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2018 IN REVIEW: A long year ends, with more on the horizon, for Winonans sparring over school closures

December 30, 2018
A whiteboard at City Hall is covered with notes about what community members would like to see done with the former Madison Elementary School.

As some watched in dismay and others applauded an effort they felt was a long time coming, the Winona school district turned years of prior talk into action in 2018 with the closure and sale of Madison and Rollingstone elementary schools.

The decision to shut their doors for the last time came down in March. But the effects of that decision will likely reverberate long into 2019 in the form of an appeal, a lawsuit, and the anger of a group of citizens who fought to keep their schools open in the face of what they claim is corroding trust between district officials and their constituents.

At the outset, things appear to be moving forward. Rollingstone and the property it sits on were sold in September to real estate developer Michael Corcoran, who promptly set about returning it to the city of Rollingstone. And Madison’s sale to Andrew Brenner was officially finalized Dec. 13.

The new year could yield more forward motion, allowing the community to heal from the divisiveness school closures brings, but a district hoping to close a painful chapter may still find a few obstacles in its path. Here’s some key things to catch up on, and a look at what’s coming next.

Lingering appeal

“We’re just trying to hold the school board to utilizing their procedures of informing the public of their decisions,” said Save Our Schools lawyer Greg Richard in an explanation of the group’s May 22 filing with the state Court of Appeals.

The appeal alleges that the district moved too quickly in its decision to close Madison and Rollingstone. Save Our Schools members feel that while community members may have had the chance to be heard during the decision-making process, their feedback wasn’t appropriately considered.

Fresh off a defeated November 2017 referendum that proposed closing Jefferson and Madison schools, district administration and the school board were still faced with tackling $1.7 million in budget cuts for the upcoming year. They released a community survey and held public hearings, making the ultimate decision to close Rollingstone and Madison — a decision that didn’t need to be vetted by a referendum vote.

The appeal looks to be an uphill battle for Save Our Schools, which will need to prove that the district violated state law in order to advance the claim, according to Minneapolis-based real estate attorney Peter Coyle, who in the past advised the Duluth school district on similar issues.

And WAPS lawyers remain confident that the court will rule in their favor.

“The school board has followed all statutory procedure,” attorney Christian Shafer told the Daily News in November. “I don’t see that there’s any merit to the opposition in this case.”

Oral arguments have been scheduled for Jan. 23 in St. Paul.

A new lawsuit

Shortly after Save Our Schools filed their appeal, they also attached a notice of lis pendens, or a notice of pending litigation, to the titles of both buildings. After sending two letters requesting that they remove the lis pendens, the WAPS board voted to sue the group to have it removed, alleging that Save Our Schools did not meet the legal criteria necessary to file such a notice.

The notice, which informs parties interested in the building of the appeal that has yet to be heard on their closing, did not prevent the buyers of the properties from closing on the sale, but superintendent Rich Dahman said both buyers expressed that they would like it removed from the titles.

To file a lis pendens, a party must have a legitimate ownership interest in the property, a bar the district will argue that Save Our Schools does not clear. In addition to requesting the court have the lis pendens removed, school district attorneys will also request payment for damages incurred by having to take legal action in this case.

Doug Salzmann, a member of Save Our Schools, said he believes the suit is intended to “intimidate and chill the speech” of his organization.

As of the date this article was written, the suit itself had not yet been scheduled for an appearance in the district court.

Fresh faces on the school board

Many eyes will be on private attorney Karl Sonneman as he makes his debut on the Winona public school board at its Jan. 10 meeting. Sonneman, once the attorney for Save Our Schools who withdrew from representation once he was elected to the board, has not shied away from criticism of Dahman, some school board members and the district as a whole.

Other new faces at the board table will be Michael Hanratty and Nancy Denzer, the top vote-getter in November’s election. Denzer said she ran her campaign based on positivity and problem-solving, but added that she does want to examine and improve the district’s finances and kickstart the repair process after the tough closures.

“I understand people have bad feelings (about the closures),” she said in November. “I think we need to spend some time healing and paying attention to people.”

New property owners

As it looks less likely that Madison and Rollingstone have a chance of being reopened as schools, community members have turned their attention to weighing in on what could be next. Of particular interest is Madison, whose neighborhood-school features makes whatever will be developed next a touchy subject.

After Brenner’s offer for the building was approved, Engage Winona along with city officials hosted a forum where people could express what they did or did not want to see for the property. A thematic takeaway was a need for more green space and a desire to keep the playground, and though it’s unclear how much Brenner will have to abide by these community suggestions, the city will keep them in mind when deciding whether to approve his ideas for development.

A similar event was held with Central school in mind, which could also see development plans begin in the coming year.

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