The battle over a proposal to close three schools in the Stillwater district has spread to several fronts, but at the heart of the conflict is a fight over projected population growth pitting the district's demographer against the Metropolitan Council.

The so-called BOLD plan, headed for a school board vote Thursday, has met vocal opposition from parents who dispute the district's contention that declining enrollments will continue. They say that Superintendent Denise Pontrelli and district administrators are needlessly jeopardizing high-achieving neighborhood schools.

"Just because you don't see big houses being built in Stillwater doesn't mean we're dead," Oak Park Elementary parent Erica Schanno told school board members during a recent public hearing.

But after more than two months of often bitter public debate, the school district hasn't budged from its position that enrollment growth has permanently shifted south in the sprawling Washington County district.

That's why district officials say it makes sense to close elementary schools in the district's north end — in Marine on St. Croix, Hugo and Stillwater — at an estimated savings of $1.26 million a year.

That amount rankles opponents because of how it stacks up against expansion projects planned in the district: the $25.7 million elementary school in Woodbury, a $48 million 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.

Opponents of BOLD — Building Opportunities to Learn and Discover — say the district is using outdated housing figures to make its case. They say the real estate market has come roaring back after the recession and that new residents will arrive with the opening of the St. Croix River bridge in 2017.

Their views are bolstered by the Met Council, which expects substantially more people in Washington County in the near future.

"We are forecasting population growth between now and 2040 for most of the cities in the school district," said Libby Starling, the agency's policy and research manager.

That means more residents in Marine on St. Croix, which has had a school since 1848, and Hugo, home of the targeted Withrow Elementary.

But demographer Hazel Reinhardt, who produced a report for the school district, said Monday that many of those residents will be older. District enrollment continues to decline even as more single-family housing comes on the market, she said.

Strong growth in most cities

Pontrelli's BOLD plan argues that district enrollments have dwindled consistently over 10 years, to about 8,300 students in schools built to accommodate 10,000. By closing the three elementary schools, she said, students could be consolidated in the remaining seven and there would still be classroom space available.

Stillwater district enrollment fell by 7 percent, or 626 students, over the past 10 years because of fewer births and a larger number of students "electing other public school options," said Reinhardt, a former state demographer.

In each of those years, she said, kindergarten classes have been smaller than the previous year's grade 12 classes.

The Stillwater district's percentage of school-age kids who attend district schools fell to 71.9 percent in the 2013-14 school year, near the lower end for Twin Cities suburban districts, Reinhardt said.

But the Met Council's projections for the city of Stillwater — home of Oak Park Elementary, the largest of the three targeted schools — prompted allegations that school administrators selectively chose data to build their case for closing schools.

Stillwater had 7,076 households in 2010, and Starling said the Met Council forecasts the city will grow to 9,600 households by 2040 because of construction, possible annexations and the city's growing popularity as a place to live.

Starling said that, overall, Washington County will grow by 20 percent in about 20 years. Within the Stillwater school district, the most growth will occur in Woodbury, Lake Elmo and Stillwater proper, she said.

But Reinhardt said that growth won't fill schools because household sizes will be smaller and more residents — even if they're new to the area — will be older people.

"You still have this natural decrease going on, you're graduating out more kids than you're taking in at the kindergarten level," she said.

To real estate broker Jim Dropps, the Met Council projections mirror a trend in the housing market. His sales data show a sharp acceleration in home sales since 2013, nearly doubling over 2010.

Dropps challenged Reinhardt's findings, which he said were based on "recession-era data," and said it's not practical to assume older couples with grown children will buy three- and four-bedroom houses.

"In order for her to be right, every one of these houses would have to sell and not have kids," Dropps said.

To that, Reinhardt said "there is absolutely no evidence that the period of time we looked at is somehow negatively affecting these numbers."

District bleeding students

Entwined in the fight over population forecasts is parental choice, which means that families aren't restricted to schools close to home. Many families at Marine and Withrow elementaries, for example, enrolled by choice.

The march to charter schools has hindered district planning as well. St. Croix Preparatory Academy, in the heart of the Stillwater district, has an enrollment exceeding 1,200. Most of those students are from the Stillwater district, and Pontrelli said an influx of retirement-age residents won't replenish declining enrollments.

Met Council projections show Hugo doubling in population by 2040. Little of that growth will occur near Withrow school, said City Administrator Bryan Bear, because the city's comprehensive plan doesn't extend water and sewer to that rural setting.

City leaders are frustrated, he said, that the school district never asked what closing Withrow Elementary would mean to the city, nor told the city what it plans to do with a closed school.

Pontrelli said such decisions, including new attendance boundaries, will be made after the district closes the three schools.

Reinhardt said she has worked with enrollment projections in 100 districts. "Nothing I see at this time shows that this district is going to get rapid enrollment," she said.