Public Hearings for Stillwater’s Controversial BOLD Proposal Start Tonight at Oak-Land Junior High

The first of three what are sure to be heated public hearings this week about Stillwater Area Public Schools’ controversial BOLD proposal will begin at 5 p.m., Tuesday in the auditorium of Oak-Land Junior High School in Lake Elmo.

The other two are slated to begin at 5 p.m. on Wednesday and Thursday at the same location.

The Stillwater Area school district first unveiled their BOLD plan to close Withrow, Marine and Oak Park elementary schools during a board workshop on Dec. 17. A formal proposal to close Withrow, Marine and Oak Park elementary schools was brought forth on Jan. 7, and the board is expected to vote on the plan on Feb. 11.

In addition to the closure of three of the district’s 10 elementary schools, the plan will also require school boundaries to be redrawn throughout the district for the 2017-18 school year, potentially impacting all families in Stillwater Area Public Schools.

If BOLD passes, students from Withrow and Marine would likely be reassigned to Stonebridge and Rutherford, according to the district. Students from Oak Park would likely move to Lily Lake, Andersen, with Gifted and Talented students being moved to Stillwater Junior High School and the autism program would be relocated to Rutherford.

If BOLD passes, students from Andersen, Lily Lake, Rutherford and Stonebridge may also be moved to balance enrollment. An attendance boundary would be created for the new elementary school in Woodbury and would impact students from Afton-Lakeland, Lake Elmo and Valley Crossing.

Middle school boundaries will also be adjusted.

The BOLD proposal to close two schools in the district’s north end — Marine and Withrow — and one in the central area of the district — Oak Park — immediately provoked the ire of parents and community members.

“A furious confrontation between the Stillwater school district and parents is roiling the district’s plan to shutter two highly ranked elementary schools,” Kevin Giles of the Star Tribune reported this week. “Opponents say closing Marine on St. Croix’s only elementary school and another rural school, Withrow Elementary in Hugo, would rip the heart out of those communities and force an exodus to charter schools.”

StopBoldCold, a group who opposes the BOLD proposal, disagrees with the district’s plan on a variety of levels including the projected savings closing three schools would actually bring the district; the data being presented in support of the district’s plan; the timing of the proposal; the communications around the proposal, district transparency and the overall process, or the lack thereof.

In a few short weeks, the StopBoldCold group has gained more than 2,100 signatures on a petition requesting a “no” vote to the proposal on Feb. 11, flooded the school board and district staff with emails, dug into the district’s numbers and data and laid out arguments refuting it, worked on drafting ideas for alternative proposals to BOLD, and in the process, caught the ear of state lawmakers and many locally elected officials across the area.

Opponents say the district passed a $11 million a year levy in 2013 and a $97.5 million bond in 2015 with the understanding — and promise from district administration — that schools would not close.

But Stillwater Area Public Schools Superintendent Denise Pontrelli Pontrelli disputes that, saying the district never promised it wouldn’t close schools.

“When the levy was passed in 2013, we knew we’d have to continue to find efficiencies in the system,” the district’s website reads. “We knew that district leaders would need to find money within the system to pay for Bridge to Excellence and other initiatives – about $1.3 million annually. “We haven’t done that yet.”

Nevertheless, “people feel like this was a bait and switch,” Sen. Karin Housley recently said. “They feel duped.”

Opponents of the plan also feel like they’re not being heard.

“We had a two hour meeting where many questions were asked, but few answers were given,” Sen. Karin Housley and Reps. Bob Dettmer and Kathy Lohmer recently wrote in a letter to the school board. “The sense was that the decision to close these schools had already been made. As elected representatives, we all have a responsibility to give our constituents a voice by listening when they speak up. We are concerned that the message being interpreted by parents is that the school board simply wants to divide and conquer.

An individual school is not only a tremendous benefit to a neighborhood but to the community as well. Before the decision is made to close three of them we would strongly encourage extending this process and creating a broader timeline that would allow the voices of Stillwater residents to be heard before a final decision is made.”

In addition to the valley’s three state representatives, Stillwater Mayor Ted Kozlowski, Oak Park Heights Mayor Mary McComber, Hugo Mayor Tom Weidt, the May Township Board and Washington County Commissioner Fran Miron have all asked that the board consider slowing down the process and allow for more public feedback.

“When you work in public service, you work to gain the public trust, and that trust is gained through actions,” Miron told the Stillwater Gazette. “That process, when it is not followed, is a breakdown in trust for all government.”

According to the Stillwater Gazette:

“While (Miron) said he understands it is a difficult decision in front of the ISD 834 school board, Miron fears that not allowing what he considers a proper process for the public to receive information and form their own opinions can alienate people who want to provide input.

“What I hear,” Miron said, “is a cry to extend the process so that people are heard.”

The district began formulating the BOLD plan this fall, Pontrelli has said, when administrators were asked to study how the district could best utilize its facilities.

Since the proposal was made, a learning session and district presentations to local city councils have been held, but so far, the public has not been allowed to ask questions or speak publicly at any of the meetings.

District leaders believe it is better to invest resources in support and programs for students than it is to pay for empty rooms, Pontrelli said. For more than 20 years enrollment has been declining, but as enrollment has declined the district has not adjusted operations accordingly, instead previous school boards have voted to raise class sizes, cut programs and offer less support to students.

Pontrelli and her team believe the capacity issue will become more pronounced when sixth-graders move to middle school in 2017-18.

“What this is really about is our kids, and programming and opportunities for all kids,” Superintendent Denise Pontrelli said during the most recent board listening session regarding BOLD. “It wasn’t focused on finance. It wasn’t focused on reducing budgets. I don’t want us to lose sight of that (while discussing BOLD). It is about building strong programs and opportunities for all of our kids across the district.”

Well, this week will be the first chance for many parents and community members to publicly tell the Stillwater Area Public School Board whether or not the first-year superintendent’s plan works for them.

“This is a flawed plan,” Lance Cunningham, a Withrow parent said during the StopBoldCold community meeting in December. “We have to make it known to the board that this proposal doesn’t work for us. We don’t agree with the approach, and we want to work with them to find an alternative.’”

The meetings will be recorded, but not broadcast live. People who wish to speak, may sign-up on the night of the meeting. The School Board will not respond to or discuss comments.

While Oak Park, Withrow and Marine will each have its own night for public testimony, speakers do not need to be affiliated with that school community to speak. Any community member is allowed to provide five minutes of testimony for or against the BOLD proposal.

Links:

Final Jan7 Recommendation