Following Tuesday’s election, the dynamics have slightly shifted in a controversy over school closings in the Stillwater district. What happens next depends on the willingness of school board members to negotiate a compromise.
Under a reorganization plan that sparked an uproar, schools in Marine on St. Croix, rural Hugo and Stillwater/Oak Park Heights would be closed.
Incumbent Michael Ptacek, who opposed closing the schools, was re-elected by a wide margin. Voters also elected anti-closings candidate Sarah Stivland, who captured the most votes of the 10 candidates on the ballot. Together, Ptacek and Stivland landed 34 percent of all votes cast — and the six candidates who opposed the closings commanded 62 percent of the total vote.
“It seems to me that the writing’s on the wall,” Stivland said. “The community has spoken and they want the schools to stay open. If we don’t honor that, we’re going to cause more trouble and discourse in this community.”
Ptacek and Stivland, both of Stillwater, had campaigned as a package deal with closings opponent Chad Gamradt. They hoped to fill the three open seats on the seven-member board and, aligned with incumbent Shelley Pearson, overturn the decision last March to close the three elementary schools in the north end of the district.
But Jennifer Pelletier, not Gamradt, won that third seat. Pelletier, of Lake Elmo, supports the decision to close schools, the most controversial aspect of Superintendent Denise Pontrelli’s reorganization plan known as Building Opportunities for Learning and Discovery, or BOLD for short.
“I’m not seeking a reversal of BOLD. That would be going back on everything I campaigned on,” Pelletier said Wednesday.
But she also wants to better understand the decision to close schools, and what alternatives were available “that weren’t so painful for these families.”
An incumbent seeking re-election, Amy Burback, lost her seat. She supported closing the schools, she said, to better position the district for financial investments in teachers and students.
Ptacek said that closing schools would cause more families to lose trust and even leave the district. He expects that because of Tuesday’s vote the new board, once seated in January, will take a fresh look at the school closing plan. “That’s a pretty strong message coming from the community,” said Ptacek, who will serve his third four-year term. “There is a lot of community dissatisfaction and it is not limited to those three schools that are proposed for closing.”
Meanwhile, the school district lingers under a shadow of suspicion because of lawsuits that allege open meeting violations and other infractions linked to BOLD. The old board voted for a moratorium on closing the schools until legal troubles could be resolved, but one trial now has been delayed until October. Pontrelli’s plan called for the schools to be closed at the end of this school year.
Stivland said that “the sooner we resolve some of these contentious issues the better it will be for our district,” especially when voters are asked to approve more operating levies.
“It’s not just about saving schools for me, it’s really about bringing our schools back to a level of excellence that we’ve really been struggling to find for awhile,” she said.
Pelletier said she wants to give voice to district residents who feel they haven’t been heard, including people upset over the school closings and longer bus rides for students.
“I more than empathize with these families,” she said. “I think we could have done a better job at presenting these changes.”