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Douglas v. Stillwater Area Public Schools

Court of Appeals of Minnesota

June 19, 2017

Melissa Douglas, petitioner, Appellant,
v.
Stillwater Area Public Schools, Independent School District 834, et al., Respondents.

         Washington County District Court File No. 82-CV-16-900

          Erick G. Kaardal, Mohrman, Kaardal & Erickson, P.A., Minneapolis, Minnesota (for appellant)

          Peter G. Mikhail, James J. Thomson, Elizabeth Brodeen-Kuo, Kennedy & Graven, Chartered, Minneapolis, Minnesota (for respondents)

          Considered and decided by Halbrooks, Presiding Judge; Schellhas, Judge; and Toussaint, Judge. [*]

         SYLLABUS

         1. Pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 475.58, subd. 4 (2016), the ballot language alone defines the scope of the purpose of a municipality's bond referendum.

         2. A municipality may abandon portions of a project approved by a bond referendum if the abandonment does not radically alter the purpose stated in the ballot language.

          OPINION

          HALBROOKS, Judge.

         Appellant challenges the denial with prejudice of her request for a writ of mandamus, arguing that the district court erred by (1) declining to compel respondent Stillwater Area Public Schools, Independent School District 834 (the school district) to obtain voter approval on planned changes to its use of bond proceeds and (2) concluding that it did not have authority to issue a writ of mandamus to direct the school district to hold another bond referendum. Because, pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 475.58, subd. 4, the ballot language alone defines the scope of the purpose of a bond referendum and because a municipality may make minor changes to an approved project without holding another bond referendum, we affirm.

         FACTS

         In November 2014, the school district[1] reviewed a report and recommendation regarding its current and future facility needs. Based on this report, the school district submitted a proposed project to the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) for review and comment in February 2015, and it resolved to seek voter approval for the proposed project through a bond referendum. A summary of the school district's proposed project stated, "The bond referendum will be a single-question in the amount of $97, 500, 000, based on the following key project components." (Emphasis omitted.) The school district's key project components included plans to spend $9, 809, 250 on upgrades to playground surfaces, pre-school rooms, and HVAC systems at various facilities, and also to reconfigure rooms at existing elementary schools.

         The MDE provided a positive review and comment. Relevant to this appeal, the MDE summarized cost estimates for the following elementary schools by project type and location:

Marine Elementary

Playground Improvements

$101, 000

Renovations

$25, 000

Fees / FF&E / Contingency

$45, 019

$171, 019

Oak Park Elementary

HVAC Upgrades

$1, 100, 000

Playground Improvements

$101, 000

Renovations

$25, 000

Fees / FF&E / Contingency

$438, 042

$1, 664, 042

Withrow Elementary

Playground Improvements

$101, 000

Renovations

$25, 000

Fees / FF&E / Contingency

$45, 019

$171, 019

         And the MDE directed the school district to "publish a summary of the review and comment statement . . . in the legal newspaper of the district . . . prior to holding a referendum for bonds."

         The school district published a summary of the project and the MDE's review and comment that included publication of the cost estimates outlined above. The school district also published additional materials highlighting the planned changes to Withrow, Marine, and Oak Park elementary schools on each school's website. No publication announced or referenced any school closure.

         On May 12, 2015, the school district held a bond referendum and asked if voters would authorize it to issue a bond in an amount not to exceed $97, 500, 000. A majority of the voters approved the bond referendum.

         Less than one year later, the school district resolved to close Withrow, Marine, and Oak Park elementary schools by the end of the 2016-2017 school year. The school district's decision to close these schools was challenged in a separate legal action. This court upheld the school district's decision, concluding that the resolution to close these schools was valid. 834 VOICE v. Indep. Sch. Dist. No. 834, 893 N.W.2d 649, 658 (Minn.App. 2017), review denied (Minn. May 19, 2017). Because these schools were scheduled to close by the end of the 2016-2017 school year, the school district decided not to make any of the proposed improvements to Withrow and Marine elementary schools and not to make the playground improvements at Oak Park Elementary School, which it planned to convert to an administrative facility.

         Appellant Melissa Douglas petitioned for a writ of mandamus, asking the district court to direct the school district to hold another bond referendum. Douglas's basis for the writ was that the school district planned to use the bond proceeds for a different purpose once it resolved to close the three elementary schools. The school district moved to dismiss Douglas's petition or, in the alternative, for summary judgment.

         After a hearing, the district court granted summary judgment to the school district and dismissed Douglas's petition with prejudice. It concluded that the school district did not need to hold another bond referendum because its decisions to abandon playground improvements at the elementary schools and to repurpose Oak Park from an elementary school into an administrative facility were not different from the purpose of the bond referendum. The district court also held that it had no authority to order a writ of mandamus to compel another bond referendum. This appeal follows.

         ISSUES

         I. Did the district court err in determining that the school district did not need to hold another bond referendum?

         II. Did the district court err in concluding that it did not have the authority to grant a writ of mandamus to require the school ...


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