A controversial plan to close three Washington County elementary schools will be delayed indefinitely until a court challenge is resolved, the Stillwater school board has decided.
The 4-2 vote also means the district will postpone active marketing and sale of the school buildings, as well as delay implementation of enrollment boundary changes, until the Minnesota Court of Appeals rules on a petition from 834 Voice, a parents’ group that opposes the school closings.
“It was the first time the parents were listened to,” said Zis Weisberg, an 834 Voice representative. “It helps parents to have some hope that there’s going to be a public school option in the north.”
In comments before the vote, taken at Thursday night’s meeting, Superintendent Denise Pontrelli defended her “Building Opportunities to Learn and Discover” plan — known as BOLD — and said that any delay in implementing it would cost money.
“This is for all of our kids,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if they’re in the buildings considered for closing or in other buildings. All of our kids have these needs.”
But Fritz Knaak, an attorney for 834 Voice, said parents have “consistently disputed” projections of “financial harm” put forth by the district. He questioned, before the board voted, why the district would continue BOLD until the appeals court decision, expected sometime in the fall.
“If you are unsuccessful, a lot of the money being spent toward implementation would be money wasted,” he told board members.
In the midst of a storm of public opposition, the board voted 5-2 on March 3 to close Marine Elementary in Marine on St. Croix, Withrow Elementary in Hugo and Oak Park Elementary on the border of Stillwater and Oak Park Heights by the 2017-18 school year.
In a petition filed in March to the appeals court, 834 Voice said the decision to close the schools was invalid and arbitrary and asked the court to overturn it. Parents accused the district of improperly winning a $97.5 million bond referendum in May 2015 by claiming the money would improve all schools, including the three on the chopping block.
At Thursday’s hearing, board members peppered Knaak and the district’s attorney, Peter Mikhail, with questions about the legalities of supporting or opposing a stay of action on the BOLD plan.
Board Member Paula O’Loughlin said the board has a “moral and ethical responsibility” to all students in the district, but Knaak said school closings create disproportionate hardships. He also told board members that if they ignored parent concerns, “that kind of action is viewed as antagonistic and threatening.”
Pontrelli said a delay would further complicate decisions that administrators must make to implement BOLD. “What this does is make it messier in the planning,” she said.
The stay will not prevent work on projects related to the bond, such as grade configuration and school construction.
Tom Lehmann, George Hoeppner, Mike Ptacek and Shelley Pearson voted for the stay of action, and O’Loughlin and Kathy Buchholz opposed it. Amy Burback was absent.
The appeals court action is one of three lawsuits filed against the district since the vote to close the schools. One, by Stillwater parent Melissa Douglas, asks a judge to either make the district abide by last year’s bond referendum or order a new election.