Appeals court won’t stop Stillwater school closings

The Minnesota Court of Appeals has upheld the decision of the Stillwater Area School Board to close three schools.

The 2016 decision to close Marine, Withrow, and Oak Park elementary schools came just a year after voters in the district approved a levy and bond to build a new school. But a new school superintendent said the demographics of ISD 834 dictated the closings, which have split the communities the district serves.

Today, the Court of Appeals rejected a challenge to the decision filed by an opposition group (See ruling).

“A school board’s decisions are entitled to judicial deference, and we will not substitute our own judgment for that of a board,” Judge John Rodenberg wrote on behalf of a three-judge panel.

“School-closing decisions are by their nature political decisions, entitled to judicial deference and respect because the decision to close a school is so important to the local community,” he said. “For that reason, courts decline to substitute their judgment for the judgment of locally elected officials, who are both most familiar with the community’s issues and most directly accountable to the voters.”

The panel turned aside the claim that a March 2016 meeting, at which the decision was finalized, violated Minnesota open meeting laws. The opposition group complained residents were given only three minutes to speak.

The Court of Appeals said the Legislature set no minimum time to as a requirements of an open meeting.

“We suppose that, at some point, restrictions on speaking time or other hearing procedures might so limit the opportunity to speak as to render meaningless the opportunity for the public ‘to give testimony for and against the proposal,’” Rodenberg wrote. “But where, as here, the hearing procedures established by a school board are reasonable and allow a meaningful opportunity for the public testimony contemplated by the statute, the procedures adopted by the board are entitled to judicial deference and respect.”

The court affirmed evidence supported the school-closing decision and said while the Metropolitan Council predicts some population growth in the southern part of the Stillwater region, that doesn’t mean the number of school-age children will increase.

The fight has now shifted to the Capitol where legislation has been filed to require voters to approve school closings. The bills, filed by Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Marys Point, and Rep. Kathy Lohmer, R-Stillwater, may end up in an omnibus education bill.