by SARAH SQUIRES
On Thursday night, the Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) Board voted unanimously to abandon the lawsuit it brought against local citizen group Save Our Schools (SOS), marking an end to a protracted legal battle between the local government unit and a group of residents united in an attempt to save two neighborhood schools from closure.
The conflict spanned the last election cycle, when former SOS attorney Karl Sonneman took a seat on the board. He’s since taken issue with the board’s refusal to discuss the lawsuit in public, and some have claimed his past participation with SOS presented a conflict of interest. On Thursday, he abstained from the conversation, instead, taking a seat at the back of the room. “I want to give everybody a chance to talk,” said board chair Nancy Denzer, “and that’s my intent, but I respect director Sonneman’s decision [to abstain], and I will excuse you from the table at this time.”
Board member Jim Schul, as Sonneman exited city hall’s stage left, asked, “Will director Sonneman be in the chambers?”
“He’s going to be seated in the back row,” Denzer responded, referring to the audience seats in the rear of Winona City Hall Council Chambers.
After a motion was cast by board member Michael Hanratty and seconded by Jim Schul to dismiss the lawsuit against SOS, board members spoke publicly about the suit for the first time, some of whom ran on platforms similar to SOS’ mission to save neighborhood schools, others who have staunchly defended the school closures and who defended the premise of the lawsuit against SOS.
”I think it would be a grave mistake to take this to trial,” Hanratty said of the lawsuit, adding it was risky for taxpayers if the district were to continue. “I believe we have to model the same behaviors we expect of our students,” he said of the conflict. Fight in what we believe in, he said, “and we did that. I also believe that we need to model when it’s a tie, to walk away. That’s equally as important as the fight.”
The court battle
The lawsuit that was abandoned on Thursday came following the original court case, in which SOS challenged WAPS’ decision to close Rollingstone and Madison elementary schools in 2018. The Minnesota Court of Appeals agreed to hear the case, and while the court mulled the appeal, SOS placed notices on the titles of the school properties that indicated they were the subject of litigation, called notices of lis pendens.
WAPS then sold the buildings to private owners, and, citing a desire to provide clear titles to those new owners, filed a lawsuit against SOS over the lis pendens, calling it a “slander of title” case. The split vote to sue SOS came in December 2018, just before new board members were to be sworn in in January.
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. In May, SOS removed the notice from the Madison property after the Court of Appeals upheld the district’s decision to close the schools.
While the WAPS Board had not met to discuss the lawsuit since its initial vote to sue in December, district attorneys moved ahead with the suit, offering several motions. One motion requested the judge impose all the district’s attorney fees on one SOS member — Gretchen Michlitsch. Another asked that the court grant WAPS summary judgment — or rule in the district’s favor without a full trial.
The judge denied the motion for summary judgment, and in his written order, Judge Matthew Opat gave a glimpse into how a full trial might have gone.
In order to prove a slander of title case, the district would have had to prove that SOS had no legal standing to file the title notices, and that it did so knowing its actions were false and that it acted with malice. Judge Opat indicated that the filing of the notices was “procedurally defective” because SOS had not filed a complaint in district court asserting rights to the school properties, and that the notices were “voice and inoperative as of the day it was filed.”
However, Judge Opat also wrote that the filing of the notices and SOS’ “subsequent actions all indicate that they acted in good faith” — hinting that proving they were filed as an act of malice, which would be required for the district to prevail in trial, could have been a stretch. SOS, he wrote, “has provided evidence that conclusively establishes a rebuttable resumption in its favor that it acted in good faith, believed their claim to be valid, and acted in order to protect that claim.”
“Although I do feel that we made the right decision in respect to the [notice of] lis pendens and following through with the lawsuit,” stated board member Tina Lehnertz, who represents Rollingstone, “the decision has been made for us and I think it’s time to end this chapter, and keep moving forward. So I would agree that it’s time to turn the other cheek and move forward.”
Board member Steve Schild said that SOS’ lawsuit had been a great expense to the community. He noted that WAPS had prevailed in the Court of Appeals case, and that Judge Opat had ruled it had erred in filing the title notices. He said the insurance deductible in the appeals case cost the district $10,000, the title notice lawsuit against SOS had cost $8,000, and other related costs brought the total of the court cases to $45,000.
“At the heart of both lawsuits is the closing of schools. As difficult as the closings were for all parties involved on all sides of that issue, I would argue that the only way the board could’ve avoided those closings would have been to make even more devastating cuts to educational programming or staffing,” continued Schild. “Some people clearly disagree with me on that point, and that disagreement will likely linger in this community for a long time. We’ll have to learn to live with that disagreement.”
“We are at a moment where we can do some very, very progressive things,” added board member Jim Schul. “I feel if we were to continue this path of litigation, that we could be at risk of the progress that we are making and will make in the foreseeable months. I believe that we all, in our entire community, within our board, throughout the school district need to call upon the better angels of our nature, and strive on in the good work that we are in.
“I clearly am in agreement with [the motion] and have been in agreement with not suing a community advocacy group. I’m so appreciative we’re at this moment,” stated board member Allison Quam, who originally voted against suing SOS. “I believe in studying history and learning from it, but there is a point where your past can no longer dictate your future.”
Chair Denzer said she supported the board members at the table, and those who had been at the table in the past who had to make difficult decisions during a tough time. She said she’d seen a positive, healthy atmosphere in the district this year, “and I continue to see that on a daily basis and I hear that on a daily basis,” Denzer continued. “I will be voting in favor of this motion because I think it’s time.”
Momentum of optimism
One thread that wove through each board members’ discussion of the end of the lawsuit was the observance that WAPS has undergone a wave of positive change as this school year has begun, and the hope that letting go of the dispute would help push the district further on a path of optimism.
“In the spring of this year our district was in pretty dire times. Morale was low,” stated Schul. “Over the course of the past several months, something called ‘collective techer efficacy’ is on the rise. Ask our teachers, ask the WEA [Winona Education Association] how the school year is going so far. There is a spirit of hope, optimism, excitement. Some teachers have said ‘I haven’t felt this way in a long time.’”
“I think it’s time to heal, to move forward,” stated Hanratty. “The schools are closed, they’re sold … I think it’s time for us to walk away and end this.”