A controversial proposal to close three elementary schools in the Stillwater School District won school board approval during a tense meeting Thursday night.

The 5-2 decision came after five hours of public testimony and statements from board members and was greeted with a roar of disapproval. Some parents sobbed as they left the meeting at Stillwater Junior High. Many carried sleeping children.

The plan, called Building Opportunities to Learn and Discover — BOLD, for short — was put forward by Superintendent Denise Pontrelli as a way to shift many of the district's 8,300 students to new schools by 2017 to accommodate enrollment growth to the south.

The vote to close schools is expected to unleash a lawsuit against the district, and many parents in the audience threatened to move their children to schools outside the district. While a few people spoke in favor of BOLD, many others criticized what they said was the district's lack of communication and failure to understand the importance of neighborhood schools.

"I object to this proposal, and even more strongly, I object to this process," said Board Member Mike Ptacek, who voted against the plan, as did Shelley Pearson.

Voting in favor of it were George Hoeppner, Kathy Buchholz, Paula O'Loughlin, Amy Burback and Tom Lehmann. Each cited his or her responsibility to serve all of the district's children — although opponents asked how closing schools would achieve that.

"It's imperative we support our teachers," said O'Loughlin, who spoke of how cycles of districtwide budget cuts have hurt learning. "Always, always, I will support kids."

About 50 people signed up to speak for up to three minutes apiece before the vote.

Two of the schools — Marine Elementary in Marine on St. Croix and Withrow Elementary in Hugo — are the district's smallest. They're also near capacity. Both have received awards for academic excellence.

The third school the board voted to close is Oak Park Elementary, on the border of Stillwater and Oak Park Heights. Many of Oak Park's students come from low-income families. The district wants to remodel the building into offices for administrators.

Opponents contested low enrollment projections and rising administrator salaries, among other issues. Several of them presented alternative plans that they said would improve the district's fortunes.

Speakers also implored the board to involve the public in solving the district's budget shortfalls and enrollment concerns.

"As you look at the people in this room, I hope you don't see them as an opposition force to be defeated," said parent Angie Hong.

A handful of BOLD supporters spoke in the hearing, including former state Sen. Kathy Saltzman, who told board members, "I know you didn't run for office because you want to close schools."

But it became apparent as board members made statements before the vote that many of them wanted to support Pontrelli, a first-time superintendent they hired last summer. Buchholz said Pontrelli was hired to make a difference and said the district needed a strong new direction.

Lawsuit may lie ahead

Thursday's meeting came after a wave of public protest that began almost immediately after Pontrelli announced the plan in December. A recent school district survey showed that a majority of respondents opposed closing schools, and that those opponents weren't limited to the areas around targeted schools.

Pontrelli and supporters of the plan said it will make class sizes more uniform and invest money in students and teachers rather than buildings.

The plan would build an elementary school in Woodbury and expand Stillwater Area High School for an influx of ninth-graders from middle schools. Closing the three schools will save an estimated $1.26 million annually, according to district officials, but opponents said increased busing costs will exceed savings.

The plan has drawn heated opposition from residents who believe that the school closings run counter to the stated goals of a $97.5 million bond issue narrowly approved by voters last year.

Opponents also claim that the demographic research district officials used for the BOLD plan is flawed.

The Metropolitan Council estimates most of the cities in the school district will grow between now and 2040. But the district's demographer said that many of those new residents will be older.

A group of parents and taxpayers has hired an attorney to threaten the district with a possible lawsuit to stop BOLD. On Tuesday, in a second legal action, a school district parent filed a court petition alleging that the district misled voters in asking them to approve the bond referendum.