GAYLORD — A Sibley County District judge dismissed the lawsuit brought against Sibley East Public Schools over its contentious $43 million bonding referendum that was passed in the Nov. 4 general election.
Gaylord resident Nathan Kranz filed the lawsuit a week after the elections, alleging the school district failed to file required public notices about the referendum by the state-mandated deadline. The lawsuit sought to have the referendum invalidated.
The judge's ruling made Wednesday confirmed that the public notices were published several days after the state deadline. The district had sent the notices in time for the deadline but too late to make the cut-off period for the weekly newspaper's publication. The ruling also noted the district only published a 33-word summary of the Department of Education's positive review of the referendum, which lacked important details about the purpose of the referendum and the basis of the review.
In a prior email, Kranz said his lawsuit, which also targeted Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, was intended to represent the larger group of people who had opposed the referendum and those who were given information about it in time.
The school district's filing denied Kranz's charges and argued his lawsuit lacks sufficient legal grounds.
The referendum passed by just 96 votes. The district sought the $43 million to build a new elementary school in Gaylord to replace the older school, which will be sold, and to improve the Arlington school.
The passage of the referendum this year was critical for the district because it could save hundreds of thousands of dollars in interest payments if the bond is established this spring instead of next year, which could be enough savings to make or break the project.
In his ruling, Judge Kevin Eide criticized both sides of the lawsuit and even the state.
He ruled Kranz's lawsuit failed to actually demonstrate anyone had been confused by the lack of referendum notice or did not vote on the bond issue. He noted the referendum received roughly the same number of voters as in 2012 and 2006. He also ruled the lawsuit failed to demonstrate the school district had committed any fraud.
He said the publication issue had to be proven to be in bad faith and have a demonstrable impact on the election and said that was not the case.
However, he also criticized the school district for demonstrating "ample evidence of lack of training and attention to the statutory notice requirements." He noted this was the first school referendum for Supt. James Armsden and the School District Elections Clerk Lindsey Neisen.
In the memorandum he attached to his ruling, Eide also said the Department of Education needed to make their forms clearer to school districts on when information should be published.
He also criticized the statutes for being confusing because two sections offered different requirements on how far in advance districts had to publish notices. He said the Minnesota Legislature should act to clarify its intent and what is expected to school districts.
"It is unfortunate that this issue of educating our youth and the carrying out the will of Sibley and Nicollet county voters had to be determined by the Courts," Eide said in his filing.
The determination of who must pay for costs and attorneys' fees associated with the lawsuit will be determined at a later time.