Survey Says: Majority Oppose Stillwater’s BOLD Proposal to Close Schools

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A survey commissioned by Stillwater Area Public Schools says a majority of people in the valley oppose Superintendent Denise Pontrelli’s controversial BOLD proposal.

Both parents, and the community as a whole, oppose Pontrelli’s proposal, that among other things, would close Marine, Withrow and Oak Park elementary schools, according to recently-released survey results. Boundary changes would also be a part of the proposal, but the district has not yet presented any of those details.

The Board of Education is expected to vote on the BOLD proposal on Thursday, March 3 following a presentation by district administration and a public hearing. The meeting begins at 5 p.m. at Stillwater Junior High.

The results of the survey and an executive summary of three focus groups were presented to the board last week.

The research was developed to provide “a broader understanding of public perception and help the board and administration understand how people are forming their opinions” about BOLD.

The survey was conducted by the Morris Leatherman Company. The focus groups were conducted by Teamworks International.

Survey Says…

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“Overall, the survey revealed that the community is divided on the issue of BOLD,” according to a news release from Stillwater Area Public Schools. “This is most pronounced among parents, with 43 percent of those surveyed stating they supported or strongly supported the plan and 53 percent stating they opposed or strongly opposed it. The remaining respondents were unsure.”

However, parents are just one data set from the district’s survey.

Overall, the survey actually revealed that the community opposes BOLD by a 2-1 margin.

Of those surveyed, 57 percent of the overall community oppose, or strongly oppose, BOLD, according to the district-commissioned survey. While 39 percent of the overall community supports, or strongly supports, the proposal. The remaining people said they were unsure.

“Closing schools isn’t popular, we’ve known that all along,” Pontrelli said in a prepared statement. “It’s no surprise to us that half of the residents we heard from are opposed to school closure. What is a bit of a surprise is the level of misinformation and misperception that exists about BOLD and the lack of understanding about how it would help improve learning for all of our students.”

But, according to the survey, both the community members and parents who were surveyed saw themselves as aware and informed about the BOLD proposal.

“The public’s awareness of BOLD is extraordinarily high,” said Peter Leatherman, of The Morris Leatherman Company that conducted the survey. “You have very high awareness, and for the most part, people are somewhat familiar, if not very familiar, with the BOLD plan.”

A strong majority of people surveyed said they got their information about BOLD directly from Stillwater Area Public Schools and from the district’s teachers.

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Of those surveyed, 84 percent of community members said they were aware of BOLD, while 94 percent of parents said they knew about the proposal.

When asked if they were familiar with the proposal, 89 percent of community members said they were familiar with BOLD, with 90 percent of parents saying they were familiar.

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In an open-ended question of people surveyed who said they oppose BOLD, said they oppose the proposal because it will hurt cities, create larger classes, mean longer bus rides and it doesn’t follow the promises made during the levy and bond referendums, Leatherman said.

In an open-ended question to people surveyed who said they support BOLD, they said they support the proposal because of cost savings, the plan makes sense and it addresses low enrollment, he said.

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When parents surveyed were asked if they would keep their children in Stillwater Area Public Schools if BOLD passed, 90 percent (4 percent unsure) said they would keep their children in Stillwater schools next year, while that number dropped to 81 percent (6 percent unsure) for the 2017-18 school year.

Based on the survey percentages, and using a population of 8,200 students, that would equate to a loss somewhere between 296 and 1,066 kids by the 2017-18 school year.

Stillwater Chief Financial Officer Kristen Hoheisel has previously said the district anticipates a loss of about 50 students if the three elementary schools are closed.

Advice from Focus Groups: ‘Slow Down’

In addition to the survey, three focus groups — one including staff and two including parents — about BOLD were conducted.

A few themes that emerged from the three focus groups were concerns about the district’s compounding financial instability, the impacts of turnover in leadership and inequities between schools.

Those involved in the focus groups were amazed at inequities they heard about — whether it was differences in available technology, library staff, support services and leadership turnover, Christine Wroblewski, a consultant with Teamworks International said. Parents felt bad hearing about the turnover and lack of supports in some schools — they all appreciated each other’s challenges, she said.

“There is agreement about BOLD with respect to what people see as the goal in essentials for every student within district,” said Julie Goldsmith, a senior consultant with Teamworks International. “There is an agreement in the end game, but there is a difference in how to get there.”

After hearing the results of the survey and focus groups, Pontrelli said the administration will still recommend her BOLD proposal to the Board of Education this week.

“While we understand the concerns of our community, our recommendation has not changed,” Pontrelli said.

“We remain resolved that BOLD is a strong move in the right direction. It won’t solve every problem, but it will address excess capacity, inequitable learning, unbalanced class sizes, and financial and programmatic instability,” she continued. Ultimately, it’s up to the board now to decide how best to meet the needs of all 8,300 of our students. Whatever the decision, we remain committed to rebuilding community and moving forward together.”

In addition to discussing issues facing the district, the focus groups offered this advice to district leaders and board members:

“No matter what the vote, words of wisdom to both administrators and the board is slow down,” Goldsmith said, summarizing information from the focus groups.  “There have been missteps, there needs to be repair and the community wants to help you.”

834 Board Handout Focus Groups

Stillwater BOLD Survey Presentation

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