The Winona public school district could collect damages from Gretchen Michlitsch, a member of the Save Our Schools committee, in its slander of title lawsuit against the group if a judge rules in favor of the district’s case, according to court documents.

Michlitsch was unavailable for comment at press time.

Gretchen Michlitsch mug

Gretchen Michlitsch

Save Our Schools representative Doug Salzmann said that if the district pursues payment from Michlitsch individually, it is another example of the “relentless hostility” toward citizens who take issue with recent actions by the school district.

“The District’s attempt to make Dr. Michlitsch personally liable for ‘damages’ it has conjured out of thin air is not only legally flawed, it is mean-spirited and reckless in the extreme,” Salzmann wrote in an email Tuesday.

Attorneys for the district and for Save Our Schools met in Winona County Court on May 15 to begin litigating the suit, in which WAPS is alleging that Save Our Schools did not have legal grounds to attach a notice of pending litigation to the titles of Madison and Rollingstone schools.

The district is seeking summary judgment, meaning it would be decided without a jury trial.

Judge Matthew Opat directed attorneys from both parties to write up an order granting or denying summary judgment that he would review within 90 days.

In the school district’s proposed order, attorney Joseph Langel posed Michlitsch as an individual co-defendant, claiming she was “the only member of the association who was properly served,” according to the document.

Superintendent Rich Dahman did not answer specific questions but instead provided his own statement on the matter via email.

“As a member of SOS, Gretchen Michlitsch has always been a defendant in this case,” Dahman wrote Tuesday. “Ms. Michlitsch was served the Slander of Title papers back on December 14, 2018, because an individual has to be served the papers and she has identified herself repeatedly as a member of SOS.”

The idea of collecting damages from individual Save Our Schools representatives arose at the May hearing when Opat asked Langel how he planned to collect payment for damages, given that the SOS group is an unincorporated association with little collective property.

But the proposed order from the school district notes that judgments against an unincorporated association are also binding on the individual property of any members who were served.

“The record indicates that this lawsuit was properly served upon Michlitsch,” the proposed order reads. “Therefore, the monetary judgment awarded in this case will also be binding upon the property of Michlitsch individually.”

Neither order means anything in a concrete sense until Opat reviews them and decides whether to grant summary judgment, an action granted when there is no dispute over the material facts of the case. In a slander of title suit, those consist of the following:

  • A false statement concerning the real property owned by the plaintiff
  • The false statement was published to others
  • The false statement was published maliciously
  • The publication of the false statement caused the plaintiff loss in the form of special damages

Langel asserts those damages come in the form of attorneys’ fees incurred during the court battle. Attorney Michael Bernatz, who represents plaintiff Rollingstone MC Properties, which joined onto the suit after its filing, said his client could not sell Rollingstone school as fast as he sought to because of the notice of pending litigation.

The school board will not need to approve the addition of Michlitsch as a defendant should Opat grant summary judgment, according to board chair Nancy Denzer.

Opat is expected to rule on whether to grant the school district’s motion for summary judgment in mid-September.

If he does not grant it, the case will go to a jury trial.

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Madeline Heim covers K-12 & higher education in Winona. A 2018 graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she previously interned at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the suburban community arm of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

(6) comments


Yeah, who pays? Seems to me a board member should know...but then...maybe not and illustrates a problem. I know Stuart would have known!


DE opinion; not facts is same thing at issue with SOS action...so who pays WAPS for its costs...if WAPS again escapes the accusation?

Don Evanson

This litigation, initiated by the Winona School District, ISD 861, serves to confirm that its School Board is collectively "nuts", and raises credibility questions regarding its legal counsel.


Hawk, no doubt. Figured the referendum moola would end up as legal fees, or a lot of it. Thing is, I wonder, SOS sues WAPS, pays it fees; WAPS responds, which side ends up paying court and lawyers...SOS as prosecutor or WAPS as defender? Or, are financials completely dependant on win/lose? Tax money comes from us and if used for fees etc, we should know and exact total expense...etc. Seems to me. Never thought SOS had much of a case here...sort of Trump-like whimsy to me.


Interesting! So, SOS takes our money (WAPS) to court...find...who pays WAPS costs???no one wants to respond...third time question posted.


Here's your answer: The district's insurance paid the legal fees for the SOS appeal of the closure ruling. The District is paying the legal fees to sue SOS, directly from tax money. And those fees are almost certainly much higher than Dahman says they are.

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