Recent Posts

Talk of the District: Even the Best of Schools Face Challenges

My favorite thing to do is visit a classroom and see the smiling faces of kids and teachers as they learn and grow together. Their energy and passion is contagious, and I feel motivated and inspired by them. Yet, these visits also make me aware of other things happening in our schools. Things that aren’t so positive. I see a small number of our children in distress. Continue Reading →

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SNOW DAY: Stillwater Schools, River Grove, Closed on March 5

All Stillwater Area Public Schools will be closed on Monday, March 5 due to the anticipation of inclement weather. “Forecasters are predicting a winter storm to hit our area tomorrow. In anticipation of inclement weather, we have decided to cancel school for Monday, March 5. There will be no school for all students. Adventure Club will also be closed and all regular after school and Community Education activities including Early Childhood, adult and youth classes are canceled. Continue Reading →

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Stillwater Area Public Schools Considering Changes to School Start Times

Stillwater Area Public Schools is considering a change to start times for the 2019-2020 school year. The preliminary proposal to change start times was shared with the school board during a work session last week. According to the preliminary proposal:

Start times would be earlier for Oak-Land and Stillwater middle school students, as well as two elementary schools;

Move the start time for Stillwater Area High School back 40 minutes for an 8:20 a.m. start time;

Move five elementary school start times back about 30 minutes; and

Impact local charter and non-public schools with possible start times beginning near 10 a.m.

According to Stillwater Area Public Schools:

“School board members are considering a change to school start times that would allow for high school students to begin school later in the day. Medical evidence and research suggests that a start time of 8:30 a.m. or later would better align with teens’ unique sleep needs – improving both the physical and mental health of high school students.” The district could see a financial benefit from adjusting start times, according to the district’s website, by “allow the district to better balance the number of buses needed during each tier of bussing.”

Link: School board considering start time changes for 2019-2020

Link: Start Time Research on

Link:  Preliminary Proposal shared with Board of Education

The preliminary proposal would move the district to a four tier busing system, instead of the current modified three tier system. Tier 1: (7:30 a.m.) Both middle schools and two elementary schools. Continue Reading →

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Talk of the District: More than 8,000 reasons “Why”

Let’s face it. We all have days when the alarm clock goes off and we just do not want to crawl out from under those covers. So when that feeling kicks in, what is it that motivates us to fight off the desire to fall back asleep? What is the “why” that gets us going each day? I posed this question to the staff of the Stillwater Area Public Schools at the start of this school year. Continue Reading →

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Update: Stillwater Area Public Schools, River Grove Brace for Snowstorm with Early Dismissal on Monday

Stillwater Area Public Schools is planning for early release from class Monday in anticipation of a dumping of snow. “Due to heavy snowfall expected to occur throughout the day on Monday, we are anticipating that students will be released from school early and all evening activities will be canceled on Jan. 22,” a post on the district’s website reads. “At this time, we are planning for the school day to begin at the normal time, but buses will depart for afternoon routes at 12:35 p.m. for middle and high school students, and at 2 p.m. for elementary students. We will continue to monitor the weather overnight, and if we feel conditions are unsafe for morning travel we will notify families of further scheduling changes as early as possible. Continue Reading →

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Police, Stillwater Schools Investigate Assault Near Stillwater Junior High School

Police are investigating a report that a Stillwater Junior High School student was assaulted Monday afternoon just a few blocks from school. The assault happened across the street from Fairview Cemetery on Orleans Street and Osgood Avenue. The child was approached for a ride home from some teenagers Monday afternoon, and after he declined a ride twice, they reportedly got out and beat him up. Here is the letter Stillwater Junior High School Principal Eric VanScoy sent to families:

Yesterday, while walking home from school, a Stillwater Junior High School student was assaulted by a group of unknown males. The incident occurred just a few blocks from school by Fairview Cemetery on Orleans Street and Osgood Avenue. 

We’re currently working with officers from Stillwater and Oak Park police departments to investigate the situation and search for the individuals involved. Continue Reading →

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School Year Will End a Day Earlier than Expected for Stillwater Area Public Schools

Parents take note (and arrange for childcare, if needed): Students last day of school will come one day earlier than expected in Stillwater Public Schools this year. The Stillwater Area Public Schools Board of Education on Thursday approved a shortened calendar for students, moving the last day of school for students from Thursday, June 1 to Wednesday, May 31. The change is so more than 200 school staff members have more time to move between — and within — school buildings before next school year. The calendar change comes as the district looks to close Marine, Withrow and Oak Park elementary schools, boundary changes, construction, transition students from a junior high to middle school model and change the high school from a 10-12 to a 9-12 building. The Minnesota Court of Appeals has not yet ruled on the appeal of school closures. Continue Reading →

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Open Letter to Stillwater Area School Board, Superintendent Denise Pontrelli and Kristen Hoheisel

I submitted my open letter to all Stillwater School Board members, Superintendent Denise Pontrelli and Executive Director of Finance and Operations, Kristen Hoheisel:

Here is a link to an article published by the City Pages, “Stillwater school officials can’t explain financial adviser’s six-figure payday,” for your review. It is not new news to you, but you have neglected to take action for the best interest of the taxpayers. During the January School Board meeting, the School Board’s majority voted 4-3 to give Kristen Hoheisel blanket approval of contracts up to $100,000 without board review. As a taxpayer I am demanding a reversal of this January vote. I rarely hear the board ask any thought provoking questions in order to make better decisions. This rubber-stamp approach has to stop. Continue Reading →

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Sarah Stivland: Thoughts on Being a Stillwater School Board Member

The past few weeks since being sworn in as one of Stillwater School District’s newest board members has been a whirlwind of trainings and meetings. I’m learning what it takes to be an outstanding school board member. The primary purpose of the school board is to execute wise judgement in the use of community funds in order to provide the best possible learning experiences for each and every child in our district. According to Minnesota Statute 123B.09 subd.8:

“The board must superintend and manage the schools of the district; adopt rules for their organization, government, and instruction; keep registers; and prescribe textbooks and courses of study…”

In order to create the best possible learning environments, school boards must continuously engage with all community stakeholders to share accurate data on costs, academic achievement, building needs, innovation and technology needs, population trends, and many other important factors. In order to have an effective system, community members need to be engaged in the process. Continue Reading →

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Details of New Marine Area Community School — Grove Elementary — Coming Into Focus

Details about the new Marine Area Community School (MACS) are starting to come into focus. The group starting the new K-6 charter school set to open next fall recently announced its name — Grove Elementary — rolled out a new logo, is starting the process of hiring teachers and will soon enter into lease negotiations for the school’s location. “From nearly the start of our planning, we’ve been considering three locations: the current Marine Elementary building, the former Concordia Language Village buildings at Wilder and Christ Lutheran Church in Marine,” Marine Area Community School Board Chair Kristina Smitten said. “Because District 834’s Board of Directors imposed a stay on itself due to the ongoing legal situation, District 834 leadership has felt unable to discuss the possible sale of the Marine building,” she continued. “We are proactively moving forward — we need to for our students and our community — and we are absolutely thrilled about the opportunities presented by the Wilder facilities.”

Learn more about Grove Elementary

At the January business meeting, the MACS board unanimously decided to enter into lease negotiations with the owners of the Wilder Forest buildings, which are located in May Township on Norell Avenue about six miles southwest of Marine and about nine miles northwest of downtown Stillwater. Continue Reading →

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Stillwater School District’s Insurance Will Cover 3 Legal Challenges to BOLD

The legal challenges to Stillwater Area Public Schools’ BOLD plan that includes the closing of three elementary schools next year won’t cost taxpayers more than $100,000, after all. Insurance will cover the three lawsuits brought against the district by VOICE 834 and Melissa Douglas, according to Stillwater Area Public Schools. The lawsuits were filed in response to the school board’s approval of Superintendent Denise Pontrelli’s BOLD plan that includes the closure of Withrow, Oak Park and Marine elementary schools. The district has said that their insurance does not cover the legal fees relating to the three lawsuits — and that all of the legal expenses would come from the general fund that pays for teachers, support staff, curriculum and other things that directly support students. This week, the district posted this update about legal fees to the district’s “Fact Check” webpage:

Insurance to coverage (sic) a portion of legal costs related to school closure

After an initial denial of coverage by its insurance company, the district has received notice that underwriters have amended and clarified coverage for the three lawsuits related to the closure of schools. Continue Reading →

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4 Stillwater School Board Candidate Forums are Happening this Month

There are four remaining Stillwater School Board Candidate Forums before November’s elections. The Stillwater Gazette sponsored School Board Candidate Forum is happening Monday, Oct. 10 from 7-8:30 p.m. at Stillwater Junior High School. Three more Stillwater School Board candidate forums later this month:

Family Friendly Meet the Candidates for School Board

Hosted by St. Croix Valley Gifted

Sunday, October 16 at 3:30 – 5 p.m.

Teddy Bear Park, 207 Nelson St E, Stillwater, MN 55082

League of Women Voters Candidate Forum

Monday, Oct 17, 7:00 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.

First Presbyterian, Fellowship Room, 6201 Osgood Ave N., Stillwater

League of Women Voters Candidate Forum

Thursday, October 20, 6:30 – 8 p.m.

Marine Village Hall, Marine on Saint Croix

Here’s links to more information about the Stillwater School Board candidates (in alphabetical order):

Amy Burback

Jerry Clark

Robert Craggs

Tom DeGree

Michelle Deziel

Chad Gamradt

Donald Hovland

Jennifer Pelletier

Michael Ptacek

Sarah Stivland

Continue Reading →

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Washington County Judge Dismisses Lawsuit Against Stillwater Area Public Schools

A Washington County District Court Judge dismissed one of three lawsuits brought against Stillwater Area Public Schools following the approval of the BOLD plan that calls for the closure of three elementary schools. Judge John R. McBride on Tuesday morning issued an order dismissing Melissa Douglas’ writ of mandamus petition to require Stillwater Area Public Schools to improve all nine elementary schools in accordance with the May 12, 2015 bond question approved by voters, or seek new voter approval for a changed purpose. In his order, McBride said the claim in Douglas’ petition that the district must gain voter approval on its plan to close the schools was based on a “misreading of state statute.”

“By electing to close three schools, the district had abandoned a portion of the project authorized by referendum,” McBride wrote in his order. “Minnesota statutes do not require the district to make improvements to facilities that are being closed and projects that have been abandoned. Nor do Minnesota statutes require the district to submit the decision to abandon part of the project to the voters by way of referendum.”

Douglas said she is disappointed in the judge’s decision, and plans to appeal. Continue Reading →

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Update: On Final Day to File, 11 Candidates Vie for 3 Open Seats on Stillwater School Board

Last updated at 3:30 p.m., Tuesday, Aug. 16:

The filing period for three seats on the Stillwater Area Public Schools Board of Education comes to a close today at 5 p.m.

Seats currently held by Kathy Buchholz, Amy Burback and Mike Ptacek are up for election in November. Entering the final day to file affidavits of candidacy, 11 candidates will run for the three open seats, according to Stillwater Area Public School’s website. The 11 people to file affidavits of candidacy so far are:

Amy Burback, of Stillwater

Chad Gamradt, of Stillwater

Donald G. Hovland, of Oak Park Heights

Sarah Stivland, of Stillwater

Jerry Clark, of Stillwater

Rochelle Quandt, of Lake Elmo

Robert Craggs, of Lakeland

Tom DeGree, of Lake Elmo

Michelle Deziel, of Lake Elmo

Mike Ptacek, of Stillwater

Jennifer Pelletier, of Lake Elmo

Two people —  Sebastian (Sam) Hernandez and Bob Katula, both of Stillwater — withdrew their affidavits of candidacy. Katula said he withdrew from the race to pursue “an unexpected opportunity” outside of the district. Continue Reading →

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Updated: 8 Candidates File for Stillwater School Board Election

The filing period for three seats on the Stillwater Area Public Schools Board of Education opened on Tuesday. Seats currently held by Kathy Buchholz, Amy Burback and Mike Ptacek are up for election in November. So far, eight candidates have filed affidavits of candidacy, according to Stillwater Area Public School’s website. The filing period is open through Tuesday, Aug. 16. Continue Reading →

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Stillwater Mountain Bike Team Has New Home at Valley View Park in Oak Park Heights

Valley View Park will soon be home to a new single-track mountain biking trail in Oak Park Heights. The Oak Park Heights City Council in a 4-1 vote — Oak Park Heights Mayor Mary McComber dissenting — approved a new 2.5 mile trail that will be home to the Stillwater Area High School mountain bike team. The trail — located about 3 miles from the high school — will be designed for mountain bikers, walkers, hikers and runners. The trail may also be used for fat tire snow biking and snowshoeing in the winter. The nonprofit group Stillwater Area Scholastic Cycling Advocates (SASCA) will build and maintain the mountain biking trails in support of the Stillwater mountain bike team. Continue Reading →

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Stillwater Schools Announce Principal Changes at 5 Elementary Schools for Next Year

Stillwater Area Public Schools on Tuesday afternoon announced leadership changes at schools across the district. Here’s a look at the changes:

Lily Lake and Oak Park

Nate Cox will be the principal at Oak Park and Lily Lake elementary schools next year. The district will hire an assistant principal this summer to help with the leadership role at the two schools. Cox has served as principal at Oak Park since 2013. Prior to coming to Stillwater, he was a principal in the Willmar School District. Continue Reading →

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Stillwater Area Public Schools Expands Summer Food Service Program

Stillwater Area Public Schools is expanding the Summer Food Service Program to offer free breakfast and lunch to area children at two locations this summer. The goal of this program is to make sure all youth in our community have access to nutritious meals while school is out for the summer. The Summer Meals Program will run:

Mondays through Fridays, June 9-Aug. 19 (closed July 4) at the Stillwater Junior High School cafeteria. Breakfast will be served 7:15-8:15 a.m. and lunch from 11-12:15 p.m. for any interested children ages two to 18 years of age. Continue Reading →

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Photo Raises Questions about Stillwater Area School Board Members

A photograph sent to Stillwater Current Friday afternoon appears to show five members of the Stillwater Area Public Schools Board of Education sitting at a table together at Meister’s Bar and Grill after Thursday night’s meeting. The photo comes in the midst of a lawsuit alleging open meeting law violations by members of the Stillwater Area Public Schools Board of Education. Here is a screenshot of the School Board members during Thursday night’s meeting:

According to Minnesota’s Open Meeting Law, a meeting is a “meeting” for purposes of the law when a quorum or more of the governmental body is gathered—in person or by electronic means, whether or not action is taken or contemplated.”

Read about the Open Meeting Law. To form a quorum for a board of seven people, four or more members of the board must be present. The photo sent to Stillwater Current apparently shows five members of the board — Paula O’Loughlin, George Hoeppner, Kathy Buchholz, Amy Burback and Tom Lehmann — sitting at a table together. Continue Reading →

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Police Investigate ‘School Shooting’ Tweets Made by Stillwater Junior High Students

Police are investigating two Stillwater Junior High School students who allegedly made threats of bringing a gun to school on Twitter. A journalist in New York first alerted Stillwater police to the alleged threats after seeing them come across his newspaper’s social media analytics software that tracks any mentions of school shootings on Twitter, Stillwater Police Sgt. Jeff Stender told the Pioneer Press. Police also received other reports about the tweets from state and federal law enforcement agencies. According to the Pioneer Press:

One of the tweets said: “So sick of these cyberbully f—- bullying me they gonna be sorry Monday (three gun emojis) dad got a new gun.”

Three other tweets allegedly posted by the boys “spewed racial and religious hatred, another took shots at Donald Trump, and one of them was a photo where the boy’s face had been superimposed over the face of a man holding a sawed-off shotgun,” Stender said. Continue Reading →

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Video: Stillwater Bids Farewell to Longtime Choir Director Dr. Erik Christiansen

Dr. Erik Christiansen is retiring after 28 years as director of Stillwater’s Concert Choir. On April 26, more than 200 of his former choir members attended his farewell concert at St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church in Mahtomedi. During the farewell concert, Stillwater Area High School choir alumni sang a song commissioned by Rene Clausen, and joined the current choir for a grand finale to sing the choir’s signature song, “O Day Full of Grace,” which was written by Doc’s grandfather, F. Melius Christiansen.

Continue Reading →

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Stillwater School Board Meets Amidst Allegations of Closed-Door Meetings and Conflicts of Interest

Tonight’s Stillwater Area School Board meeting will be a doozy. On the heels of a third legal challenge — and an investigative series by KSTP — alleging conflicts of interest and open meeting law violations surrounding the district’s bond deal and the BOLD vote, the Stillwater School Board will meet to consider a resolution to delay all further actions to the BOLD plan by the district and its staff pending the outcome of litigation. 834 Voice, a group of parents and community members opposed to BOLD, brought forth the request to stay all action while litigation plays out in court. The 834 Voice lawsuit filed in district court on April 13 alleges:

The school district illegally closed three schools;

School district leaders violated open meeting laws;

District 834 violated the Minnesota Fair Campaign Practices Act by promising to improve the schools it now plans to close during the bond campaign;

School Board Member Kathy Buchholz and Finance Director Kristen Hoheisel did not disclose conflicts of interest, even though their spouses are employed by architecture and financial firms the district contracts with for construction and financial services related to the bond. Stillwater Area Public Schools Superintendent Denise Pontrelli has denied the allegations, saying the claims “have no merit.”

834 Voice Legal Challenge to Stillwater BOLD

In addition to the most recent legal challenge, Stillwater Area Public Schools have been on the defensive following an investigative series by KSTP. Continue Reading →

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Legal Challenges of BOLD Plan Begin Piling Up for Stillwater Area Public Schools

Stillwater Area Public Schools’ legal team is going to be busy in the months following the Board’s decision to approve Superintendent Denise Pontrelli’s BOLD plan. Stillwater parent group 834 VOICE has filed the first of two expected lawsuits against Stillwater Area Public Schools in an attempt to reverse the BOLD plan to close three Marine, Withrow and Oak Park elementary schools. The 834 VOICE group’s attorney Fritz Knaak on Monday filed a Petition for a Writ of Certiorari with the Minnesota Court of Appeals seeking to reverse the school board’s decision to close the schools. “The certiorari appeal process exists for direct challenges like this one to a school board’s decision to close schools,” Knaak said. “This particular part of the challenge will have the Appeals Court look at the record the Board had in front of it — and decide whether there was enough evidence in it to justify the decision.”

The appeals court will not offer an opinion of the school board’s interpretation of evidence, Knaak said, but it would determine if there was enough “good evidence to show that the closings were both ‘necessary’ and ‘practicable.’”

The court of appeals petition is the first step of a litigation process that 834 VOICE is bringing against Stillwater Area Public Schools. Continue Reading →

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Breakdown: Stillwater Schools Initial Boundary Change Proposals

Stillwater Area Public Schools presented four options for elementary and middle school attendance boundaries beginning during the 2017-18 school year. The boundaries are being redrawn after the school board voted to approve BOLD, which in part, closes Withrow, Marine and Oak Park elementary schools in 2017. The district is also planning to open Brookview Elementary School, a new building in Woodbury, moving sixth-graders to middle schools and ninth-graders to the high school. Two of the attendance boundary change options move students from both Withrow and Marine to Stonebridge Elementary School, while the other two options move students at Marine to Stonebridge and students who currently attend Withrow to Rutherford. All four proposals split students currently enrolled at Oak Park Elementary between Lily Lake and Andersen elementary schools. Continue Reading →

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Updated: Parent Files Petition to Require Stillwater Schools to Keep Bond Promises, or Seek New Voter-Approved Referendum

A Stillwater parent today filed a petition in Washington County District Court to require the Stillwater Area School District to improve elementary schools in accordance with the May 12, 2015 bond question approved by voters or seek new voter approval for a changed purpose. Melissa Douglas, through her attorney Erick Kaardal, filed a petition for a writ of mandamus with the District Court. A writ of mandamus is an order to require the School District to obey the law ― in this case alleging, District 834 “exceeded its authority and failed to meet its statutory obligations to the voters who approved the bond referendum,” according to a news release. The petition states:

“Stillwater Area School District, after obtaining voter approval for school building bonds not to exceed $97.5 million now seeks to materially change the original purpose for the obligation proceeds. By doing so, the School District is violating not only statutory law, but the social contract between it and the parents to obtain passage of the bond obligations. Continue Reading →

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Document: Stillwater BOLD Focus Groups Full Report

Stillwater Area Public Schools recently commissioned three focus groups relating to Superintendent Denise Pontrelli’s BOLD proposal. Teamworks International conducted three focus groups — one group of staff and two groups of parents — to offer thoughts on their personal experiences with Stillwater Area Public Schools and share perspectives on the BOLD proposal. Take a look at the full report:

Stillwater BOLD Focus Group Full Report

The themes of a few discussions from the 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. Continue Reading →

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Open Letter to the Stillwater School Board on BOLD: ‘I’ve Been Quiet Long Enough’

At lunch I happened to catch Superintendent Denise Pontrelli’s MPR interview. If not familiar with the fiasco in the Valley my impression would have been Denise did a nice job – well-spoken and articulate. If one has an even passing understanding of the turmoil this has caused, the segment made your stomach twist in knots. Spin doctoring and answers without specifics is one thing, but complete falsehoods is not acceptable. Two items before a stream of thought:

My family is not impacted. Continue Reading →

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

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. Continue Reading →

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Valley Parents Rally Around Stillwater Schools, Offer Alternative Plan to School Closures

A group of Stillwater parents, teachers and community members has presented a community-driven marketing and outreach plan to increase enrollment in Stillwater Area Public Schools as an alternative to Superintendent Denise Pontrelli’s BOLD proposal to close three elementary schools. The school board is expected to vote on the BOLD proposal on Thursday, March 3. The meeting begins at 5 p.m. at Stillwater Junior High School. Choice 834, a group of community members who oppose BOLD, presented their plan to district administrators on Feb. 19. Continue Reading →

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Dynamic Father-Daughter Duo Create Superhero Student Play

Superheroes are all the rage in movies and TV and now drama club students at Stillwater Junior High School are getting into the act with a student-written, student-directed, and student-performed play about an unexpected teenage superhero. “My Life as a Superhero” chronicles how teenager Jill Jamison is unexpectedly proclaimed a superhero and has her life thrown into chaos, uncharted territory, and danger. Jill has nowhere to turn for help, except a web site for the Superhero Guild. The play was written by former SJHS theater student, Holly Newton, and her father, Dale. Holly came up with the idea in ninth grade after seeing a superhero movie that was too violent for her. Continue Reading →

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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. Continue Reading →

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Explorer Ann Bancroft Visits Marine Elementary School

Marine Elementary School students were visited by a very special guest last week for participating in PowerUp’s WinterWarm-Up Challenge. World-famous author, teacher and adventurer Ann Bancroft visited Marine Elementary School to celebrate their Winter Warm-Up Challenge. For five weeks — from Jan. 8 to Feb. 11 — Marine Elementary School kids stayed active by learning outdoor activities like cross country skiing, snowshoeing and ice skating. Continue Reading →

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