Kohner, Jeanne Nelson, and Steve Schild, whom the Post was able to reach on Friday, had the same response when asked about the meeting: No comment.
The district on Friday provided notice of Thursday’s closed meeting to discuss “potential litigation.” The district is facing current litigation in a lawsuit filed by the Save Our Schools (SOS) Committee filed in May that challenges the closure of both Rollingstone and Madison schools. The Court of Appeals agreed to hear the case and last week set a date for the oral arguments to begin on January 23.
On November 13, the district’s attorney Joseph Langel of Ratwik, Rozak, and Maloney sent a letter to SOS threatening legal action over the group’s court notice attached to the Madison titled stemming from the lawsuit.
“The notice serves no legitimate purpose; it only serves to cloud title … If the notice is not discharged, the district reserves the right to pursue any and all appropriate legal remedies,” the letter states of the court notice of Lis Pendens attached to the Madison property title.
While board members declined to comment, WAPS Superintendent Rich Dahman said that the title notice was something the board would discuss during its closed meeting on Thursday.
“Because of attorney-client privilege, I can’t speak to what [potential litigation] would be,” he stated. “If the board decides to take action, we would do that at an open meeting.”
The WAPS Board voted in a split decision to close the two schools during a round of budget cuts, only a few months after voters soundly rejected a proposed referendum that would have closed Jefferson and Madison elementary schools while expanding Goodview and W-K and renovating District 861’s secondary buildings at a cost of $145 million. After the failed referendum, the district moved forward with $1.7 million in budget cuts, which included closing the two elementary schools and putting them up for sale. Last month, WAPS successfully passed a $9.4-million property tax referendum that will be used to rehabilitate the remaining schoolhouses.
Rollingstone was the first of the for-sale schools to be sold, given to MC Properties for $80,000 in July, before being purchased by the city of Rollingstone for $125,000 earlier this month. Madison was awarded earlier this fall to Andrew Brenner for $110,000 after the initial sale to Building Value Partners, LLC, was revoked. Following the discovery of an outstanding grant agreement from 2007, the Madison sale must wait until the district receives permission from the Minnesota Department of Management and Budget and the state must be reimbursed the full amount of the grant funds.
Dahman said on Friday that the sale was expected to be closed this week and that the Minnesota Department of Management and Budget had indicated that it would grant permission for the sale.
Since the lawsuit was put into action, the SOS Committee has repeatedly pled for the board to delay the sale of the school until the Court of Appeals rules on the case, including at the last board meeting, when SOS member Gretchen Michlitsch approached the board with multiple calls to delay the sale of Madison.
Dahman has in the past argued that the SOS lawsuit would not prevent the district from closing the sale. “The court has ruled the school district has a right to sell the school and properties. There is no legal reason to hold up, along with the sale of Madison,” Dahman said at the October 19 board meeting. “There is no legal reason for the school to stay the sale.”
SOS attorney Gregory Richard stated that if the Court of Appeals were to rule in the committee’s favor, the district would be forced to rescind the sale of the properties and return the sale funds to the buyers.
“The School Board does ultimately have the ability to sell the schools,” Richard said. “But what we wanted was a process where they were forthcoming with the public and they did what they were supposed to do and we don’t feel that we got that.”
Michlitsch agreed, stating the Lis Pendens notice would not delay the sale of Madison. “It’s simply a notice that there’s a court case, and I’m just baffled,” she said of the threatening letter sent by WAPS’ attorney.
Michlitsch said she hopes that the district can use the opportunity to renovate and modernize Madison as a way to turn itself around. “Given the financial situation of the district, I think we need to move in a positive direction,” she said. The school could be renovated, and then eventually reopened to serve students and the community. “The public schools are on a downward spiral; it’s scary … There are always going to be financial challenges, but there needs to be a more responsible reaction than closing schools,” she stated.
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