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Judge: School District Can Stop Sale Of Vacant Rural School To Christian Nonprofit

Nonprofit Shepherd's Watch Sought To Turn School Into Community Center, 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 vacant elementary school in rural central Wisconsin won’t be turned into a Christian private school following a judge’s ruling on Wednesday that the area school district can block the sale of the empty building.

The former Mattoon Elementary School has been the subject of a protracted court battle between the Unified School District of Antigo and the religious nonprofit Shepherd’s Watch. After the district closed the school in 2016, Shepherd’s Watch sought to purchase the building in order to turn it into a community center and religious school. The district said it would agree to the sale on the condition that the building not be used as a school of any kind.

That dispute devolved into a legal case in which both the Antigo district and the village of Mattoon claimed to own the building.

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Had Shawano County Judge William Kussel ruled that Mattoon was the building’s rightful owner, the village was prepared to sell it to Shepherd’s Watch for $1 to allow the nonprofit to proceed with its plans. But the judge ruled that the Antigo School District owns the building, which means they can set conditions on its sale.

“It was ASD who did possess the school, who expanded the school (and) maintained the school for 58 years,” Kussel said. “It was ASD who endured the burden for such actions, and it would be inequitable for the plaintiff to receive title to said property.”

Shepherd’s Watch was represented in court by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a Milwaukee-based conservative advocacy group. Attorney Don Daugherty said in a statement that they were “disappointed” by the outcome and would consider an appeal.

“We intend to consult with our clients about next steps,” Daugherty said. “But the fight for local, quality education options in rural Wisconsin is far from over.”

The closure in 2016 of a school site that had operated since 1898 came after a contentious battle between Mattoon parents and Antigo administrators. Some families in the village have chosen to enroll their children in neighboring school districts; some students face hour-long bus rides to and from school, a common problem in rural districts where closure and consolidation of schools is a long-term trend.

But the nature of the dispute between Shepherd’s Watch and the school district has similarities to some urban conflicts as well. Milwaukee Public Schools also blocked private schools from purchasing its vacant buildings. In response to those conflicts, Republican legislators in 2015 passed a law intended to compel the district to sell the buildings. WILL and some lawmakers have questioned whether the district is complying with that law.

Antigo administrators have declined to comment on the case. After a January hearing, Daugherty said that a ruling for the district would be mean the district would have to continue to pay tens of thousands of dollars for maintenance of the vacant building, with no public benefit to show for it.

“It’s going to be a blight on Mattoon,” Daugherty said. “Nobody wants to buy it other than Shepherd’s Watch, because Shepherd’s Watch wants to have a school there. So it’s just going to sit there vacant, for God only knows how long.”