PAXTON — With the Paxton-Buckley-Loda school district’s superintendent and current and former school board members there to witness it, workers began tearing down the historic PBL Eastlawn School building Monday morning.
Shortly before 9 a.m., a crew from Paxton-based Lee Farms Excavating used a high hoe to tear down a portion of the 94-year-old brick building’s northwest corner, leaving a gaping hole in an area near what used to be its cafeteria.
To some Paxton residents, the destruction marked a welcome end to an old building that had run its course. To others, though, it was a sad sight that could have — and should have — been prevented.
“This is so sad to me, because it’s a blatant disregard for the value of history and architecture in our local community,” said Jolen Anya Minetz, who has spent months trying to persuade the school district to postpone or cancel its demolition plans. “This building is eligible for (inclusion in) the National Register of Historic Places; it is a sad day to see how poorly the meaning of that honored designation has been treated.”
As the razing got under way, Minetz’s father — Chicago attorney Robert Minetz — filed on his daughter’s behalf an emergency motion for a temporary restraining order (TRO) in the Illinois Appellate Court’s 4th District, seeking to prohibit the school district from proceeding with demolition of the building at 341 E. Center St.
The filing of the appeal followed Friday’s ruling by Ford County Judge Matt Fitton to deny a previously filed petition for a TRO.
If the appellate court accepts the motion for a TRO, it could order the school district to temporarily stop demolition until a hearing is held. However, no court order had been issued as of mid-afternoon Monday, as demolition continued.
PBL Superintendent Cliff McClure declined to comment on the appeal.
“I have no comment on pending litigation,” McClure said.
In Ford County Circuit Court on Friday, the school district’s attorney, J. Christian Miller of Monticello, characterized the court case as “a political dispute,” adding that “this is not a legal dispute whatsoever. ... This is a red herring.”
“This is a waste of the court’s time and taxpayers’ money,” Miller added.
In a slightly heated exchange following Friday’s ruling, Robert Minetz told Fitton that he would be filing the appeal, prompting Miller to threaten that he would be filing a motion for sanctions against Robert Minetz.
“The building is being torn down Monday,” Miller said emphatically before leaving the courtroom.
Taxpayers should be ‘appalled’
The PBL Eastlawn School building — which formerly served as Paxton Community High School — was designed by renowned architect Joseph William Royer, who also designed the Ford County Courthouse. Earlier this year, the State Historic Preservation Office determined it to be eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places.
Jolen Anya Minetz began attending school board meetings this past spring to ask that the board postpone or cancel its plans to tear down the Eastlawn building. She said she believed the school district should first try to sell the building before resorting to tearing it down. She even presented a proposal for its reuse by the community.
The board, however, indicated last summer it would not reconsider the demolition plans.
On Monday, Jolen Anya Minetz was clearly frustrated.
“We have presented arguments on multiple occasions as to how this building could have benefited our community in myriad ways, with sound reasoning for economic, cultural and environmental benefits,” she said. “The taxpayers of this community should be appalled.”
Illegal referendum alleged
In his appeal, Robert Minetz claimed, as he did in his earlier petition for a TRO, that a referendum that voters narrowly approved in November 2016 — authorizing the district to issue building bonds to tear down the building — was illegal because, among other reasons, “it denied the voters the ability to choose some projects and reject some other projects.”
The referendum asked for voters’ approval to issue bonds totaling $31.4 million to fund the demolition of Eastlawn, build a two-story addition to Clara Peterson Elementary School and renovate the existing Clara Peterson Elementary School building as well as PBL High School.
Robert Minetz said the referendum appears to have violated the Illinois Election Code, which generally allows “not more than three public questions” to be submitted to the voters of a political subdivision on a single election ballot. In this case, there were five questions in a single proposition, Robert Minetz said.
In a response filed by Miller on behalf of the school district on Oct. 31, Miller argued — as he did in court Friday — that the plaintiff’s complaint failed to meet the requirements for a temporary restraining order for three reasons:
— The plaintiff failed to “articulate her certain or clear right to the continued existence of Eastlawn Elementary School or how she will suffer (irreparable harm) if it is demolished.”
— The plaintiff failed to establish that she has “no adequate remedy at law.” Miller argued the plaintiff, in the last three years, did indeed have an “adequate remedy at law” to contest the results of the election via procedures in the state’s Election Code and School Code.
— And the plaintiff “has no likelihood of success on the merits of her claims as the results of the referendum have no bearing on the authority granted to (the school district) to demolish Eastlawn.”
Miller pointed out that under the School Code, the school district did not require the referendum to obtain “legal authority” to tear down Eastlawn; he said the district only needed to include the demolition project in the referendum “in order to use bond proceeds” to fund that project.
Miller also noted that all of the projects described in the ballot question related to “a single, cohesive capital and finance plan designed to meet the building needs of the district as a whole,” adding that the state’s constitution “does not require that the financing of each part of a building program be submitted as a separate proposition. Thus, combining multiple, related projects in the same proposition is permissible and directly supported by Illinois case law.”
“The fact that a proposition contains more than one question does not make it constitutionally defective,” Miller wrote, citing case law. “While a proposition that combines separate and unrelated purposes is impermissible, a proposition that combines more than one purpose is valid so long as those purposes are directly related to a single purpose. ...
“The district’s building projects at Clara Peterson were designed to provide new facilities for district students, rendering Eastlawn unnecessary for educational purposes. The projects described in the proposition are clearly related to a single, cohesive capital plan, designed to meet the facility needs of the district as a whole.”
Miller also argued that the plaintiff “has demonstrated a complete lack of diligence in bringing her claims.” Miller noted that the plaintiff waited until Oct. 25 to file the petition in court — nearly three years after the referendum was held.
Miller noted that asbestos abatement was complete as of last week at Eastlawn, and all utilities had been shut off. Also, the building’s interior had been “stripped of much of its flooring, fixtures and anything of value.”
Miller said that as of Oct. 1, contractors had already been paid $384,256 for the work.
“Granting the plaintiff’s request will prejudice the district and will waste limited government funds at a time when (1) the district has already made critical decisions and expended significant resources executing its capital plan, (2) the district has already contracted for and begun the demolition of Eastlawn and (3) no entity has proposed to purchase or maintain Eastlawn,” Miller wrote.
Back to the appeal
In the appeal filed Monday, Robert Minetz contended that Fitton “erroneously” ruled in the school district’s favor.
Robert Minetz said that Fitton, instead of deciding “disputed facts or rights” at Friday’s hearing, should have “preserved the status quo until there can be a hearing on the (petition’s) merits.” As he did in court Friday, Robert Minetz cited an appellate court’s ruling in a similar case to back up his argument.
Robert Minetz also said that Fitton “erroneously held that the petitioner did not establish the requisite irreparable damage.” He said Fitton ignored precedent set by an appellate court in a similar case that indicated “damage to the character” of an area can be considered “irreparable.”
Robert Minetz also said that Fitton “erroneously held that the motion for a (TRO) should be denied because the petitioner failed to establish a likelihood of success on the merits.” For two reasons, he said, Fitton’s ruling was contrary to the law: (1) The petitioner was not required to establish a likelihood of success on the merits because this case involves the destruction of property and (2) “the petitioner met her burden of showing that she raised a fair question about the existence of her right.”
Robert Minetz cited previous rulings supporting his argument, including:
— A ruling that said “an exception to the necessity of establishing (the likelihood of prevailing on the merits) occurs when the property at issue may be destroyed ...”
— And a ruling that said “the party seeking relief is not required to make out its entire case that would entitle it to relief on the merits; rather, it need show only that it raises a ‘fair question’ about the existence of its right and that the court should preserve the status quo until the case can be decided on the merits.”
Robert Minetz also argued that in this case, “there is no evidence that the (school district) would have suffered any detriment if a (TRO) was entered.” In contrast, “the petitioners and others will suffer the loss of a historic, priceless piece of property because the (TRO) was not entered.” With that said, “the equities” favor the plaintiff, not the school district, he argued.
Robert Minetz also argued that Fitton, in making his ruling, relied on case law that involved a referendum governed by the School Code, while the referendum in question in this case was governed by the Election Code. Moreover, he said, the case law cited by the school district “did not address the three infirmities in (PBL’s) referendum.”
“Accordingly, the petitioner urges this court to apply the previously cited Illinois law based on the Election Code,” he wrote. “If there is a conflict between the Election Code and the School Code, that conflict should be resolved at a hearing on the merits.”