FILE - School bus

Shepherd’s Watch, a Mattoon-based Christian community group represented by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL), is now an official party to a legal dispute over ownership of a vacant Mattoon Elementary School building that the group wants to reopen as a private school.

Shepherd’s Watch joins the Village of Mattoon and Town of Hutchins against the Antigo School District, after legal the Shawano County Circuit Court granted a motion to intervene.

“We are pleased that Shepherd’s Watch and its vision for a new school in Mattoon will be represented in this important case,” WILL executive vice president CJ Szafir said in a prepared statement. "This a vital fight, not just for the future of this community, but for rural communities across Wisconsin that deserve quality, local educational options. WILL looks forward to the day when the doors to Mattoon Elementary are open and the classrooms are full again.”

Students in the Antigo School District, a high poverty district in rural northern Wisconsin, post test scores well below the national average, with two out of three not being proficient in English or Math.

Shepherd’s Watch has sought to purchase the vacant school building as a community center, and eventually turn it into a private school that would participate in the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program (WPCP). WPCP, a statewide school voucher program for low-income and middle-class families, was modeled after the successful Milwaukee Parental Choice Program.

Both the Village of Mattoon and Town of Hutchins want to sell the building to Shepherd’s Watch, but the Antigo School District argues they don’t own the building.

On January 21, 2019, the Village of Mattoon and the Town of Hutchins, represented by Husch Blackwell in Milwaukee, filed a lawsuit in Shawano County Circuit Court to obtain a declaration determining ownership of the property. WILL filed a motion to intervene in the lawsuit on behalf of Shepherd’s Watch in April after it entered into a purchase agreement with Mattoon and Hutchins.

“Children in Mattoon deserve a high quality, local school and right now there is nothing,” Szafir said. “Yet the Antigo School District would rather have an empty school building sit empty than sell it to a Christian community group with the hopes of turning it into a private school.”

At one point, the Antigo School District offered to sell the property if Shepherd’s Watch agreed to never become a choice or charter school, a condition to which it could not agree.

“The Antigo School District says they own the building and refuses to sell it unless there is a promise made to not use it for a school,” Anthony LoCoco, deputy counsel on the case, told WSAU radio. “They don’t want the competition of a private school because some children from Mattoon would go to a local elementary school and they would lose funds."

Now that Shepherd’s Watch is a full party to the case, WILL will make legal arguments to the court on their behalf.

The trend of public school districts refusing to sell land occurs statewide, WILL argues. Rather than sell to private or charter schools, school districts choose to leave buildings vacant, costing taxpayers thousands of dollars and reducing educational options for the most disadvantaged students, the group says.

About 40 percent of students in rural or small town Wisconsin school districts are at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level.

According to state Department of Public Instruction data, 71 schools in rural areas of Wisconsin have been closed since 2011. More than half (40) were elementary schools. Antigo closed three rural schools last month and continues to report financial difficulties after voters rejected tax increases in 2011, 2012 and 2016.

Families in rural Mattoon will have to wait for a judge to decide who owns the building. Until then, their only public school option requires their children taking buses for up to 45 minutes each way to attend the closest school in Antigo.