Private conversations about closing three schools in the Stillwater district had been taking place at least a month before Superintendent Denise Pontrelli’s public announcement of the plan was met with a storm of community outrage.
Board Chairman George Hoeppner wrote in an e-mail to the new superintendent in November that a “small group board meeting” had discussed closing the Marine, Withrow and Oak Park schools — the most controversial component of Pontrelli’s proposed reorganization plan known as BOLD (short for “Building Opportunities for Learning and Discovery”).
“I’m sure you will create quite a stir in the community as we move forward, but there is little doubt that we needed a push to make us a better district,” Hoeppner wrote.
He was right. Within days after the December announcement of BOLD, hundreds of parents combined forces to “stop BOLD cold,” condemning what they said was a secret decision to close schools.
Five months later, the dispute has grown into one of Minnesota’s fiercest school controversies, engulfing the Stillwater district in distrust and uncertainty.
“What’s happening in Stillwater has been a real sea change as far as decisions school boards make,” said Zis Weisberg, a school parent who described most board members as “defensive” when parents sought answers.
“It’s a sign that they should get a second opinion,” said Weisberg, a medical doctor. “The whole thing is catastrophic for the community. No one enjoys this. No matter how this turns out, our school district has taken a big hit.”
A court victory, legislative action, or four opposing board votes could stop BOLD. Toward that end, in recent months BOLD opponents have:
• Filed three lawsuits against the district;
• Organized into seven teams — such as legal, government relations and fundraising — to change district policy;
• Petitioned to merge the Stillwater and Mahtomedi districts to reduce staff and save money;
• Petitioned for Pontrelli’s dismissal, so far collecting more than 1,000 signatures;
• Collected signatures seeking a state audit of school district finances;
• Threatened to contest two school board seats up for election this fall that are held by pro-BOLD members Amy Burback and Kathy Buchholz.
Opponents have already slowed BOLD; the school board voted 4-2 in April to delay action on the closings until legal disputes are resolved.
And the controversy hasn’t gone unnoticed elsewhere in the metro area.
“It seems like a comedy of errors, a mess,” said former state Rep. Mindy Greiling, a longtime legislative leader on education issues, who acknowledged a “volatile” history in the Stillwater district. “Parents don’t just get involved lightly. It seems to me that the district is ready for some sort of neutral judge.”
Dispute over resources
Pontrelli, along with the five school board members who voted March 3 to approve BOLD, have said that a radical new direction would end cycles of budget shortfalls and improve learning opportunities in a district that covers half of Washington County.
Closing schools in Marine on St. Croix, rural Hugo and Stillwater would allow a more equitable distribution of resources, Pontrelli argued.
“I don’t think she had a lot of choice. Running small schools is very expensive,” said Karen Seashore, a University of Minnesota sociologist who researches school improvement and reform. “You have to think about the cost vs. the welfare of all the kids.”
Pontrelli and Hoeppner declined to comment, saying attorneys advised them not to talk about BOLD because of the ongoing lawsuits.
The BOLD plan includes building a new Brookview Elementary school in the district’s south corner in Woodbury and expanding Stillwater Area High School to make room for ninth-graders. Closing schools and opening new ones would shift nearly half the district’s 8,300 students when classes begin in 2017.
The lawsuits contend that closing the schools would violate terms of a voter-approved operating levy in 2013 and a successful $97.5 million bond referendum in 2015. In its legal response, the district argued that state law gives “discretion to abandon a project that was the subject of a bond referendum and dictates how the proceeds may be used in such circumstances.”
The first court hearing, initiated by parent Melissa Douglas, will be held June 24 in Washington County District Court.
Public opposition to BOLD began immediately after it was announced, according to e-mails the Star Tribune obtained through the state open records law.
One resident wrote that “this seems to be such a rush decision by someone having not even been with the district a full year,” referring to Pontrelli’s hiring last summer.
Another said that parents “were not included from the beginning” and that the district should cut the pay of top administrators rather than close schools.
“I feel the made-up slogans and terms for this proposal are nothing but manipulative marketing propaganda, i.e., be bold, right-size schools, inequitable educations, etc.,” wrote “A Fed Up Parent,” whose name was blacked out.
“Maybe the best thing [the district] could do is make the BOLD plan less bold,” Greiling said. “It’s really unfortunate that they passed the bond saying one thing and so soon after said something else.”
Cathy Moen, the district’s data compliance officer, said some e-mails weren’t provided to the Star Tribune because of the lawsuits. But two e-mails obtained in an earlier data request by 834 VOICE, a legal team of parents, were posted on social media.
One was the November e-mail Hoeppner sent to Pontrelli about school closings. In that e-mail, he said that he doubted he could vote to close Oak Park Elementary, a school on the border of Stillwater and Oak Park Heights that draws many low-income students.
“Numerous senior citizens in my neighborhood supported the levy and bond; they might have thought that keeping an elementary school in the neighborhood was part of the deal,” Hoeppner wrote.
He eventually voted to close all three schools, including Oak Park.
In an e-mail sent Jan. 1, Hoeppner seemed frustrated with Pontrelli, telling her he was “a bit dismayed” at her disclosure in an earlier e-mail of “all the work that is happening behind the scenes” on the BOLD plan.
“One of the problems for you and your team is that few people in District 834 know you,” he wrote. “You all may be intelligent, forward thinking people but you have not been around the district long enough” to gain the respect needed to make major changes.