Stillwater’s BOLD Proposal Draws Questions About Bond, Public Trust

The Stillwater Area Public Schools Board of Education held their final workshop about the controversial BOLD proposal Thursday night.

A formal vote on the BOLD proposal is expected this week.

The board publicly asked their toughest questions to date of district administration during the workshop designed to discuss the concerns residents voiced to the board and district administration during three public hearings.

The district’s BOLD proposal to “right-size” elementary schools is designed to create more equitable learning spaces to meet the needs of all students, invest in programming and learning instead of buildings and to create more financial sustainability moving forward, according to Superintendent Denise Pontrelli.

Opponents of the plan to close Oak Park, Marine and Withrow elementary schools have asked the Board of Education to present alternatives, provide additional data regarding the proposal, make sure the plan is well vetted and to slow down the process.

Will BOLD impact the bond?

Discussions during the workshop ran the gamut regarding BOLD, but one series of questioning from Mike Ptacek caused a bit of a stir — and will result in district administration asking the Minnesota Department of Education for their opinion regarding any possible ramifications on the $97.5 million bond, if BOLD is adopted and three elementary schools are closed.

Since the BOLD proposal was announced during a board workshop on Dec. 17, many opponents to the plan have said the proposal flies in the face of the promises made during bond and levy campaigns that gained voter approval in 2013 and 2015.

The language in the Comment and Review process of the recently-approved $97.5 million bond included $1.6 million in HVAC upgrades, playground improvements, renovations and fees and contingency funds for Oak Park Elementary; and $342,038 for playground improvements, renovations and contingency and fees at both Marine and Withrow elementary schools.

Following up on questions brought forth during an open house this week at Oak Park Elementary, Ptacek asked district leaders to talk about the Comment and Review Process (required by state law) of the bond, and to address whether or not portions of the bond specific to Oak Park, Marine and Withrow elementary schools could be used if the schools are closed.

When a bonding project is designed, the district submits a Review and Comment — which is reviewed by the board — that identifies the scope of the project, the dollar amounts and provides some history that is then presented to the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE), Kristen Hoheisel, District 834 Director of Finance said. After the MDE completes the review and comment the district’s bonding question is then presented to the voters.

The scope and approximate cost of the bonding project is then posted in the Stillwater Gazette as a public notice.

The public notice explains what the district is going to do with the bonds, but what happens if the district doesn’t follow through with those promises? Ptacek asked. If it’s decided to close three schools, does the district have to resubmit the Review and Comment to the Department of Education?

There are options the board has to move the bond funding for Marine, Withrow and Oak Park elementary schools to the high school, middle school and other projects within the scope of the bonding project, Hoheisel said.

“My understanding from legal is that the board can just choose where to spend the money if various projections for the bond were undershot or overshot, we have the right to do that,” Hoheisel said. “I haven’t spoken with the Minnesota Department of Education in regards to their stance, but my guess is, and it’s only a hypothesis, is they would take the same stance as legal.”

A school district needs to abide to the terms of what is on the ballot, Hoheisel said. There are options the board has to move the bond funding for Marine, Withrow and Oak Park elementary schools to the high school, middle school and other projects within the scope of the bonding project, she said.

Sample-Ballot

Board Member Tom Lehmann said he appreciates Ptacek’s questions, and would like to hear the answers, but the issues relating to the bond should be directed to the bond counsel and the district’s attorney, who were not present during the workshop.

Following the meeting, Ptacek said his line of questioning about if the bond would have to go back to the MDE for another Comment and Review, and if it impacts the public and the people who buy bonds, was aimed at addressing public trust and learning if there are legal ramifications regarding the bonds — including those that have been sold — if the project changes.

The public notice tells voters what they’re voting for, Ptacek said.

“When I look at the public notice, and it’s not by accident, there is something in it for every facility in our district,” Ptacek said. “My point being that this is done to garner political support.”

Families at Oak Park are irked that the HVAC will be used for district administration, not students, if the school is closed at Central Services relocates there, Ptacek said.

“The people we have to come back to for trust and support are real disappointed by this,” he said.

The public notice also gives the people who buy bonds information to decide if buying the bond is a good investment, Ptacek said.

“Who have we sold the bonds to? Could it become a legal issue? These are an example of the tough questions staff needs to be able to answer,” Ptacek said. “There’s too much at stake here for there not to be straight answers — and there are many other important unanswered questions that are being brushed off. The tough questions are not getting the answers and candor they deserve.”

Hoheisel said she will seek clarification for the questions regarding the bond, if BOLD is approved, from the Minnesota Department of Education and legal counsel.

BOLD: ‘Just the first step’

Pontrelli said all of the things in the long range facility plan are happening — and all of the things that are in the bond are happening — with the exception of the projects at Marine, Withrow and Oak Park, if the schools are closed.

“We have to look at what we would do with the promises that were made with those buildings,” Pontrelli said, “but all of those other things are happening.”

The change, which Pontrelli said she “believes is hard for people to understand,” is that the focus isn’t just about buildings anymore, it’s about programming and learning and how that is going to impact kids.

“That’s when we started looking at the projections and looking forward,” Pontrelli said. “Not only did we have to look at the space and what is there now, but what will be in the next two years when we move ninth grade out and sixth grade out. Those numbers, with the capture rate and a little bit of declining enrollment, are much bigger than any of us expected.”

A middle school model costs more money than district leaders anticipated, Pontrelli said. Moving students up to middle school costs another $750,000, one of the many things that have a price tag.

“That really forced us to look at all of the different components of our system to see what might we do,” Pontrelli said. “The long range plan didn’t look at closing schools, it didn’t look at consolidating schools, and when you look at those plans, this (BOLD) is looking one step forward, instead of six months by six months for the budget process.”

With a need for additional funding for developing the middle school model and increased transportation costs, facing the possibility of losing integration and AVID funding ($800,000) and looking at collaborative staffing, those costs are way higher than any projected savings the consolidation would bring, Board Member Shelley Pearson said. “So how do we do all of this? How does it all work out?”

Pontrelli said the transportation cost “is what it is,” and the middle school model discussion is in the beginning stages, but closing schools is just a start to addressing the district’s budget issues.

“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 said. “We have to look at different places. We have to look at our athletics and activities. We have to look at our staffing. Just about every area of our system we have to review and look at if we are being effective and efficient. Those are all costs we have to  look at. We have to increase costs in one area and decrease costs in another area.”

A Levy, A Bond and Public Trust

In a time when school funding relies on passing levies, what will this proposal do to voter confidence and trust?

“In the next six years, we will have to go back to the voters and ask them to support a levy,” Ptacek said. “If this southwest area continues to grow, we’ll need additional facilities. If we have to do that soon, how do we put this back together? That’s troublesome to me. We have collectively felt a lot of turmoil, and I assume that turmoil will increase as we move forward with the school boundaries discussion.”

School districts depend on passing levies, which make up about 30 percent of the school district’s budget, to properly fund schools, Pontrelli said, and to pass levies, there has to be community trust.

“When I came here … folks throughout the district told me trust has been an issue for some time,” Pontrelli said. “This isn’t new… You have to build trust, and to build that trust, you have to do the work and you have to follow through with what you said you were going to do. So when we go back to the bond, the levy and the facilities planning, all of those things are going to happen. (BOLD) is taking it one step farther.”

Pontrelli described the proposal to close three elementary schools when staff was asked to look into capacity issues as an “aha” moment — something district leaders had to look into.

“We had to put it out on the table to say this is what we feel will happen in the next few years,” Pontrelli said, “because we have integration, middle school funding and costs for transportation we have to cover.

“A few people have said to me if this proposal moves forward then that’s the end. And for us, I know that we believe as directors and principals, that it is just the beginning. We recognize and want to be able to take the time to see what are schools need to look like, so they serve more of our kids well.”

If drastic changes like closing schools has to be done, Ptacek said he believes there should be a better process, more public engagement and answers to the unanswered questions.

“You call this BOLD,” Ptacek told the Superintendent. “I call this risky. Very risky.”

“There is so much talent and wisdom among the people who live in our district — you have to involve them,” Ptacek said after the workshop. “You have to involve the public. Proper process is crucial.”

The school board is expected to vote on the BOLD proposal at 6:30 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 11 at Stillwater Junior High School. A listening session, allowing 18 people to give feedback on the proposal, will be held prior to the meeting at 5 p.m.

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