A judge dismissed Mills’ lawsuit against the Natrona County School District on Monday, concluding that the town had not shown it would suffer any harm from the imminent closure of Mountain View Elementary.
Less than 20 minutes after attorneys for the town and the district argued over whether Mills had standing to sue, Judge Daniel Forgey said the town had not “established it has a genuine right or interest” to do so.
Mills filed the suit in January, three months after the district’s school board voted to close Mountain View. The board cited looming budget cuts and falling enrollment at the elementary, which is the last school in the Mills area. The town’s council opposed the move, passing a resolution condemning it before the school board voted on Oct. 23.
Patrick Holscher, the town’s attorney, declined to comment after the proceedings. He said it was too early to tell if he would appeal Forgey’s decision. Jim Bell, the district’s private attorney, also declined to comment other than to say he thought the court’s ruling was appropriate.
The hearing centered on whether the town was able to stand in for its residents and file the suit against the district. Bell argued that it didn’t and cited a number of cases that showed governmental entities couldn’t do so.
“It’s clear that Mills has no tangible interest in this case, other than representing its residents,” he said.
Holscher responded that there was no direct case law that addressed a school district being sued by a municipality like this. He also noted that it was early in the case and that the judge should allow it to continue and develop.
Forgey questioned Holscher, both about how Mills felt it was able to represent its residents and about how he, as a representative of the legal system, could remedy what he suggested was a political disagreement.
He reiterated both of those concerns when he handed down his judgment.
Last month, Holscher and town officials had started the process of making the lawsuit a class action case. Officials had collected signatures from residents who wanted to sue the district. But the dismissal of the town’s suit kills that move for now, Forgey said.
The meeting was attended by several Mills officials, including Mayor Seth Coleman, who sat with Holscher in front of the judge. School board members Kevin Christopherson and Debbie McCullar were also both in attendance.
The town alleged that the closure of Mountain View was unlawful for a number of reasons, including that it unfairly targeted low-income students and that it failed to meet statutory requirements for school facilities. For instance, districts seeking to abandon schools must hold a public hearing — something the district did not do prior to its vote.
The lack of a hearing has long been a complaint of Mills officials. The district has said it took ample public comment, including at two regularly scheduled meetings. But neither meeting had a period explicitly set aside to discuss the closure of Mountain View or other district buildings that are set to be shuttered.
Last month, the board finally held that hearing. Superintendent Steve Hopkins said at the time that it had nothing to do with the lawsuit and that the district was simply complying with statute.
Holscher and Coleman both rejected that. Holscher reiterated that during the hearing Monday. He claimed the district was only beginning to comply with state statute now that Mills had filed a lawsuit.
In any case, Forgey’s decision ends — at least for now — an increasingly contentious disagreement between the district and Mills. The argument reached a fever pitch last month when Coleman publicly accused Christopherson of attempting to “bribe” the town. He said Christopherson, who was the board chairman until earlier this year, had sent him an email proposing a deal: If the town bought Mills Elementary — which closed in June — the district would set aside the funds from the purchase to reopen Mountain View, should enrollment and funding begin to climb again in the future.
Christopherson has acknowledged sending the email but says it wasn’t a bribe. He said it was his attempt to find a solution to the disagreement between the town and district.