Stillwater Area School Board Delays Vote on BOLD Until March 3

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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.

What will happen in the next three weeks? School Board Member Shelley Pearson asked.

Pontrelli said the extra time will allow district administration to better communicate the work staff has done to verify population projections and other disputed data.

“One thing that was clear tonight from the listening session is that folks who shared with us this evening disagree with some of the data we’ve shared,” Pontrelli said. “It is clear that there’s not an understanding of what our process has been with the data.”

Since being questioned about the district’s data, Pontrelli said administration went back to the MET Council to verify the data, projections and how the information was being interpreted.

Administrators also reached back out to demographer Hazel Reinhardt — whose data for the BOLD proposal was originally based on information from 2009-2010 and 2012-2013, to redo projections based on 2014-2015 projections, Pontrelli said.

“It was made clear to me tonight that those things have not resonated with folks, or they must still have a misunderstanding,” the superintendent said. “So we want to take some time to do that.”

Is there any thought in forming a district wide committee to look into the issues the district faces? Ptacek asked.

“No. There isn’t a thought of a districtwide committee right now,” Pontrelli said. “Some folks were at the meetings about strengths, weaknesses and opportunities that was held earlier, that’s where we gathered the information for the BOLD proposal…. We’ve spent full nights meeting with parents at Lake Elmo, Stonebridge, Marine, Withrow and Oak Park for several hours each meeting listening to concerns and listening to suggestions — and we responded to those.”

There will be additional board learning session on Feb. 18 when the district’s leadership team will discuss alternate proposals from the public, Pontrelli said. On March 3, after administration makes an updated presentation to the board, the public will have a chance to respond before the board votes.

“With all due respect,” Ptacek said to the superintendent, “the hard part for me with that procedure is that the first time they will hear the update will be on March 3 and anybody who wants to speak and give public input will have to react on the spot.”

The district’s data will not be significantly different, Pontrelli said. It will be the data shared at past listening and board sessions.

“Any suggestions that would come up during the meetings previous to that, we’ve looked through all those lenses, and to be honest with you,  the suggestions we have received have not,” Pontrelli said. “This is complex, there’s a lot of things that have to be met for this.”

Board Member Paula O’Loughlin said that community engagement is something the board has heard a lot about in the last two months, and encouraged the administration to look for ways to “genuinely and authentically” engage the community.

Since Dec. 17, O’Loughlin said she has spoken with more than 100 people in one-to-one meetings, and from those conversations, she has gleaned a lot of different ideas and suggestions.

O’Loughlin went on to share some of those ideas, ranging from closing other elementary schools and adding walls to Stonebridge and Rutherford to cutting sports and music districtwide and foregoing the construction of a community center at Pony Stadium.

“I know, superintendent, you have said you are very open to any considerations and proposals and alternatives that your team may not have unearthed before,” O’Loughlin said. “Many of the public’s suggestions acknowledge the inequities and financial issues the district faces … some are partisan and divisive in nature, but it is important to bring the ideas to the board so the community can provide feedback.”

Board Member Amy Burback said she hears a desire for resolution, but said sometimes “we’re asked to pause.”

The “divisiveness and deep divide” in the community is not caused by BOLD, but by personal choices, Burback said. “We can choose to exercise kindness and gentleness or we can choose outrage and acrimony.”

Board Chair George Hoeppner spoke of collaboration and his deep family history in education in the valley. Hoeppner said he doesn’t apologize for the fact that his experiences in education impact his perspective as a board member.

When weighing how he would vote on delaying the vote on BOLD, Hoeppner recalled an email he received from one of his former students, Lindsay Berger, who wrote: “Show us a challenge, and allow us to collaborate and create better alternatives, together.”

Hoeppner said he supports the delay of a BOLD vote so the board can:

  • continue to study how ideas will positively impact all students;
  • continue to ask clarifying questions about improving programming;
  • continue to review the district’s capacity issues;
  • encourage the superintendent to continue her study, collaboratively; and
  • to see how BOLD may positively impact district finances.

Quoting another email he recently received, Hoeppner closed the discussion saying:

“When there is a problem to solve, the secret is to gang up on the problem, not on each other. Perhaps we should take that advice.”

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