Despite near-unanimous opposition from residents who spoke, the Stillwater school board voted 6-1 on Thursday night to delay a controversial proposal that would close three elementary schools.
The vote came after an 80-minute citizen “listening session” when all but one of the people who testified called for board members to vote down Superintendent Denise Pontrelli’s appeal for a three-week delay to her plan.
But in the end, only board member Mike Ptacek opposed delaying a vote on the “Build Opportunities for students to Learn and Discover” plan, known as BOLD for short. It seeks to close schools in Marine on St. Croix, rural Hugo and Stillwater and move those students into the district’s other seven elementary schools.
A delay to March 3, said board member Kathy Buchholz, “indicates a willingness by the district to respond to community concerns that the timeline is too short.”
Ptacek and fellow board member Shelley Pearson asked Pontrelli what a delay would accomplish.
The first-time superintendent, hired in June, said the extra time would allow district administrators to better communicate work that had been done to verify population projections and other disputed data.
“It was clear to me tonight that many of those things haven’t resonated with folks,” she said.
But a murmur of disapproval ran through many of about 400 people in the Stillwater Junior High School auditorium when she added: “The data that we’ll be sharing [on March 3] we don’t expect would be significantly different.”
BOLD includes several other districtwide measures, such as shifting sixth-graders into middle schools, ninth-graders into a new addition at Stillwater Area High School and construction of a new elementary school in Woodbury.
But it’s the proposed school closings that have sparked a storm of public protest, and it continued at Thursday’s listening session.
One speaker, a teacher at the overcrowded Lake Elmo Elementary, said he favored BOLD because it would balance services and programming among the district’s schools.
But others assailed the plan as divisive, disrespectful and heartless. Some speakers said they would pull their children from the Stillwater district if the BOLD plan was approved. Another said closings would create “a public education desert” in the district’s north end.
“Our community is weary for fighting what we believe in,” said Lance Cunningham of Hugo.
Before the board voted to delay action on the plan, member Paula O’Loughlin said she had met individually with more than 100 residents who offered suggestions for saving money. One was to forgo a planned expansion of athletic amenities at the high school, which drew applause from the audience.
Board member George Hoeppner talked about the power of collaboration, quoting a former student in his 10th-grade English class: “show us the challenge and allow us to collaborate and create better alternatives, together.” And board member Amy Burback said, “We can choose to exercise kindness and gentleness or we can choose outrage and acrimony.”
Looming in the background of the BOLD debate is the possibility of transfers to charter schools such as St. Croix Preparatory Academy if the plan is approved. Many of the 1,200 students attending the prep school come from the Stillwater school district’s attendance area.
“We have received some inquiries and increased application numbers, but St. Croix Prep already has a waiting list in grades K-6 so additional interest in our program will simply mean longer waiting lists,” executive director Jon Gutierrez said this week.