Open Letter to the Stillwater School Board on BOLD: ‘I’ve Been Quiet Long Enough’

At lunch I happened to catch Superintendent Denise Pontrelli’s MPR interview. If not familiar with the fiasco in the Valley my impression would have been Denise did a nice job – well-spoken and articulate.

If one has an even passing understanding of the turmoil this has caused, the segment made your stomach twist in knots. Spin doctoring and answers without specifics is one thing, but complete falsehoods is not acceptable.

Two items before a stream of thought:

  1. My family is not impacted. We have no children in ISD 834. We transferred our four children to St. Croix Prep.
  2. We do have a stake in the outcome. We love Stillwater. We have lived here 19 years. We are taxpayers – and up until BOLD rollout had been strong supporters of ISD 834 bond and levy requests.

FYI – Our 2016 Washington County property tax includes $1,595.01 for “ISD 834 Stillwater Levies.”

As you are aware, St. Croix Prep is a separate school district (ISD 4120). Not one cent of the $1,595 we will pay in levies this year will go toward the school my children attend.

From the interview, these are examples of items that drive me nuts, and erodes confidence and trust:

A. Schools in the northern portion of the district have declining enrollment. FALSE!

The only data I have seen is from the demographer you hired. According to Hazel H. Reinhardt 2/26/2014 report District #834 Enrollment Projections.  Chapter 2.  Marine, Withrow and Oak Park have INCREASED enrollment during the past half-decade vs. decline in enrollment for all ISD #834 elementary schools.  Quotes from Chapter 2:  “Since 2009-10, K-6 enrollment decreased by -44 students or -1.0 percent.”  Rutherford, Lily Lake, Lake Elmo and Andersen all had declines.

“Oak Park Elementary School experienced the largest increase (+58).” Marine (+8) and Withrow (+13) also posted increases.”

Using data from Chapter 2’s Enrollment Grades K-6 table, below is the percent increase in students at each school BOLD proposes to close, from the earliest school year in the table (09/10), to the latest school year presented (13/14)

  • Marine:  Increased 6.3%
  • Oak Park:  Increased 14.1%
  • Withrow:  Increased 8.8%

B. Not only increasing enrollment, but these three schools have some of the highest alternate enrollment statistics in the state!

Referencing data from the MN report card 2015 (http://rc.education.state.mn.us/ ), these three schools have the highest inter-district alternative student enrollment rates in ISD 834.  227 students were alternate enrolled into Marine, Withrow and Oak Park because their parents felt these schools gave their children the best chance of thriving.

This number includes 62 children outside #834 chose to open enroll because their parents felt our three schools were superior to their designated school.

C. “….just don’t have the funding to support 200 student schools.”

SERIOUSLY?

  1. The $1.26M in “potential” savings is approx. 1.3% of ISD 834’s operating expenditures. A rounding error.
  2. ISD 834 has excess fund balance over $11 million. From the closing 10 minutes of your January 7 meeting: Last year’s 5% Fund balance target was exceeded by 6.2%, You reached an 11.2% Fund balance.
  3. You are spending $7.9 million to provide nicer athletic facilities at the high school.
  4. District passed a $11 million a year levy in 2013 and a $97.5 million bond last year.

D. “…. families left the district due to high class sizes or access to resources”.  As a categorical statement this is FALSE, FALSE, FALSE!

When families within district boundaries open enroll elsewhere, the No. 1 school they move to is St. Croix Prep. 1,200 children are enrolled there, and it certainly is not because of smaller class sizes or access to more resources. My wife (Cathy) and I moved our children from zoned elementary school (Lily Lake) to Marine in mid 2000’s, and then from Stillwater Junior High to St. Croix Prep between 2008 and 2012.

Advantages Stillwater ISD 834 has over St. Croix Prep ISD 4120

  1. On average ISD 834 has smaller class sizes. Every grade K-9 now has a waiting list at SCPA, and each class room is filled with at least 30 kids.
  2. Non-curricular programming:  Many more activities available at Stillwater (i.e. number of sports, intramurals, arts, clubs, etc.)
  3. Course programs:  Much wider and deeper variety of class offerings i.e. SCPA only offers two language options (including Latin – a dead language!).
  4. SCPA does not have business class, Agriscience, computer programming, engineering type classes, shop or fabrication classes, etc.

Where is the support for BOLD?

Local Businesses?: As you are aware, there is a list of more than 100 businesses that support Save Our Schools / Stop Bold Cold. Most have statements on their Facebook sites and/or signs in front of their businesses.

I have not seen a single business publicly support the BOLD plan. If that last sentence is incorrect, please let me know if businesses are supporting.

Government?: As you are aware, a large number of law makers, government agencies and elected officials have penned letters and resolutions opposing BOLD. I list the ones I am aware of at end of this bullet.

I have not heard of a single elected official or government agency stating support for BOLD. If my last sentence is wrong, please correct.

Partial list of government officials in direct disagreement with BOLD, or in disagreement on process: Senator Karin Housley, Representatives Bob Dettmer, Representative Kathy Lohmer, Stillwater Mayor Ted Kozlowski, Oak Park Heights Mayor Mary McComber, Hugo Mayor Tom Weidt, Washington County Commissioner Fran Miron, the May Township Board, as well as strongly worded resolutions from the following cities: Oak Park Heights, City of Marine, Baytown Township and May Township.

THE PEOPLE OF THE DISTRICT?: I am sad to admit this, but I have lost so much trust in the administration that when I heard Morris Leatherman Company and a facilitator group had been hired I was certain the results released to the public would be pro BOLD. When I read the process of each participating person selected by the administration and the meetings will not be open to the public I immediately thought of a Hans Christian Andersen tale (The Emperor’s New Clothes).

From the district’s website “individual feedback will remain confidential; however, a summary of the information gathered during the focus group will be shared with board members prior to their vote on BOLD.”

I work for 3M and have a lot of experience with focus groups and gathering broad-based opinions to make business decisions – this process seemed analogous to the Emperor hiring the weavers who made his invisible clothes to write a report on how well his subjects like his new outfit. However, I was wrong.

Results as posted on the district’s website:

  1. Survey RESPONSE RATE:  97% (extremely high – engaged public)
  2. Survey AWARENESS OF BOLD:  94% (parents) and 84% (all residents)
  3. Survey support or oppose BOLD:  57% Oppose or strongly oppose BOLD vs. 37% support or strongly support (all residents)

If this was an election it would be summarized as very engaged public, very high turnout and a 20% landslide victory for Oppose BOLD (57% to 37%)

Final thoughts:

Ms. Pontrelli – I have sympathy for the situation you are in. I speculate you expected resistance to BOLD, but I cannot image you anticipated this level of public backlash.

The opposition is widespread. I realize you do not live in our community, and guessing you do not spend much time in our local restaurants, grocery stores, other businesses, parks and churches.

You may not fully realize the extent of emotion and anger over BOLD. If BOLD happens to pass March 3, the uproar will be loud – and once border changes are announced, and subsequent school change notices communicated with parents, will get even louder.

As an outsider looking in, your best chance of healing this community is to announce BOLD is dead, and engage the opposition groups to formulate a plan that has consensus.

A true leader recognizes when a mistake has been made and changes course.

School Board – I realize you unanimously voted to hire Ms. Pontrelli, and feel an obligation to support her administration and proposed initiatives. I realize we have churned through a number of superintendents over the past decade, and there must be a desire to enhance leadership continuity.

However, even if you felt in your heart BOLD was a great plan for our district, I cannot imagine how one could conclude it should move forward.

You all must realize that we have only enraged the tip of the iceberg, i.e. the families directly involved in school closings (Withrow, Marine and Oak Park), plus those civic leaders and parent early adopters that deeply care about our district outside of those communities.

A leader needs to see around corners. What do you think the reaction will be if BOLD passes, we enter into litigation, border boundary changes are communicated, and the press jumps on simple shock tactics like the amount of money we are spending on astroturf for the football stadium?

Please fill the leadership vacuum on this issue. Our community is too important.