Judge hears arguments on whether Christian group can join Mattoon school lawsuit

Published: Jul. 26, 2019 at 7:03 PM CDT
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On Friday, a judge heard oral arguments about whether the Christian group Shepherd’s Watch should be allowed to join a lawsuit between the Antigo School District and the villages of Mattoon and Hutchins.

Shepherd’s Watch was created for the express purpose of establishing a school in Mattoon, its legal representation Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL) argued, which is why it has the greatest interest in joining a suit about whether the empty Mattoon Elementary School building can be used as a school once again.

“Who owns this doggone [sic] property? That’s the fundamental issue,” WILL’s attorney Don Daugherty argued during the hearing on Friday.

Mattoon is a small community of just over 400, and some children who attend school in Antigo have to be bused 45-60 minutes to attend school after the Antigo School District closed the Mattoon Elementary School in 2016. The issue of school choice in rural communities has attracted attention from around the nation on the Mattoon case, according to Wade Reimer, president of Shepherd’s Watch.

Other communities in Marathon and Portage Counties of similar sizes, like Hatley, Junction City, and Rosholt, have elementary schools available to their populations. But many parents in Mattoon have to either send their children to Antigo or find alternatives like homeschooling or Birnamwood Elementary School, village superintendent Zak Kickhaver told us. That’s why school choice is an issue the whole community gets behind, he says.

“The biggest thing is to keep our little kids close to home—and I hate the idea of the long bus rides,” he says of his own two young children.

In 2015, the Antigo School District had offered to sell the school property to Mattoon for a dollar. Now, they’re in a legal fight with the villages of Mattoon and Hutchins over a stipulation that the building can’t be used as a school.

“The Antigo School District is contesting ownership, and they’re refusing to sell the property unless there’s a promise made not to use it as a school,” WILL’s deputy counsel Anthony LoCoco told NewsChannel 7. “Given the state of rural education right now in Wisconsin, we think that’s an unconscionable decision.”

According to Reimer, the Antigo School District is not listed as an owner on the property and cannot restrict the use of the building, which forms the subject of the lawsuit.

The Village of Mattoon wants to sell the property to Shepherd’s Watch for the purpose of building a Christian school, and WILL is stepping in pro bono to bring them into the lawsuit and represent them in the case.

“A choice school will give an opportunity for parents to choose where they send their kids,” Reimer said. “It’s overwhelming the number of people that want to bring their kids to an opportunity like this. This school will be full, I guarantee you, when it happens.”

A Shawano County judge heard oral arguments Friday, as the Antigo School District is trying to block WILL and Shepherd’s Watch from joining.

The arguments came down to whether Shepherd’s Watch’s interest in the outcome of the lawsuit is legitimate. WILL argued that they had arguably the greatest vested interest in the property, as they would be the ones to build the school. The Antigo School District, on the other hand, argues that Shepherd’s Watch’s interest is manufactured, a term that WILL said was not clear.

While their purchase agreement with the village of Mattoon happened after the lawsuit, Daugherty said their interest predated the case.

“This is the very reason that Shepherd’s Watch was created,” he noted, arguing that the outcome of the lawsuit would directly affect them. “We’ve always wanted to buy it, long before the purchase contract.”

WILL says that the Antigo School District hasn’t clarified the reason they won’t allow a school on the property, but believe that it is because they don’t want to compete with another school for students.

Representation for the Antigo School District said their decision to close the school was because of declining enrollment, and that they weren’t targeting Mattoon in particular because they also closed three additional school this past spring. It’s the best interest of the entire district, they argued, not a single area.

The Antigo School District argued that WILL and Shepherd’s Watch is making a political issue.

“I think that they made some politically charged comments in their conclusion, where if you read those, you might think that the school district is trying to single out Mattoon in some fashion. But that’s hardly the case, your honor,” Antigo School District’s attorney argued.

The Antigo School District says they don’t dispute Shepherd’s Watch’s interest in the school, but their issue is that the purchase agreement with the villages didn’t happen until after the lawsuit was filed.

“We’re suggesting that until the lawsuit was filed, they didn’t see it necessary to have a purchase agreement with themselves,” he noted.

WILL argued that there was no evidence of conspiracy or collusion between the villages and Shepherd’s Watch.

The judge will rule on whether Shepherd’s Watch can join the lawsuit within the next 45 days, he said, with a tentative date scheduled for August 28 at 11a.m.