The Stillwater School District BOLD plan proposes to close three high performing smaller elementary schools in order to achieve savings, which will ostensibly be used for improvements elsewhere in the district.
Understandably, the plan has fired up a contentious community debate and emotions are flaring. At the core of all this rancor is the difficult circumstance that charter schools can sometimes create for our public schools.
In 2004, St. Croix Prep Academy, a charter school, was formed within the Stillwater district boundaries. Since then it has drawn some 1,100 students out of Stillwater’s public schools, which equates to about 10% of the total school age population in the district.
Charter schools are an innovative solution for communities who have a desire to create an educational experience for children that is perceived to be better than what is being offered in public schools. It makes sense to infuse some capitalist energy into the mix. Ideally, the charter schools remain stable and provide new options, and public schools are compelled to improve or expand what they are providing in order to compete.
The difficulty is when public schools don’t rise to the challenge.
Charter schools take valuable families and students away from public schools, and education funding goes with them. This makes it even more difficult for schools to be creative about improvements which might compel students to remain in or return to their local schools.
In Stillwater, this 10% drop in enrollment caused a severe financial drain in the district budget. Many cuts were made over the past ten years, which resulted in a strained academic atmosphere.
Public schools are required by law to provide space for every child who resides in the district. Because charter schools are experimental by nature, they have been notoriously unstable. Many close just a few years after they are formed.
Public schools are always the reliable back up.
Stillwater school district residents approved a $97 million bond last May to add on to the high school, making room for the 9th grade expansion and to transform the jr. high schools into middle schools, which include 6th grade.
The main reason for this is that many of the elementary schools are too full, and this is the most cost effective way to make more room for our younger students. A new elementary school is also being built to replace Valley Crossing Elementary because it is a growing community, and more space is needed.
In addition, some of the space in the elementary schools created by the vacated 6th grade classes will be used for preschools, an expansion of services that will also be attractive to incoming younger families.
All of these ideas have had wide community support. Because of these improvements, as well as science classroom upgrades and technology investments, and enhancements to our athletic fields and buildings, enrollments will likely improve. The district is poised to be better than ever.
If the Marine, Withrow and Oak Park Elementary Schools are closed, in terms of space, the district elementary schools will again be too full. There will be no room for growth.
The superintendent has even gone so far as to publicly encourage an independent group of parents to establish another charter school to make up for the loss of one of the elementary schools.
Stillwater School District can’t afford to lose any more students to charter schools. By keeping all of the public schools open there would be room to grow, which is exactly what will happen because the momentum is building for positive change in Stillwater Public Schools, and the whole community is driving it
It is imperative that the school board vote no on the BOLD proposal. It is time for the district and community to work together for better times ahead.