PAXTON — The attorney for a Paxton resident trying to prevent the demolition of a historic local school building said that on Monday — the day demolition is expected to begin — he will appeal a Ford County judge’s denial of a temporary restraining order prohibiting the project.
In a slightly heated exchange following Judge Matt Fitton’s ruling Friday, Chicago attorney Robert Minetz told Fitton that he would be filing the appeal in the Illinois Appellate Court’s 4th District, prompting the Paxton-Buckley-Loda school district’s attorney, J. Christian Miller of Monticello, to threaten that he would be filing a motion for sanctions against Minetz.
“The building is being torn down Monday,” Miller said emphatically before leaving the courtroom.
Minetz filed a complaint for injunctive relief on Oct. 25 in Ford County Circuit Court on behalf of his daughter Jolen Anya Minetz, who has spent months trying to persuade the school district to postpone or cancel the demolition of the former PBL Eastlawn School building. The complaint sought the granting of a temporary restraining order prohibiting the district from tearing down the 94-year-old building at 341 E. Center St. in Paxton.
The complaint claimed that a referendum that voters narrowly approved in November 2016 — which authorized the school 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.
The complaint 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, the complaint said, there were five questions in a single proposition.
In court Friday, Miller 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 response filed by Miller on behalf of the school district on Oct. 31, Miller argued 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 said asbestos abatement is complete at Eastlawn, and all utilities have been shut off. Also, the building’s interior has 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.
In court Friday, Miller argued the same points — and Fitton agreed in siding with the school district.
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.
The board, however, indicated it would not reconsider the demolition plans.