A school board vote slated for Thursday on a controversial plan to close three elementary schools in the Stillwater district could be delayed after weeks of fierce public protest, including a lawsuit being threatened at the last minute.
Superintendent Denise Pontrelli said Wednesday she will seek a three-week delay to allow residents to learn more about the plan, called “Build Opportunities for students to Learn and Discover,” or BOLD. “District leaders have heard that people are still unclear about the reasoning for the proposed school consolidation,” she said. “Should the board agree to delay the decision, more information would be shared with the community.”
Her request comes a day after attorney Fritz Knaak served her with notice of a possible lawsuit intended to stop BOLD. Knaak, who was hired by a group of parents and taxpayers, said the suit could seek damages for diminished property values as a result of school closings and for possible violations of Minnesota’s open-meeting law.
Pontrelli said the district’s decision to seek a delay had nothing to do with the suit, but instead recognizes community requests for more time.
Many parents reacted to her announcement with anger and dismay, using social media to describe it as a stalling tactic. They said they want the board to vote Thursday and reject BOLD to clear the way for more community engagement on the future of the district’s schools.
The group that hired Knaak, “834 Voice” (for school district 834), said a delay “will only prolong the damage that the uncertainty and stress on our community is already causing.”
Pontrelli responded that Knaak’s legal notice contains false and misleading statements. “This appears to be an attempt by a group to block or stop the school board’s valid and legitimate decisionmaking regarding its public schools,” she said.
She will ask the board to delay a vote at Thursday’s business meeting, which begins at 6:30 p.m. in the Stillwater Junior High School auditorium. A listening session is set for 5 p.m.
A divided district
Accusations of broken promises, lost trust, faulty data and poor communications have dogged the BOLD plan since Pontrelli unveiled it in December. She said the districtwide plan would reverse years of budget shortfalls and make better use of half-empty classrooms. But those goals were quickly overshadowed by the proposed closings of the schools in Marine on St. Croix, Hugo and Stillwater.
George Hoeppner, a retired Stillwater Area High School teacher who chairs the school board, said he didn’t know how the other six members might vote on the request for a delay, and that he hadn’t decided how he will vote on BOLD itself.
Pontrelli, hired in June to lead the 8,300-student district, said this week that she stands by BOLD because it will accommodate population growth in the district’s south end and prevent unpredictable budget cuts in programming and other learning services. “Because of the emotion, we haven’t been able to focus on the positive piece of what BOLD will do districtwide,” she said.
Mike Ptacek, an eight-year school board member, said BOLD relies on a “faulty assumption” that families won’t leave the district if their schools close. “If they lose 100 kids, they [will] lose that money they want to invest in other schools,” he said.
He also said administrators are wrongly reneging on the implicit promises of a May 2015 bond issue that included improvements at the three targeted schools. Voters approved the $97.5 million bond on that assumption, he said. “They felt it was bait and switch,” said Ptacek, a former teacher, superintendent and curriculum director. “Bottom line is, we’ve really lost a lot of trust.”
An uprising of parents
Pontrelli and the district’s community engagement manager, Carissa Keister, said the ballot language didn’t include specific references to money for improvements at the three schools. They acknowledge that legally required public notices of the bond issue did.
“It’s obviously a hot topic for people,” Pontrelli said this week. “For us, we really see it as a nonissue. We don’t have any intention of not following the legal procedures.”
While BOLD has its supporters, opponents number in the thousands.
A petition on the “Stop BOLD Cold” website had more than 2,500 signatures Wednesday. Parents have filed a petition with the Washington County auditor seeking consolidation of the Stillwater and Mahtomedi school districts. Other parents contested the district’s demographic findings that school enrollments in the north will decline.
Jim Dropp, a real estate agent, said the demographic data the district is relying on were compiled during the Great Recession. He said the district has “underestimated, perhaps greatly underestimated, the number of students coming into our district.”
To that, Pontrelli said the Stillwater area is aging faster than most suburban cities.
Opponents aren’t buying it, including Cader Howard, pastor of First Presbyterian Church, which provides 32 volunteers to tutor 90 children at Oak Park Elementary. “I think the biggest damage is the broken trust,” he said.