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VOICE v. Independent School District

Court of Appeals of Minnesota

April 3, 2017

VOICE, Relator,
v.
Independent School District, Stillwater, Minnesota, Respondent.

         Independent School District No. 834

          Frederic W. Knaak, Holstad & Knaak, PLC, St. Paul, Minnesota (for relator)

          Peter G. Mikhail, Elizabeth Brodeen-Kuo, Kennedy & Graven, Chartered, Minneapolis, Minnesota (for respondent)

          Considered and decided by Ross, Presiding Judge; Stauber, Judge; and Rodenberg, Judge.

         SYLLABUS

         A school board does not violate the public-hearing requirement of Minn. Stat. § 123B.51, subd. 5 (2016), when it imposes reasonable time restrictions on parties speaking at a school-closing hearing.

          OPINION

          RODENBERG, Judge

         By writ of certiorari, relator 834 VOICE challenges the decision of the school board (the Board) of respondent Independent School District No. 834 (ISD 834), Stillwater, Minnesota, to close the Marine, Withrow, and Oak Park elementary schools. Relator challenges the speaking-time limits and other procedural rules concerning the school-closing hearing, and also argues that the Board's finding that closing the schools is necessary and practicable is not supported by substantial evidence. We affirm.

         FACTS

         Beginning in 2012, the respondent school district began developing a strategic plan called Bridge to Excellence. District leaders reviewed demographic trends and projections, and eventually reviewed a 2014 report by demographer Hazel Reinhardt. Reinhardt's report attempted to project future enrollment in the district schools. She predicted that, under the "cohort survival method" of projecting, enrollment would either decline or rise only slightly over ten years. Under the "housing unit method" of projecting, there would be "some enrollment growth." As part of a long-range facilities plan that included building a new school in the southern part of the school district, district voters approved a levy in 2013 and a bond measure in 2015. The Board urged voters to approve the 2015 bond measure. In its proposal to the Minnesota Department of Education, the Board cited the Reinhardt report's projection of "stable to moderate growth in student enrollment over the next 5 years, but with some geographic shifting in student population location."

         A new school-district superintendent was hired in July 2015, after the May 2015 vote approving the bond measure. At a December 17, 2015 board meeting, the new superintendent presented a new strategic plan for the Board's consideration, entitled "Building Opportunities to Learn and Discover" (BOLD). One of the BOLD proposals was closing three of the district's elementary schools and consolidating students into the remaining schools. The superintendent stated that the school closures are necessary because school enrollment is declining, the district is operating schools below capacity, students are having inequitable educational experiences, and budgetary constraints are creating instability in student programming. District staff supported these statements with data from the Reinhardt report, a Metropolitan Council report, a capacity study conducted in 2014, and other data.

         The BOLD proposal generated vigorous community opposition. A survey commissioned by the Board revealed that a majority of residents and parents of children attending schools in ISD 834 opposed BOLD. Nonetheless, the Board proceeded with a series of "learning sessions" and "listening sessions" where district staff explained the reasoning behind the BOLD proposal. Community input was received. Following these sessions, and desirous of making a decision concerning the proposed school closings, the Board held a final public hearing under Minn. Stat. § 123B.51, subd. 5, on March 3, 2016. At that hearing, district staff, including the superintendent, presented the BOLD proposal and took questions from the Board. The Board then took public testimony, limiting each speaker to three minutes. Forty-four people who had signed up to speak, plus one additional person who had not signed up, testified at the hearing. The Board also accepted into the record a 305-page report from relator.[1]

         After this several-hour public hearing, the Board voted 5-2 to adopt a resolution closing the three elementary schools. The resolution included findings of fact supporting the school closures, which mirrored the reasons originally given by the superintendent when she introduced the BOLD proposal. The resolution also identified reasons for the closure of those specific elementary schools, and explained why other elementary schools in the district were not closed. This certiorari appeal followed.

         ISSUES

         I. Did the March 3, 2016 hearing fulfill the statutory requirements of Minn. Stat. § 123B.51, subd. 5, concerning a school-closing hearing?

         II. Is the Board's decision to close the Marine, Withrow, and Oak Park elementary schools ...


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