Minnesota Court of Appeals Rules in Favor of Stillwater School District’s Decision to Close 3 Schools

The Minnesota Court of Appeals on Monday morning issued a ruling that the Stillwater Area Board of Education acted within the law when making the decision to close three elementary schools next school year. The Court concluded that the March 3 school closure hearing “afforded a reasonable opportunity for interested parties to testify on the question under consideration,” conformed to the requirements of Minnesota law, and therefore, the Board’s decision to close Withrow, Marine and Oak Park elementary schools the schools is “supported by substantial evidence” in the record. “We appreciate the Court’s consideration of this issue,” a statement from Stillwater Area Public Schools reads. “Our student, staff and families of varying perspectives have remained earnestly and deeply engaged throughout this process, and we are grateful to them. We are looking forward to working along with our communities to continue our transition into the start of the 2017-2018 school year.” Continue Reading →

Stillwater School District’s Insurance Will Cover 3 Legal Challenges to BOLD

The legal challenges to Stillwater Area Public Schools’ BOLD plan that includes the closing of three elementary schools next year won’t cost taxpayers more than $100,000, after all. Insurance will cover the three lawsuits brought against the district by VOICE 834 and Melissa Douglas, according to Stillwater Area Public Schools. The lawsuits were filed in response to the school board’s approval of Superintendent Denise Pontrelli’s BOLD plan that includes the closure of Withrow, Oak Park and Marine elementary schools. The district has said that their insurance does not cover the legal fees relating to the three lawsuits — and that all of the legal expenses would come from the general fund that pays for teachers, support staff, curriculum and other things that directly support students. This week, the district posted this update about legal fees to the district’s “Fact Check” webpage:

Insurance to coverage (sic) a portion of legal costs related to school closure

After an initial denial of coverage by its insurance company, the district has received notice that underwriters have amended and clarified coverage for the three lawsuits related to the closure of schools. Continue Reading →

Washington County Judge Dismisses Lawsuit Against Stillwater Area Public Schools

A Washington County District Court Judge dismissed one of three lawsuits brought against Stillwater Area Public Schools following the approval of the BOLD plan that calls for the closure of three elementary schools. Judge John R. McBride on Tuesday morning issued an order dismissing Melissa Douglas’ writ of mandamus petition to require Stillwater Area Public Schools to improve all nine elementary schools in accordance with the May 12, 2015 bond question approved by voters, or seek new voter approval for a changed purpose. In his order, McBride said the claim in Douglas’ petition that the district must gain voter approval on its plan to close the schools was based on a “misreading of state statute.”

“By electing to close three schools, the district had abandoned a portion of the project authorized by referendum,” McBride wrote in his order. “Minnesota statutes do not require the district to make improvements to facilities that are being closed and projects that have been abandoned. Nor do Minnesota statutes require the district to submit the decision to abandon part of the project to the voters by way of referendum.”

Douglas said she is disappointed in the judge’s decision, and plans to appeal. Continue Reading →

Updated: 8 Candidates File for Stillwater School Board Election

The filing period for three seats on the Stillwater Area Public Schools Board of Education opened on Tuesday. Seats currently held by Kathy Buchholz, Amy Burback and Mike Ptacek are up for election in November. So far, eight candidates have filed affidavits of candidacy, according to Stillwater Area Public School’s website. The filing period is open through Tuesday, Aug. 16. Continue Reading →

Stillwater School Board Meets Amidst Allegations of Closed-Door Meetings and Conflicts of Interest

Tonight’s Stillwater Area School Board meeting will be a doozy. On the heels of a third legal challenge — and an investigative series by KSTP — alleging conflicts of interest and open meeting law violations surrounding the district’s bond deal and the BOLD vote, the Stillwater School Board will meet to consider a resolution to delay all further actions to the BOLD plan by the district and its staff pending the outcome of litigation. 834 Voice, a group of parents and community members opposed to BOLD, brought forth the request to stay all action while litigation plays out in court. The 834 Voice lawsuit filed in district court on April 13 alleges:

The school district illegally closed three schools;

School district leaders violated open meeting laws;

District 834 violated the Minnesota Fair Campaign Practices Act by promising to improve the schools it now plans to close during the bond campaign;

School Board Member Kathy Buchholz and Finance Director Kristen Hoheisel did not disclose conflicts of interest, even though their spouses are employed by architecture and financial firms the district contracts with for construction and financial services related to the bond. Stillwater Area Public Schools Superintendent Denise Pontrelli has denied the allegations, saying the claims “have no merit.”

834 Voice Legal Challenge to Stillwater BOLD

In addition to the most recent legal challenge, Stillwater Area Public Schools have been on the defensive following an investigative series by KSTP. Continue Reading →

Stillwater School Board Will Delay Decision on School Attendance Boundaries

The Stillwater Area School Board  will not vote on attendance boundaries this week. A decision on boundaries was expected to be made during the April 14 school board meeting, according to Community Engagement Manager Carissa Keister, but instead the board will consider a resolution “staying all further actions by the district and its staff under the district’s “BOLD” plan pending resolution of the Court of Appeals.” The request to stay action while litigation plays out in court comes from 834 Voice. If the Board votes to approve the stay resolution, a decision on boundaries and all other BOLD-related planning would be stopped until the Court of Appeals rules on the lawsuit. Read the district’s full news release about their decision to delay voting on boundary changes

The Court of Appeals case is expected to begin in June and school district counsel expects it would be sometime between November 2016 and January 2017 before a decision on the case is made. Continue Reading →

Legal Challenges of BOLD Plan Begin Piling Up for Stillwater Area Public Schools

Stillwater Area Public Schools’ legal team is going to be busy in the months following the Board’s decision to approve Superintendent Denise Pontrelli’s BOLD plan. Stillwater parent group 834 VOICE has filed the first of two expected lawsuits against Stillwater Area Public Schools in an attempt to reverse the BOLD plan to close three Marine, Withrow and Oak Park elementary schools. The 834 VOICE group’s attorney Fritz Knaak on Monday filed a Petition for a Writ of Certiorari with the Minnesota Court of Appeals seeking to reverse the school board’s decision to close the schools. “The certiorari appeal process exists for direct challenges like this one to a school board’s decision to close schools,” Knaak said. “This particular part of the challenge will have the Appeals Court look at the record the Board had in front of it — and decide whether there was enough evidence in it to justify the decision.”

The appeals court will not offer an opinion of the school board’s interpretation of evidence, Knaak said, but it would determine if there was enough “good evidence to show that the closings were both ‘necessary’ and ‘practicable.’”

The court of appeals petition is the first step of a litigation process that 834 VOICE is bringing against Stillwater Area Public Schools. Continue Reading →

Breakdown: Stillwater Schools Initial Boundary Change Proposals

Stillwater Area Public Schools presented four options for elementary and middle school attendance boundaries beginning during the 2017-18 school year. The boundaries are being redrawn after the school board voted to approve BOLD, which in part, closes Withrow, Marine and Oak Park elementary schools in 2017. The district is also planning to open Brookview Elementary School, a new building in Woodbury, moving sixth-graders to middle schools and ninth-graders to the high school. Two of the attendance boundary change options move students from both Withrow and Marine to Stonebridge Elementary School, while the other two options move students at Marine to Stonebridge and students who currently attend Withrow to Rutherford. All four proposals split students currently enrolled at Oak Park Elementary between Lily Lake and Andersen elementary schools. Continue Reading →

Local Views: Where Do We Go From Here?

For 12 weeks, many of us have been asking questions about the BOLD proposal. Despite uncovering one factual error after another, on March 3, a majority of School Board members voted to close Withrow, Marine, and Oak Park Elementary Schools. Board members were presented with a detailed document titled, “Findings of Fact: An Evidenced Based Summary Against the BOLD Proposal.”

Most board members didn’t even acknowledge this document; work that represented countless hours of research. To date, not one question raised in the Findings of Fact has been adequately answered by district administrators. On March 3, almost 50 speakers presented serious concerns about how BOLD would negatively affect their children’s education. Continue Reading →

BOLD’s Next Step: Boundary Changes for All Stillwater Area Elementary and Middle Schools

The Stillwater Area Public Schools Board of Education approved Superintendent Denise Pontrelli’s BOLD proposal Thursday night. The vote means the district will move forward with the closing of Marine, Withrow and Oak Park elementary schools by the 2017-18 school year. But closing three elementary schools is just the start of the Pontrelli’s plan. “This one thing we’re doing (closing three schools) is the first step, it’s not going to ease all of the budget needs that we have,” Pontrelli has said. “We have to look at our athletics and activities. Continue Reading →

Stillwater School Board Votes to Close Marine, Withrow and Oak Park Elementary Schools

The Stillwater Area Public Schools Board of Education in a 5-2 vote approved Superintendent Denise Pontrelli’s BOLD proposal Thursday night. School Board Members Mike Ptacek and Shelley Pearson dissented. The vote means the district will move forward with closing Marine, Withrow and Oak Park elementary schools by the 2017-18 school year. Stillwater Junior High’s auditorium was packed Thursday night for the School Board’s vote on the BOLD proposal.  Here is a video of the BOLD vote:

Stillwater School Board Weighs in on BOLD

Listen to Mike Ptacek’s speech before his no vote on BOLD. Continue Reading →

Open Letter to the School Board: ‘To Move This Fast is Just Not Wise for Anyone Involved’

My name is Deanne Wessel and my husband Don and I have 7 children, 2 of whom we’ve adopted from Ethiopia. All of our children have attended Stillwater schools, and so far 3 of them have graduated from Stillwater Area High School. I write with one great concern regarding the referendum to close our 3 elementary schools: Withrow, Marine and Oak Park. My concern is the speed at which this new referendum has been pushed through. Although it is good that our new Superintendent Denise Pontrelli comes to us with zeal and a fresh vision, it is wrong that she is pushing her agenda along so fast. Continue Reading →

Valley Parents and Community Members Throwing a ‘Celebrate Our Schools Fundraising Party’ on Saturday

The proposed closure of three elementary schools has created a devastating divide in the St. Croix River Valley. Without a doubt, there’s a lot of healing that will need to happen in the coming weeks, months and years ahead. A group of  parents and community members of School District 834 are hosting a fundraising event on to show support for our local schools that have been proposed to be closed by the BOLD Proposal from 4-8:30 p.m., Saturday, March 5 at the Withrow Ballroom and Event Center. “This is a gathering for all schools, all community members, all ages to come together and celebrate the strong community we have,” said Laurel Anderson, a parent organizer of the Celebrate Our Schools Fundraising Party. Continue Reading →

Document: Stillwater BOLD Focus Groups Full Report

Stillwater Area Public Schools recently commissioned three focus groups relating to Superintendent Denise Pontrelli’s BOLD proposal. Teamworks International conducted three focus groups — one group of staff and two groups of parents — to offer thoughts on their personal experiences with Stillwater Area Public Schools and share perspectives on the BOLD proposal. Take a look at the full report:

Stillwater BOLD Focus Group Full Report

The themes of a few discussions from the focus groups were concerns about the district’s compounding financial instability, the impacts of turnover in leadership and inequities between schools. Those involved in the focus groups were amazed at inequities they heard about — whether it was differences in available technology, library staff, support services and leadership turnover, Christine Wroblewski, a consultant with Teamworks International said. Parents felt bad hearing about the turnover and lack of supports in some schools — they all appreciated each other’s challenges, she said. Continue Reading →

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:

My family is not impacted. Continue Reading →

Survey Says: Majority Oppose Stillwater’s BOLD Proposal to Close Schools

A survey commissioned by Stillwater Area Public Schools says a majority of people in the valley oppose Superintendent Denise Pontrelli’s controversial BOLD proposal. Both parents, and the community as a whole, oppose Pontrelli’s proposal, that among other things, would close Marine, Withrow and Oak Park elementary schools, according to recently-released survey results. Boundary changes would also be a part of the proposal, but the district has not yet presented any of those details. The Board of Education is expected to vote on the BOLD proposal on Thursday, March 3 following a presentation by district administration and a public hearing. The meeting begins at 5 p.m. at Stillwater Junior High. Continue Reading →

Valley Parents Rally Around Stillwater Schools, Offer Alternative Plan to School Closures

A group of Stillwater parents, teachers and community members has presented a community-driven marketing and outreach plan to increase enrollment in Stillwater Area Public Schools as an alternative to Superintendent Denise Pontrelli’s BOLD proposal to close three elementary schools. The school board is expected to vote on the BOLD proposal on Thursday, March 3. The meeting begins at 5 p.m. at Stillwater Junior High School. Choice 834, a group of community members who oppose BOLD, presented their plan to district administrators on Feb. 19. Continue Reading →

Stillwater Area Schools to Discuss Enrollment Projections, Convene BOLD Focus Groups, Conduct Survey

A week after delaying a vote on the BOLD proposal, the Stillwater Area Public Schools Board of Education will hold a learning session at 5 p.m. Thursday at the Central Services Building. The workshop will include a presentation by demographer Hazel Reinhardt; the district’s Executive Director of Learning and Innovation Bob McDowell will talk about the transition process; and Superintendent Denise Pontrelli will discuss moving to the middle school model and boundary changes. There is no public comment at School Board learning sessions. The next public hearing for the BOLD proposal is scheduled for March 3 at Stillwater Junior High School, following the administration’s updated BOLD presentation to the board. The board is expected to vote on the BOLD proposal at the end of the public hearing on Thursday, March 3. Continue Reading →

Stillwater Area School Board Delays Vote on BOLD Until March 3

After hearing repeated calls from the public to take a vote on the proposed closure of three elementary schools Thursday night, the Stillwater area school board granted Superintendent Denise Pontrelli a three-week extension before deciding on her controversial BOLD proposal. In a 6-1 vote — Vice Chair Mike Ptacek dissenting — the board agreed to Pontrelli’s request to delay a vote on the BOLD proposal until March 3. In the days following the threat of a lawsuit, Board Member Kathy Bucholtz said she supported extending the BOLD timeline to make sure legal requirements have been met and to allow more time for community input. Bucholtz also said the delay “indicates a willingness by the district to respond to community concerns that the (BOLD) timeline is too short.” Other board members questioned whether three weeks is enough of a delay, and asked district administration to work collaboratively with the public to improve the proposal. Continue Reading →

Superintendent Pontrelli to Recommend Delaying BOLD Vote Until March 3

Stillwater Area Public Schools Superintendent Denise Pontrelli and her leadership team will be recommending at the school board meeting Thursday night that the school board delay its vote on the BOLD proposal until March 3. Thursday’s board meeting will be held at 6:30 p.m. at Stillwater Junior High. The delay will provide more opportunities for residents to learn about the BOLD proposal and share their feedback with board members prior to a decision being made on the consolidation of elementary schools, Carissa Keister, the district’s Community Engagement Manager said in an email. “The school district will present its full Findings of Facts on the Necessity and practicability of School Consolidation to kick-off a public hearing scheduled for Thursday, March 3,” the statement reads. “This public hearing will be held in the auditorium at Stillwater Junior High School beginning at 5 p.m.Community members from Marine, Oak Park and Withrow, as well as other residents interested in sharing feedback, will have an opportunity to provide testimony to the board following the administration’s presentation. Continue Reading →