A new superintendent’s controversial proposal to close three elementary schools in the Stillwater district — scheduled for a vote by the school board next week — started quietly right before Christmas.
That’s when Denise Pontrelli floated the plan known as BOLD, short for “Build Opportunities for students to Learn and Discover.” She said that BOLD would “right-size” the district’s remaining schools to create “equitable learning opportunities” for all students, and that it’s the only solution to years of budget shortfalls.
But thousands of angry parents quickly formed “Stop BOLD Cold” to protest closing Marine Elementary in Marine on St. Croix, Withrow Elementary in rural Hugo and Oak Park Elementary in Stillwater.
In three recent public hearings, one for each school, residents spoke overwhelmingly against closings. Some asked why the district formulated a plan without them. “If I was cut out of the process from the beginning, what else don’t I know about?” one Oak Park parent testified.
Others were incensed to discover that among the few people who spoke in favor of BOLD were Pontrelli’s two adult children, who have different last names and didn’t disclose their family connection. Parent Sean Albiston wrote Pontrelli that “having your kids speak in favor of the BOLD plan … was completely dishonest and completely unethical.” She replied that her children, ages 26 and 22, were “free, as everyone else, to share their perspective.”
Elected officials in Stillwater, Oak Park Heights, Hugo, Marine on St. Croix, and May and Baytown townships have implored the district, either individually or jointly, to carefully examine the consequences of school closings. They included Washington County Commissioner Fran Miron, whose district includes the Withrow and Marine schools.
Many parents said they had voted for the $97.5 million bond issue in May because it included improvements at the targeted schools. Chuck Haas, a Hugo City Council member, said the bond issue’s legal notice promised to spend about $2 million at the same schools that BOLD now proposes to close to save $1.2 million. Voters have “every right,” he said, to expect the district to comply.
“Any less would not only be a violation of trust by the school district but an action that would virtually assure failure of future levies or referendums and likely result in community outrage expressed at the next school board election,” Haas wrote.
Pontrelli said Thursday that Oak Park will get a heating and cooling upgrade this summer regardless of what happens — the building would be used by administrators if the board approves BOLD — but projects at the two other schools will be re-evaluated after the board’s decision. “At the time of the bond there were no plans to consolidate schools,” she said.
A trio of Republican legislators — Reps. Karin Housley, Kathy Lohmer and Bob Dettmer — wrote to school board members that they met with Pontrelli for two hours seeking answers about costs related to BOLD. Their sense was “that the decision to close these schools had been made … and our thoughts and questions were not given serious considerations.”
Many parents seem to agree.