The moment the crowd was waiting for came at the very beginning of the Stillwater school board forum, when the moderator asked the 10 candidates where they stood on the closing of three elementary schools — the question, she said, that “seems to dominate many, if not most, voters’ minds.”
No one hesitated: Four were in favor, six opposed.
It’s been known for months that this fall’s Stillwater school board election would be a referendum on one of the metro area’s fiercest school controversies. When Superintendent Denise Pontrelli proposed last winter to close schools in Oak Park Heights, Marine on St. Croix and rural Hugo as part of her plan to reorganize schools — called BOLD, for “Building Opportunities for Learning and Discovery” — a storm of protest followed.
BOLD opponents believe that if they fill all three open board seats, they would create a new majority to reverse the current board’s March 3 decision to back Pontrelli’s plan. That 5-2 vote led to three legal actions against the district, including one still pending in the Minnesota Court of Appeals and another in Washington County District Court.
Two of the 10 candidates are incumbents — Amy Burback, who voted in favor of the closings, and Michael Ptacek, who opposed them.
At Monday’s forum, Burback said that simply reducing the BOLD plan to the school closings doesn’t give voters enough credit. BOLD, she said, “supports equitable learning opportunities, student supports, and comprehensive programming of arts, athletics and academics that we hold so close to our hearts as a tradition in this town.”
But Ptacek said the board erred in closing schools because costs will rise, parents didn’t have a voice in it and the resulting divisions will “perpetuate fear” and hamper future decisions. “Unity will not occur by closing three elementary schools,” he said.
Supporters of BOLD and the school closings said the decision represented an investment in students.
Robert Craggs of Lakeland said he supported closing the schools because too much money is spent on operating costs instead of students. “It’s critical that we invest in teaching and learning,” he said. Jennifer Pelletier of Lake Elmo said it was time for a “revolving door” of district superintendents to stop and to commit money to students, not buildings.
“We so constantly get angered by somebody and don’t like decisions that are made,” Pelletier said.
Michelle Deziel of Lake Elmo said she supported BOLD because it will implement the Bridge to Excellence, the district’s learning plan. “I see our district is on the pathway to success, and I want that to continue,” she said.
Opponents, however, said the board had been less than transparent.
Jerry Clark of Stillwater pledged to delay a decision in favor of a “new look” at the district’s curriculum and finances. “We need to reach out, slow down, re-evaluate,” he said. Chad Gamradt of Stillwater said the decision lacked critical community engagement and left the district’s north side without any elementary schools. “The community wasn’t heard,” he said.
Donald Hovland of Oak Park Heights said BOLD endangered future school bond issues because so many residents had lost trust in district leaders. BOLD, he said, “jeopardizes not only the northern part of the district but all of the district.”
Another opponent, Tom DeGree of Lake Elmo, said he worried that the board’s decision would drive families to charter schools, resulting in a significant loss of state funding for the Stillwater district. “This is going to decimate the schools,” he said.
Sarah Stivland of Stillwater disputed that closing three schools “that are paid for” would help other district schools, including the oft-cited Lake Elmo Elementary. “I think we will lose money if we close these schools,” she said, because more families will leave the district.
The moderator, Marguerite Rheinberger, asked the candidates whether they would try to fire the superintendent. Pontrelli was hired in June 2015, just months before proposing the school closings, and drew criticism from some parents who contended she acted without knowing the people and school histories involved.
Most of the candidates said that if a new board reversed the decision to close the schools, they would expect Pontrelli to follow their wishes before deciding whether she should stay. Candidates in favor of the closings said the plan should stay intact and that Pontrelli should implement it.
Much of the discussion at the 90-minute forum, held Monday at Stillwater Junior High School and sponsored by the Stillwater Gazette, dealt with district spending and whether it should “market” itself to attract more students.
Ptacek said the district should fill existing schools with new students rather than consolidate them. Under BOLD, he said, the district would continue to lose students to charter schools such as the 1,200-student St. Croix Preparatory Academy.
“Whether you like it or not, St. Croix Prep proved that marketing works,” he said.
But Burback said BOLD already has put the district on the best track to righting itself financially and academically.
“I hope we can grow our enrollment by becoming the best product in the valley,” she said.