, , ,

Judge To Rule On Christian Nonprofit’s Effort To Buy Vacant Rural School

Mattoon Elementary School Closed In 2016, But Antigo District Won't Sell To Private School

Mattoon Elementary School
Mattoon Elementary School closed in 2016 after several efforts to raise revenue by referendum failed in the Unified School District of Antigo. Rob Mentzer/WPR

A yearslong fight about the future of a shuttered rural elementary school building came to a head in court Monday, and a resolution could be in sight.

Mattoon Elementary School has been vacant since 2016, when the Unified School District of Antigo closed the school after voters in the district rejected a referendum request for new spending. The loss of the school in Mattoon marked the first time since 1898 that the small Shawano County village had not had a community school. For some students, its closure meant bus rides of 45 minutes or longer to their new schools.

In 2018, Wade Riemer of Mattoon set out to turn the unused building into a community center and Christian school for his newly formed nonprofit, Shepherd’s Watch. But the Antigo School District wouldn’t agree to sell the building if it were to be used as a school. That dispute led to a protracted legal battle in which both the Antigo district and the village of Mattoon have claimed ownership of the building.

Stay informed on the latest news

Sign up for WPR’s email newsletter.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

In a hearing Monday in Shawano County Circuit Court, Riemer sat in the gallery as a judge heard arguments from both sides. The judge told the attorneys he expects to rule within the next 50 days.

If the judge decides in their favor, Riemer said, Shepherd’s Watch will move immediately to take possession of the building and work on needed renovations in order to house the nonprofit’s food pantry services, offer child care to local families and begin preparations for private schooling. They already have a purchase agreement by which Shepherd’s Watch would buy the building from Mattoon for $1.

“There’s a lot of stuff we would do,” Riemer said. “There are so many families in need.”

The specific legal dispute hinges on whether the school district or the village owns the building. When Shepherd’s Watch first initiated the purchase, they learned that the school district didn’t possess the deed for the school building. The Antigo district has operated the school since the early 1960s. But Mattoon’s attorneys point out that the land was originally purchased by the municipality.

In court, school district attorney Ryan Simatic argued that it is both a matter of law and of “common sense” that the school district owns the school building. The district took it over after a 1962 consolidation that led Mattoon to become part of the Antigo district, and the district maintained the building for nearly 50 years.

“If that’s not evidence of an agreement,” Simatic told the judge, “I don’t know what is.”

Mattoon’s attorneys, including lawyers from the conservative group Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL), argue that there was no transfer agreement out of the 1962 consolidation, and no deed that says the district owns the building. But they also argued that there are no other prospective buyers for the building, and it’s not right to leave the building unused.

“This is no longer a school building,” said WILL attorney Donald Daugherty. “This is an empty building, sitting in Mattoon unused. It’s been sitting there for four, going on five years, at a cost to the Antigo School District taxpayers of $25,000 to $30,000 per year to maintain. A school building obviously should be used as a school.”

It’s been common in the last decade for cash-strapped school districts across Wisconsin to close rural schools and seek to consolidate them with other elementary schools. But it’s not just rural schools. In an interview, Daugherty said Milwaukee Public Schools has also sought to block the purchase of closed elementary school buildings by private schools.

“They don’t want to let (private schools) have a chance,” Daugherty said. “They’re afraid of the competition or something. … That’s something we just don’t think is right.”

School districts receive state funding based on enrollment numbers, which means students who choose to enroll in private schools or neighboring school districts result in fewer dollars in state allotments.

Unified School District of Antigo Superintendent Julie Sprague declined to comment on the case, saying the district would wait for the judge’s decision. Daugherty said Mattoon and Shepherd’s Watch would likely appeal if the judge finds the building belongs to the district.

Riemer said he has been confident all along that, eventually, the former Mattoon Elementary School will be the home of Shepherd’s Watch.

“My goal and hope is that we all work together in the end,” Riemer said. “Antigo School District, they’re good people, too. … We just have a difference of opinion. But it can be resolved.”