by Winona Post Editor-in-chief Sarah Squires
Most of us who have watched Winona Area Public Schools over the last year know — regardless of whether we are happy the district closed two elementary schools, regardless of whether we predicted it would hemorrhage hundreds of students in doing so — if this district is to be successful, it is time to move on. It’s time to do whatever it takes to mend the wounds that were caused when Rollingstone and Madison were shuttered forever; it’s time to look ahead. It’s time to invite those who disagree with you to the table, because continuing the bickering is only harming our district. In doing so, it’s harming the kids who sit in those classrooms today, and undoubtedly harming those who will come after them, inheriting the mistrust, the severed relationships, the empty bank account.
But it seems as though whoever is now holding the reins at Winona Area Public Schools is more interested in revenge. In particular, they’d like to see Save Our Schools (SOS) Committee member Gretchen Michlitsch, who helped organize a group to save Rollingstone and Madison from being closed, suffer. As we report today on the front page, WAPS’ attorneys have asked that Michlitsch herself be named a defendant in the district’s lawsuit against the group, singling her out as the member who should pay the more than $10,000 WAPS has paid to sue the community group.
I make a living following this school district, and while I long ago lost the ability to be surprised by its gaffes, shortcomings, and disfunction, even I could not believe it. The level of vitriol this district has cast against these WAPS parents and community members as they have organized and researched on behalf of their neighborhood schools is astounding. The fact that they cannot seem to let go, all the while purporting to want to move forward for the sake of “the kiddos,” should move the rest of us to some sort of action. But perhaps we should unravel this complicated mess of court cases and where WAPS has truly lost sight of its mission and those it is expected to serve.
SOS challenged WAPS’ split vote to close Madison and Rollingstone schools. It was an appeal with the Minnesota Court of Appeals, and it was surprising that the court agreed to hear the case. While that case was ongoing, WAPS administrators urged the board to rush to sell the buildings. Though we kept Central for years after it was shuttered, though there were legitimate concerns about whether there would be enough space for all our programs — at one point, the board discussed moving the Community Ed offices into the ag building at the high school — superintendent Rich Dahman warned that the schools ought to be sold quickly. For those of us watching carefully, it seemed as though the real deadline was the election, and the possibility that a new board would not support the sales.
SOS added a notice to the titles of the schools that stated they were involved in pending litigation. Because they were. The Court of Appeals was still mulling the challenge to the closure.
In any event, the buildings were sold. They were no longer the problem of Winona Area Public Schools, nor the taxpayers that fund it.
But for some reason, after the schools were sold, and before the Court of Appeals ruled against SOS’ appeal, WAPS decided it ought to sue SOS. The only argument they really offered was that they “owed” it to the new owners to provide for clear titles. Never mind that the court was about to rule on the closure case, which would put an end to any issues the title notices might have made for the new owners. Instead, just before that new board was sworn in, in a split vote the WAPS Board voted to use your tax dollars to sue SOS, a community group that organized and lobbied on behalf of their kids and neighborhood schools.
Then, as predicted, the Court of Appeals ruled in WAPS’ favor over the closure, and the notices were removed from the titles. End of story, right? Nope. Although the new board has not weighed in, hasn’t met or discussed it, whoever holds the reins at WAPS continued with the lawsuit against SOS. Administrators and attorneys didn’t turn to the board and ask the logical question: Should we continue with this lawsuit?
Instead, now they want Michlitsch to pay for their attorneys’ fees herself. She’s just a regular person who wanted to keep walking her kids to the school near their house, to continue to take them to the playground on Sunday afternoons and feel like her neighborhood was intact. And, apparently, she had the audacity to think that she had the right to stand up to the local government when she thought it was making the wrong decision for her family.
It seems as though someone at WAPS thinks Gretchen should not only learn her lesson about that, but pay for it, too.
WAPS’ insurance does not cover the suit against SOS. That’s because insurance doesn’t cover frivolous lawsuits, and for the most part, that keeps the government from coming after you when you exercise your right to disagree, to object, to challenge it. In this instance, WAPS didn’t even own the buildings it was suing over. It just wanted revenge.
And now, apparently, WAPS wants more than revenge. It wants money from one of its moms.
Since the WAPS Board has failed to rein in its administrators, perhaps it’s time that we let them know what should be done. As we say goodbye to superintendent Dahman and welcome our new superintendent next month, as we look ahead to a hopefully brighter future for our students, let’s make it clear that we won’t let our tax dollars be used to sue moms who try to make a difference.