A new charter school is coming to a small Washington County city that's been fighting to save its longtime elementary school.

State approval for the Marine Area Community School, to be located in Marine on St. Croix, comes in the middle of a heated debate over the future of Marine Elementary School, one of three grade schools that the Stillwater school district intends to close as part of the BOLD school restructuring program.

"For the past 161 years, the community has supported a school in Marine," said Lisa White, one of the charter school's founders. "We will have local control over decisions and be able to more fully embrace our community resources."

But charter school organizers said they began exploring a new school before the Stillwater district revealed that it wanted to close Marine Elementary and the two other elementary schools in rural Hugo and Stillwater.

Opening a charter school in the Stillwater district means that the district likely will lose students and the state funding that goes with them, continuing a bleed that began when the charter St. Croix Preparatory Academy opened in 2004.

"The potential loss of students would result in a corresponding reduction to staffing and a decrease in other expenditures," said Superintendent Denise Pontrelli.

She said the parents organizing the charter school had "expressed concerns with the long-term sustainability of Marine Elementary."

But Kristina Smitten, one of five founders of the charter school, said Thursday that the decision to open the school didn't result from any particular action by the district.

The charter school will open in the fall of 2017 and enroll up to 175 students — slightly more than the current enrollment at Marine Elementary, which the district wants to close at the end of the 2016-17 school year.

Some people have discussed a charter school for 20 years, Smitten said, and support runs strong in the city of about 700 residents.

"So far we have heard resoundingly yes," she said.

The District 834 school board voted 5-2 on March 3 to approve Pontrelli's school reorganization plan, which included the closings.

Parents vigorously opposed the proposal, and a lawsuit was filed in April by a group known as 834 Voice in an effort to stop the school closings.

Subsequently, the school board voted to delay action on the closings until a companion legal action — an 834 Voice petition to the Minnesota Appeals Court to rule the closings invalid — is resolved.

Smitten said the charter school will offer a "school choice" that brings the city's "unique community assets" into the curriculum. That includes the area's environment, arts, history and civic involvement, she said.

Although the charter school is "technically separate" from the Stillwater district, Smitten said, parents want to maintain a connection with the district.

While the charter school is expected to draw some students from outside the Stillwater district, it's expected that most students at the K-6 charter school would attend secondary schools in the Stillwater district, Smitten said.

Opponents of Pontrelli's BOLD plan have warned that many families at the closed schools would leave the district or transfer to charter schools, which are public schools that receive their own state funding under "authorizers" who manage them.

The authorizer for the Marine charter school is the Minnesota Guild, a Minneapolis company that also oversees New Heights School.

Pontrelli said the recent decision to delay school closings "does limit some of the conversations we can have," but she said the district remains interested in "partnerships" with the charter school.

"They want to be Ponies, and we want them to be Ponies," Pontrelli said, referring to the high school's team mascot.

Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037