Local Views: Stillwater School Board Should Focus on Teacher-Student Experience, Not Buildings and Real Estate

Public education is its own unique business, but as a physician, I can’t help but compare it to healthcare.

In many ways, education and healthcare are similar.  Students and families are consumers for education services. Patients are consumers for healthcare services. The key element in education is the interaction between teacher and student. In healthcare it’s the provider-patient relationship. When resources are directed toward preserving the quality of these essential interactions, education and healthcare can provide excellent service.

Over the last 20 years, I’ve seen multiple examples of clinics and hospitals deteriorate due to poor leadership ignoring the importance of the provider-patient experience. Unfortunately, the same thing is happening with our public education system in Stillwater. Our community has been very generous to the school district. We approved the last levy and bond for tens of millions of dollars, believing the district would invest those dollars to enhance the teacher—student experience. The district has betrayed that trust.

Most agree that Withrow, Marine, and Oak Park provided years of excellent education for our children. The board majority decided to close those schools. This decision has negatively impacted the remaining schools and forced families to choose educational opportunities outside the district.

This exodus will continue next year. For years, teachers and parents have been begging for smaller classrooms with no real administrative support. Bond dollars earmarked for safer playgrounds have been diverted elsewhere. Parents from Andersen Elementary are reporting alarming safety concerns in their children’s classrooms. Promised behavioral student support never materialized.

Administration has already proposed increasing the size of many of their classrooms for next year; a decision that will likely worsen their current situation.

At last week’s board meeting, Directors O’Loughlin and Pelletier spoke at length about the pressing need to invest over $6 million in a new bus terminal to protect the safety of non-employed bus drivers and mechanics. Not once did they express a similar financial commitment toward the safety of our children.

Where are they spending our money?

The vast majority was spent expanding the high school facility, upgrading the athletic fields and concession area, and building a brand new elementary school. Just last night, this board majority voted to approve $6.5 million to park, maintain, and repair buses we don’t own. Only $3.5 million was allocated in the bond for this purpose.  In fact, the Long-Range Facility Planning Committee didn’t recommend a bus terminal in their final report. The Review and Comment application to MDE clearly described the bus terminal as an “optional” item. No one in the community asked for it other than current board member George Hoeppner. But, the board majority just doubled the amount of this optional item.

How has this board majority invested in the teacher-student experience? They’ve closed excellent schools, reneged on providing student support services, planned on increasing class sizes, withheld bond dollars for safer playgrounds, and committed millions of dollars towards bus driver and mechanic safety over the safety of our children.

Our board majority are actively decimating the teacher-student experience. They’ve prioritized spending on building and real estate at the expense of our children’s education. I urge everyone in our community to pay attention, get involved, and vote to turn this train wreck around.