After hearing opposing arguments on Friday, a Washington County district judge now will decide whether a $97.5 million bond issue approved in May 2015 should go back to voters for their reconsideration.
Judge John McBride closely questioned attorneys on what the law requires for a bond referendum before concluding the hourlong hearing and telling dozens of parents and children in attendance that they shouldn’t expect a decision anytime soon.
Stillwater parent Melissa Douglas, in her petition to the court this winter, asked for a ruling that the Stillwater School District either comply with the referendum’s stated goals — which said nothing about closing schools — or order a new vote.
Days later, on March 3, the school board voted 5-2 on a proposal by Superintendent Denise Pontrelli to close three of the district’s nine elementary schools — in Marine on St. Croix, Stillwater and Hugo.
Attorney Erick Kaardal, representing Douglas, told McBride that the school board made a legal mistake with the decision to spend money to “repurpose” one of the closed schools into new air-conditioned offices for district staff members.
That school, Oak Park Elementary, was among those the district promoted as receiving improvements if the bond referendum were to pass. The two others subsequently targeted for closing are Marine Elementary and Withrow Elementary, both smaller, rural schools.
“The votes that occurred were based on those schools being open and improved,” Kaardal told McBride. “This is serious business, and the School District made the decision without adequate legal advice.”
But the attorney representing the School District, Peter Mikhail, said voters approved a construction project when they passed the bond referendum, a separate issue from the closings decision, and “what use the district plans to make of the building later is what changed.”
McBride asked both attorneys what constituted “ballot language” — was it wording that voters see on the ballot or the district’s promotion of the referendum? To Kaardal, it meant promotion. To Mikhail, it meant what the ballot said.
The board’s decision to close schools came about nine months after the referendum and after three months of fierce parent protest.
The closings were part of the district’s Building Opportunities to Learn and Discover plan, known as BOLD, which supporters say would eliminate disparities in class sizes, invest money in people rather than buildings and shift many of the district’s 8,300 students to new schools by 2017.
Many parents and some elected leaders vocally objected to the closings, saying they felt betrayed.
“The bond referendum specifically sought as a purpose to improve all nine of the district’s elementary schools and specifically identified them as receiving improvements to protect the health and safety of those elementary children,” Kaardal wrote in the court petition.
Douglas, in her court filing, said that the School District held more than 50 public meetings in the spring of 2015 to promote the bond referendum and that it never once raised the prospect of school closings.
Projects approved in the bond issue included $25.7 million for a new elementary school in Woodbury, $48 million for an addition to Stillwater Area High School to accommodate a shift of ninth-graders from middle schools and $7.9 million for athletics upgrades at the high school.
At least three board members attended Friday’s hearing, as did several district administrators. The Douglas petition is one of three legal actions pending as a result of the decision to close schools.