by NATHANIEL NELSON
Karl Sonneman was the attorney for the Save Our Schools (SOS) Committee, the community group that has appealed WAPS’ closure of Madison and Rollingstone schools. Then, he decided to run for a seat on the WAPS Board, resigned as SOS’ attorney, and won the election. Today, WAPS is embroiled in two separate court cases: the SOS appeal before the Minnesota Court of Appeals, and a lawsuit filed by WAPS against SOS over a notice on Madison’s title that could hinder the school’s new owner from taking out a construction loan.
During a contentious meeting on Thursday, Sonneman claimed he’d received a threatening letter from WAPS’ own attorney over the litigation. “I was attacked in a letter by the attorney,” he said, adding that after he responded, he received a second one. Voices escalated, board chair Nancy Denzer called Sonneman out of order and said the meeting was “not the time or place” for this conversation, but Sonneman continued, decrying the board’s alleged apprehension over speaking about the lawsuit publicly.
Board member Steve Schild asked Sonnneman if he had any respect for Denzer and the board, to which Sonneman responded that he was uncertain, but added that he did not respect Schild.
After the meeting was adjourned, Schild confronted Sonneman, before the two were separated by superintendent Rich Dahman, and Sonneman quickly left the room.
“He was not attacked; don’t put that in your paper,” board member Tina Lehnertz told the Post.
The board has said little publicly about the two court battles, and was slated to meet on Tuesday night in a closed session to get the three new board members –– Sonneman, Denzer, and Michael Hanratty –– up to speed. However, the meeting was abruptly cancelled on the morning of at 8:15 a.m. Denzer said of the reasoning for the cancellation that the board was “unable to have a privileged attorney-client conversation” over the cases, but declined to elaborate.
Tensions over the court cases comes amid troubled times for WAPS: the district must grapple with a $2.25-million deficit in next year’s budget –– the largest budget reduction in recent history, Dahman’s recent announcement that he would not complete his contract and instead will leave the district this summer, and the Minnesota Department of Human Rights’ intervention over the district’s disparity in disciplinary action against black students. Additionally, following the closure of Rollingstone and Madison schools, the district has experienced a mass migration of students to other districts and schools. At last count, WAPS is 200 students under its budgeted projections.
The road to court
As part of $1.7 million in budget cuts, last year, the WAPS Board voted to close Madison and Rollingstone schools and put the buildings up for sale, along with the formerly closed Central Elementary School. The SOS Committee, whose original members began meeting the fall prior to oppose the less-than-popular $145-million referendum, challenged the closure and appealed the decision to the Minnesota Court of Appeals. The group first asked to delay the sale of the schools, a request that was denied, but the Court of Appeals decided to take up the case.
SOS repeatedly pled for the district to delay the sale of the schools until the court case was over and their closure was resolved, but the attempts were unsuccessful. However, SOS placed a court notice of lis pendens on the Madison and Rollingstone titles, which provides notice that there is a pending court case involving the properties.
After WAPS sold the two buildings, according to Dahman, new Madison school owner Andrew Brenner complained that the lis pendens notice could affect his ability to take out construction loans to make alterations to the property. On November 13, the district’s attorney Joseph Langel of Ratwick, Rozak, and Maloney sent a letter to SOS threatening legal action over the group’s court notice attached to the Madison title 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 stated.
In December, after meeting in closed session to discuss “potential litigation,” the WAPS Board in a split vote opted to take legal action against SOS in an attempt to have the notice removed from the title. Board member Allison Quam was the lone dissenting vote.
Members of SOS were “baffled” by the lawsuit, with member Gretchen Michlitsch stating that the lis pendens was simply a notice that there is a court case, and that there was no threat to the sale of any of the schools.
On Tuesday, SOS announced that the group would be removing the title notice from the Rollingstone property, and will no longer seek a reversal of the sale. According to a statement by the group, the city of Rollingstone, which now owns the building, informed SOS that it was aware of the pending litigation; does not intend to sell, subdivide, or otherwise alienate any part of the property; is not seeking mortgage financing; and will seek to use the building as a school.
“Therefore, Save Our School Committee will discharge the notice of lis pendens as to this property and has informed the Minnesota Court of Appeals that it is no longer seeking a reversal of the sale of that real estate,” the SOS statement to the district read.
The city of Rollingstone has been pursuing a charter school at the former Rolingstone School building since the building was first announced it would be closed, but due to a restriction placed on the building by the WAPS Board, the building was barred from being used as a k-12 school in the future. Last week, Rollingstone City Council member Rachel Larson explained that the city is planning to appeal to the WAPS Board to lift the restriction. “It’s going to depend on a number of things. The deed restriction is in place, and that’s our next hurdle,” Larson said. “We intend to address it with the School Board. There’s nothing set at this point, but we plan to get together and make a plan. That would be the natural next step.”
SOS will still pursue a reversal of the closure of both Madison and Rollingstone schools in the Court of Appeals, and the court notice placed on Madison is still subject to the lawsuit between WAPS and SOS. The appeal is still pending in St. Paul, Minn., while WAPS’ lawsuit over the title has been filed in district court and will be heard by Judge Lisa Hayne on March 20, 2019, at 9 a.m.