A furious confrontation between the Stillwater school district and parents is roiling the district’s plan to shutter two highly ranked elementary schools. Opponents say closing Marine on St. Croix’s only elementary school and another rural school, Withrow Elementary in Hugo, would rip the heart out of those communities and force an exodus to charter schools.

Another school targeted for closing — the larger, more urban Oak Park Elementary — draws students from Oak Park Heights and Stillwater. In all, the plan would close three of the district’s 10 elementary schools.

“It’s difficult for the community. I understand it, I’m not surprised,” said first-year Superintendent Denise Pontrelli. “It’s not an issue of whether schools are good or not. You aren’t going to find a community that thinks it’s a good idea to close a school.”

The district’s BOLD proposal, short for “Build Opportunities for students to Learn and Discover,” surfaced publicly just before Christmas and will be voted on by the school board Feb. 11.

It promises an “equitable learning experience” to each of the 8,300 students in the sprawling district, at an annual savings of $1.26 million.

But opponents, including thousands of parents and numerous elected officials, say the closings threaten to rob Marine on St. Croix, Hugo and Oak Park Heights of their identities and leave the district in worse shape because many displaced students would choose other options.

The controversy is expected to draw scores for a public hearing at 5 p.m. Tuesday at Oak-Land Junior High School in Lake Elmo, and subsequent hearings at the same time and place Wednesday and Thursday.

Proposals to close schools are predictably contentious in Minnesota’s 332 school districts, state Department of Education spokesman Josh Collins said. “It’s not unusual for districts to be evaluating as their enrollment ebbs and flows,” he said.

But this cutback may be even trickier than most to handle.

Children in Marine on St. Croix have attended school there since 1849, when loggers tromped the mighty white pine forests of the Upper St. Croix River.

Moreover, many voters approved a $97.5 million bond issue last year to build an elementary school and expand the high school with the understanding that schools wouldn’t close. Stillwater Mayor Ted Kozlowski said people feel betrayed.

“Our voters out here are really upset,” he said. “They were told one thing and six months later the money they voted for is no longer going to these elementary schools.”

Both Marine, with 157 students, and Withrow, with 189, are ranked among the smallest schools in Minnesota but also among the best because of their academic achievements.

At Oak Park Elementary, the only elementary school in Oak Park Heights, about 300 students attend regular classes and 150 others participate in the district’s autism and Gifted and Talented programs.

The money approved last year will be used to reconfigure the district’s grade levels, expand Stillwater Area High School to include ninth-graders and build an elementary school in Woodbury to partly relieve overcrowding at Lake Elmo Elementary.

In Oak Park Heights, a city of 4,800 residents that sends half its students to Andersen Elementary in nearby Bayport, residents widely oppose the BOLD plan, said Mayor Mary McComber. “I’m not happy about it,” she said.

Pontrelli, who joined the district in June, disputed that school administrators had promised not to close schools. She said that schools south of Hwy. 36 are becoming overcrowded, while many schools north of the highway have half-empty classrooms. District research shows that trend will continue, she said.

“Will we say because this promise was made, do we ignore the data? We’re trying to be prudent with tax dollars and spend wisely,” Pontrelli said. “We’re spread too thin. We’d rather spend money on teachers and students than bricks and mortar.”

Some believe that the BOLD plan will solve a persistent money crisis. Sara Letourneau of Stillwater said during a recent listening session that a strong leader was needed to change direction and Pontrelli was doing just that.

“Unfortunately, to become the district we want to become, we must be bold and we must act,” Letourneau said.

But more than 100 opponents applauded loudly when Withrow parent Jim Feller described the plan as a “reckless experiment” and alleged that the Stillwater district office is bloated with administrators.

Several elected officials have described the opposition, known as “Stop BOLD Cold,” as an organized community protest. An online petition had more than 2,100 signatures Monday. Chuck Haas, a Hugo City Council member, said that in 18 years on the council he has seldom “seen an issue with this much interest from residents.” Hugo Mayor Tom Weidt questioned why the district was taking the proposal to a school board vote in a couple weeks.

“We should slow this process down, invite the community in,” Weidt told Pontrelli during a City Council meeting. “Sometimes decisions aren’t easy, especially one this big, affecting this many people. Hugo has had a school there for a very long time. It’s a very successful school, a great part of our community.”

Differences of opinion

Pontrelli said it’s important to move quickly because of a “domino effect” of building schools and shifting enrollments by the day classes begin in 2017.

Under the BOLD plan, students from the closing schools will move into classroom space that will open up when 600 sixth-graders begin attending middle schools — in classrooms evacuated by ninth-graders, who for the first time will attend the high school.

One of the district’s talking points is that enrollment has steadily declined in the past 20 years and, even with the three schools closed, elementary schools still will have empty seats. “We don’t feel that more time will give us a different answer,” Pontrelli said.

But school board member Mike Ptacek, in a published letter, disputed that closing schools would save money because many families could leave the district, at a loss of $10,000 per student in state aid. “Is it the job of administration to give parents the schools they want, or the schools that administrators think they should want?” he asked.

Pontrelli said recently that the community protest hadn’t changed her mind.

“The challenge is the overall capacity for the district. It’s not about them being wonderful schools,” she said.