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Dunn County court upholds DPI decision on school district boundaries

By Cara L. Dempski

MENOMONIE — A local judge denied a motion last week that could potentially have redrawn part of the school district boundary between Eau Claire and Elk Mound.

Dunn County Circuit Court Judge Rod Smeltzer ruled in favor of the School District Boundary Appeals Board – part of the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction – and Elk Mound and Eau Claire school districts after a petition filed in July 2017 alleged the board acted “arbitrarily and capriciously” when denying a request to change one of the eastern boundaries between the two districts.

According to a legal brief filed by attorney Kirsten Hildebrand in November, Kenneth and Kelly Books of Eau Claire, along with five of the six property owners between them and the boundary of the Elk Mound Area School District, appealed the Eau Claire Area School District’s February 2017 forbidding the six parcels of land from being detached from Eau Claire and attached to Elk Mound.

As noted in previous articles on this matter, the Books’ eldest three children are currently open enrolled at Elk Mound, but the enrollment for their fourth child was denied after it was determined he would require special education services.

Under state statute, a non-resident school district can deny an open-enrollment application for any student for programs where there are currently no open spaces. According to the brief, the Books family asked their neighbors to join the petition in order for all four children to attend the same school since all would be district residents.

The Eau Claire school board rejected the boundary change February 6, 2017, but the Elk Mound board approved it unanimously later that month. The petitioners appealed the decision, and a hearing by the Boundary Appeals Board was held May 10, 2017.

The petition filed in November alleges the Board’s decision was “arbitrary and capricious” as a result of “an unconsidered, willful, and irrational choice of conduct, and not the result of the ‘winnowing and sifting’ process.”

Hildebrand argues in the petition that the “winnowing and sifting” process binds the Board to consideration of all the factors enumerated in state statute 117.15. According to documentation, the petitioners contend the Board was unreasonable and without rational basis when it refused to redraw the border between Eau Claire and Elk Mound.

She reiterated this statement during the January 30 telephone motion hearing before Smeltzer, asking for a more comprehensive evaluation and arguing the Books’ request was not considered “extreme,” as it had been noted by the Board.

Wisconsin’s assistant attorney general Chris Blythe informed the court the issue was a legislative matter and not subject to judicial review. When Smeltzer asked about the court’s deference in the matter, Blythe informed him it was for the court to decide if the decision made was arbitrary and the result of an unconsidered, willful and irrational choice.

Smeltzer asked if the assistant attorney general felt the board adequately performed the “winnowing and sifting” process, and Blythe answered in the affirmative, noting all the information presented at the hearing was given consideration.

“I understand their (the petitioners’) desire to have this decision reversed,” Blythe said, “but I think it is clear this was not unconsidered.”

Kirk Strang, the attorney representing the Eau Claire Area School District, echoed Blythe’s belief, and pointed out that just because there are criteria the board considers in each appeal, that does not mean each item is given equal weight.

He said the board is free to assign greater importance to some criteria than others as relevant for the case, and the standard of review has to be considered.

At the end of the hearing, Smeltzer rendered his decision to not overturn the Boundary Appeals Board’s decision, ruling the body was not arbitrary and came to the conclusion of a reasonable person after considering the facts of the case. He ordered Hildebrand to prepare an order to that effect.

Blythe said after the hearing that the petitioners could still take their case to a court of appeals. Hildebrand was contacted regarding potential next steps, but did not respond prior to publication.

Online court records indicate a proposed order has been submitted as of January 31, 2018.