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.

Enrollment Projections

The district’s enrollment over the past 10 years has decreased by 626 students (7 percent) for a variety of reasons.

The decline in enrollment reflects lower births and a larger number of students electing other school options, the executive summary of Reinhardt’s report states. Reinhardt’s projects that over the next 10 years, elementary school enrollment in the Stillwater area will decline, while middle school enrollment will slightly increase and high school projections will remain flat.

Projections used by the district claim growth and enrollment will decline at schools in the north end of the district, and increase at schools in the southern part of the district.

But opponents of the BOLD proposal question Reinhardt’s enrollment projections.

“The actual enrollment projections and capacity numbers being used in the BOLD plan are mainly from a study done by Hazel Reinhardt in 2014 using housing data from 2010, 2011 and 2012 — bottom of the barrel, recession-era housing data,” Jim Dropps said during last month’s public hearings (video presentation begins at at 1:56). “This matters because demographers use home sales to determine how many new kids are coming into the district as each sale often represents a new family with kids. If the housing market had stayed where it was back then we would have accurate enrollment projections. But we all know that did not happen. We all know that the housing market has been booming for the last few years and is still increasing.”

Dropps said numbers for 2013-2015 showed 832 more home sales, or 30 percent more than the old data.

“There’s complex ratios used to calculate how many students those 832 new families will bring, but what we can certainly understand is that if the underlying data is 30 percent higher, the resulting enrollment projections should be 30 percent higher,” Dropps said. “And it’s already begun, the district has been surprised by 41 more students than expected in the last two years, which officials have called “remarkable.” I do not believe it is remarkable at all when you look at the data. Based on these findings, I believe if we close these schools we’ll be back here in a couple years with overcrowding and forced to spend millions on new schools because we sold 3 of them.”

Pontrelli acknowledged that Reinhardt’s original projections used in the BOLD proposal were based on data from 2010-13, but she said administrators asked Reinhardt to redo the projections based on more recent information — and found similar projections.

According to the district’s website:

We’ve received a lot of questions about our enrollment projects. We’ve taken another look at the data, and gone back to the demographer, a forecaster from the Met Council and city planners. Even the most recent information continues to show growth for Woodbury, Lake Elmo and in the city of Stillwater, and confirmed that minimal growth is expected elsewhere in the school district. The growth, however, will not yield significant numbers of new students.

The latest Met Council information shows we could gain about 180 birth to five-year-olds over the next six years. That’s roughly 30 new birth to five-year-olds each year spread out across the district. During that same time period there is no overall projected growth in our six to 12-year-olds. Any new students would easily be absorbed into the system.

The forecasters, demographers and city planners we’ve talked to have all reminded us again and again that projections are never perfect. The further we try to predict out, the less exact projections can be. What is holding true, however, is that our communities are aging and we will continue to see the number of households with school-age children decrease in the coming years.

Focus Groups and a Survey

In the next couple of weeks, the district will be holding focus groups and conducting a 400 person “random-sample survey,” Community Engagement Manager Carissa Keister said.

The Morris Leatherman Company will conduct a random-sample survey of 400 residents representing a demographic cross-section of the district, Keister said. The results of the survey will be shared with the board prior to the March 3 vote.

Next week, about 40 parents and district staff members will participate in a series of focus groups, Keister said. One focus group will be for district staff, one for PTA/PTO leaders and one for other parent representatives.

The focus group will be facilitated by outside consultants and will not be open to the public.

“The facilitator will provide an opportunity for parent and staff representatives to talk freely about the opportunities and challenges facing the district, and provide feedback on the BOLD proposal,” the district’s website reads. “Individual feedback will remain confidential; however, a summary of the information gathered during the focus group will be shared with board members prior to their vote on BOLD.”

During last week’s school board meeting, Pontrelli told the board there was no thought of forming a districtwide committee to discuss BOLD.

School Board Member Mike Ptacek also raised concerns that a three week delay in a BOLD vote wasn’t enough time to gather community feedback, and if district administators present new data during their updated presentation on the proposal on March 3 it would be the first time the public would be privvy to that information, and would have to give their input on the findings by “reacting on the spot.”

Pontrelli told the board last week that she didn’t anticipate the administration’s data would be “significantly different” from what has been presented at previous meetings.

According to information posted on the school district’s website Wednesday afternoon:

“To ensure an equal representation of people from across the district, consultants are working with the district leadership to identify representatives from each school building, as well as various employee groups within the district. Representatives will include parents and staff who have an understanding of the school system, and have served on past committees or participated in past community engagement activities at a school or district level. Presidents/officers of each parent organization have also been invited to participate.”

Boundary Changes

The school board’s discussion on boundary changes — originally slated for Feb. 25 — will be delayed a bit, Keister said.

If BOLD passes and Withrow, Marine and Oak Park elementary schools are closed, students from Withrow and Marine would likely be moved 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 board is expected to begin their boundary discussions by considering if students would be grandfathered into the school they’re currently enrolled in, student cohorts, if alternate and open enrollment would still be allowed, how to address 2016 kindergarten students and balancing enrollment of middle schools and district-wide cluster programs.

The board will start talking guiding change for boundaries during the February learning sessions, but the district’s recommendation for boundary changes is expected to be brought before the board in March, and will be followed with public hearings, Keister said. A decision on boundary changes is expected in April.

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