A Stillwater school district parent filed a court petition Tuesday alleging that the district misled voters when it asked them to approve a $97.5 million bond issue for improvements at the district’s nine elementary schools.
Melissa Douglas is asking a Washington County district judge to require that the school district either comply with what she believes were the terms of last May’s bond referendum or order a new vote. The filing came two days before the school board is expected to vote on a proposal by Superintendent Denise Pontrelli that would close three schools, in Marine on St. Croix, Stillwater and Hugo.
Those closings are part of the district’s Building Opportunities to Learn and Discover plan, known as BOLD, that 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.
But many parents and some elected leaders have vocally objected to the school closings, saying they felt betrayed by the district’s plans in light of the referendum’s stated goals.
“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,” according to the petition, filed by Minneapolis attorney Erick Kaardal.
The school board is scheduled to decide on the proposed closings Thursday evening when Pontrelli presents BOLD to the board for a vote.
Douglas, in her court filing, said school district representatives held more than 50 public meetings last spring to promote the bond referendum and never once raised the prospect of school closings.
Expansion projects approved in the bond issue include $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.
Closing the three schools would save an estimated $1.26 million a year, the school district said.
The bond issue passed by a narrow margin, with the referendum drawing 15 percent voter turnout. Some parents testified in district listening sessions this winter that they wouldn’t have supported the bond issue if they had known their schools would be closed.
On Wednesday, Pontrelli issued this statement in response to the court petition:
“Yesterday the district was served a lawsuit brought by a single citizen in an attempt to prohibit the school board from making a decision to close the three elementary schools currently under consideration in the BOLD initiative.
“In essence, the citizen and her lawyers want a judge to rule that the fact that the voters’ in our school district passed the bond referendum in May 2015 means that the district cannot make this decision about its schools. Our attorney believes this lawsuit has no merit and is part of a strategy to dictate the Board’s process and decision —regardless of the cost to the district.
“We are now required to spend significant time and money to defend against this latest attempt to obstruct the legitimate and important decision-making by the school board as to how best serve all our students and families in Stillwater Area Schools.”