Opinion: Stillwater Area School District’s BOLD Plan Won’t Solve District Problems

When I first heard the BOLD proposal to close three of Stillwater School District’s best schools, I wanted to understand the goals and how the plan would achieve them. However, the more I listened, read and researched, the more confused I have become.

If this is a declining population issue, then why are we building a new elementary school? We just need to adjust the boundaries northward. Why are we adding on to our high school if we wont have the students to fill it? The answer is that we don’t have a declining population.

In fact, Met Council projections show that Stillwater could grow as much as 20% over the next 15 years. In addition, Lake Elmo is projected to grow as much as 70% in the next 30 years. Hugo and Bayport and Woodbury are also slated to grow significantly. Even tiny Marine on St. Croix is slated for a small amount of growth. The fact is that right now, we have a serious crowding problem in Lake Elmo, Afton Lakeland and Anderson elementary schools, which is not being addressed. We should be discussing the real need we have for an additional elementary school in the central part of our district.

If this is a money issue, then the amount that has been disclosed to us that is needed is $1.26 million. This is about 1% of our budget. Are we really willing to destroy these school communities for this small amount? If we lose the students at Marine and Withrow to other districts or a charter school, then we will lose much more than a million dollars from our budget. We will lose the trust and support from some of our most dedicated communities. Our school district cannot afford to lose these families, and it cannot afford to create such chaos in this time of so many changes.

If this is an equity issue then why should we take 3 schools that have been creative, resilient, vibrant and highly successful and fold them into different school environments that by all accounts really have not been working as well? Equity suggests that everyone should get what they need to be able to end up the same. But we are not all the same! That should never be the goal. The goal should be for all of us to have an environment that supports and inspires us to be the best that we can be.

In Marine and Withrow and Oak Park, we have class sizes that are at or above the optimum level according to the research the administration referred to in the proposal. This research by Ready and Lee does not suggest that the ideal size of an elementary school is between 300 and 800. It says that elementary schools that are larger than 800 are slightly detrimental to learning and schools less than 275 are better for learning! It also finds that for kindergartners and first graders, a class size of less than 17 is best and a class size of more than 25 is also detrimental to learning .

According to the results of the survey the administration conducted this fall regarding barriers in this district, which was reported as part of the BOLD proposal, some of the concerns discovered were staffing issues, class sizes too big, lack of leadership, inconsistencies, lack of communication, not enough professional development, too much change, no buy in for decisions, lack of vision and clear priorities, lack of training and support for technology, and lack of trust.

All of the actions that have been taken thus far have continued to exacerbate these problems. This plan will not alleviate any of them. This plan makes some schools out to be bad guys and others are being ignored.

Since 2002, this district has cut over $15 million from its budget. This is of course because of the recession. At the same time, our enrollments have been declining and for every student we lose, that is more than $10,000. This means that if we could get back even 25 students, that would be worth $250,000!! If one hundred new or returning students enrolled in our schools, well, that’s a million dollars. Money fluctuates in schools because there are so many variables. But the job of the leadership remains the same: to do whatever it takes to make the learning environment as supportive and inspiring as possible.

When school systems have a clear vision, a well articulated and well understood plan, then administration and staff are all on the same page. Everyone knows what’s going on. Teachers feel connected to the plan and supported by it. Teachers who are supported and operating as part of a well oiled machine are more free to really pay attention to their students.

We need to create a system where greatness is expected and supported. This does not come from money. It does not come from curriculum or new shiny programming or even new technology. This kind of magic is absolutely free. It comes from passion, clear vision and honesty. It comes from listening, caring deeply and connecting people together. It comes from many, many, many people working together for something they really believe in.

When that kind of magic happens, people feel it. They see it. This is what is happening in Withrow and in Marine and Oak Park. People are coming here to be a part of it. These schools are drawing families into our district.

The administration has said that we are a district built for 10,000 serving 8300. If we filled those 1700 empty seats, that would be more than $17 million added to our revenues. Instead of closing schools, and losing that potential revenue forever, we should be trying to inspire and compel families to join us! At the very least, the administration and school board should be trying to figure out what is really going wrong. Because this problem is certainly NOT being caused by these schools they intend to close.

The voters in Stillwater School District supported an operating levy in 2013 and a bond renewal in 2015. In both cases, the public was promised improvements to our elementary schools. Assurances were made to the public that if these referendums passed, our schools would remain open and operating fully. The schools in question are healthier than ever and our communities are growing. There is no evidence to support the necessity of closing schools and there is huge community and definitive voter support for keeping them open. It is imperative that the district administration find another way to solve their budget issues. It is clear that the BOLD plan will only make the situation worse.