Stillwater Area Public Schools to Present Controversial BOLD Proposal Tonight

Stillwater Area Public Schools will bring its formal BOLD proposal before the Stillwater Area Board of Education on Thursday night at Stillwater City Hall.

The BOLD proposal calls for the closure of Marine, Withrow and Oak Park elementary schools, moving the students to Stonebridge, Rutherford and Lily Lake elementary schools.

The plan will also require school boundaries to be redrawn throughout the district for the 2017-18 school year, impacting all families in Stillwater Area Public Schools.

Important Meeting Information

  • A formal recommendation to close Marine, Oak Park and Withrow for the start of the 2017-2018 school year will happen Thursday, Jan. 7 at Stillwater City Hall. The meeting begins at 6:30 p.m.
  • No action will be taken at this time. A formal vote is expected to happen on Feb. 11.
  • The board will not hear public feedback during the meeting,
  • You can watch the meeting live online beginning at 6:30 p.m.

Stillwater Area Public Schools Superintendent Denise Pontrelli first brought the plan before the Board during a Dec. 17 workshop. The district began formulating the plan this fall, Pontrelli has said, when administrators were asked to study how the district could best utilize its facilities.

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, she said.

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

So the idea of the BOLD proposal is “to create seven right-sized elementary schools,” Pontrelli said. “Right-sizing ensures all of our students would have the same learning experience no matter where they live and would create a more sustainable future.”

Pontrelli says that closing the three elementary schools would save the district $1.26 million a year.

StopBoldCold

But Pontrelli’s BOLD proposal has drawn a lot of criticism from families in the central and northern communities in the district.

Soon after the proposal was made public, a group parents and community members formed StopBoldCold in opposition to the plan.

“Our No. 1 mission is to make sure the board does not pass the BOLD proposal to close all three schools,” 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. This is a flawed plan. We don’t agree with the approach, and we want to work with you to find an alternative.’ ”

The group opposes the BOLD proposal on a variety of levels, a few of which include questions about the projected savings consolidating three schools would bring the district, the data being presented in support of the district’s plan, the timing of the proposal, the communications, or lack thereof, around the proposal, transparency and the overall process.

“My biggest disappointment with the process is that most parents haven’t had input on this,” Stillwater Area School Board Member Mike Ptacek said after the community meeting at Withrow. “That’s what resonates with me, because many parents first heard about this in the news, or from a friend who heard about it in the news on Dec. 17.

“The sad part about that is that I don’t doubt the administration has worked very hard. I don’t doubt that the Board had bits and pieces of this, but what was missing is the voice of the people who will be most affected. This is so much coming so fast, and somewhere along the way, parents have to be involved in the conversation.”

Important Links

The three school board members in attendance of the Withrow community meeting, Shelley Pearson, Paula O’Loughlin and Ptacek all said they see their role at Thursday’s meeting as one of asking tough questions of district staff, and representing their constituents.

“There are a lot of questions here that remain unanswered,” Ptacek said. “We have to get answers to those questions.”

One thing Ptacek said he is hearing from parents is that they want options.

“I hear parents want choices between big schools and small schools. Choices between schools that are very traditional, and schools that are more open,” he said. “That is not to put down other schools. For some kids, other options work better.

Pearson said she has been engaging with parents, and following along with what those who oppose the BOLD proposition are saying on social media.

“I’m very impressed with the tone, and how the parents are reacting,” Pearson said after the StopBoldCold community meeting. “I appreciate how they are putting all of this out there — how they are approaching it civilly and expressing that they really want to work with the Board to do the right thing.”

Pearson said as a public school board member, it is important for her to hear what the public says about district proposals.

“It is important to me that the Board and the public work together to find solutions,” Pearson said. “I don’t know where we’ll end up, or whether it will have an impact, but it is important to me that we engage with the public, and work together.”

Stillwater Mayor and Stonebridge parent Ted Kozlowski said he is concerned with the BOLD proposal.

Kozlowski called on the group of StopBoldCold parents to question the assumptions being made by district leaders from forecast data about student growth.

“Being mayor of Stillwater, I know we just annexed a large part of Stillwater Township,” Kozlowski said. “Now you can put multiple houses on an acre, instead of one on five acres. There are things the MET Council hasn’t taken into effect when considering the growth of Stillwater.”

In addition to the data, Kozlowski said he feels the decision seems rushed, and he would like to see how preschool, the middle school model and moving ninth-graders to the high school play out before making such a drastic decision with the elementary schools.

“What worries me right now is I don’t know that the teachers have been asked to be part of this conversation,” Kozlowski said. “We know parents haven’t been asked to be part of the conversation and the Board found out about this (on Dec. 17).

“It’s definitely a bold plan. I don’t think it’s the best strategy, but in order to do something that is focused on really doing something to help our students, we all have to be part of that conversation,” he continued. “Doing something like this in six weeks over the holidays, I just don’t have a good taste for that. If I tried to do something like this with the city, I’d be skewered, and rightfully so.

“Government is supposed to be deliberate, it’s designed to take time. We have to hear from the public, and all the stakeholders.”

In a few short weeks over the holidays, the StopBoldCold group has gathered more than 1,500 signatures to a Change.org petition to stop the proposal.

“While the community understands that the district faces financial challenges due to imbalanced growth in various part of the district, we do not believe the B.O.L.D. plan proposed by Superintendent Denise Pontrelli and team is the right approach,” the petition reads. “The community was promised by the School Board and District Leadership that NO schools would be closed if the public passed the 2013 School Levy. The B.O.L.D. proposal abandons the successful community schools of the northern end of the school district and directly breaks this promise.”

Pontrelli denies that the district has went back on bond and levy promises.

“The levy promise was essentially to hold off cuts for the short term, knowing changes within the system would need to be made long-term to create a more sustainable financial future,” Pontrelli wrote in an email to parents. “Those changes for sustainability have not been made. Since 2013 the district’s budget has been reduced by more than $2 million annually – cutting things like nurses, teachers, and support to students.

“While the bond provided funding for building improvements and new construction, those dollars cannot be used to pay for staff, curriculum or other programming costs associated with the grade configuration change. That adds additional ongoing expenses to the district’s budget.

“It’s true that closing schools was not part of the bond,” her email continues. “The long-range facilities planning team was focused on changing grade configuration and building a new school to accommodate the sale of Valley Crossing Community School and high growth in the south. They did not complete a comprehensive capacity study. It was the in-depth study we completed this fall that brought the full impact of our capacity challenges to light, and upon which this proposal is based.”

“There is a lot of passion in this discussion — and a lot of tears,” Ptacek said. “Stay tuned… we live in a democracy.”

Stillwater Area Schools Capacity Proposal Dec 17 by StillwaterCurrent

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