It’s almost always difficult, often polarizing and sometimes emotional. Closing schools can stir community feelings like few other administrative actions in education. That pattern is being repeated in the Stillwater school district over the proposed closure of three small elementary schools.
While devotion to individual schools is admirable, district leaders make a reasonable case for the closings. They’re rightly focused on the best use of school resources for all 8,300 district students — including the 800 who could move to different buildings.
Proposed in December by Superintendent Denise Pontrelli, the plan is called “Building Opportunities to Learn and Discover,” or BOLD. It would close schools in Marine on St. Croix, rural Hugo and Stillwater and move those students into the district’s other seven elementary schools.
Two of the schools have fewer than 200 students, and significant numbers open-enroll from other areas or are in special programs located there to help fill the buildings. Demographic experts say the northern section of the district (where those schools are located) is not expected to see an increase in the population of families with young children. The growth areas are in the central and southern regions, where most of the district’s 10 schools are located.
District officials say they have made budget cuts in most of the past 10 years and that the closings would save $1.3 million annually. But the change is not just about savings. Concentrating students and staff in fewer buildings can reduce overall class sizes and offer more equitable academic opportunities to more students.
Still, hundreds of parents and others in the “Stop BOLD Cold’’ effort have vehemently objected in public meetings and online. “Save our Schools’’ signs dot the landscape along the rural roads in the northern communities in the district. They argue that there is no need to close the high-performing schools and that other steps can be taken to save money — such as using volunteers and delaying extracurricular activities at other schools.
Opponents hired attorney and former state legislator Fritz Knaak to send the district notice of a possible lawsuit to stop BOLD. The notice of claim argues that BOLD would lower property values and that the district violated promises made during a 2013 bond and levy renewal campaign that the schools would remain open.
It’s understandable why parents and others feel so strongly about these schools. Two of the three are small, six-classroom buildings in picturesque rural settings. But this is not the first time that closing the schools has been reviewed. If it is not done now, the inevitable choice will be made later. After delaying a decision to allow more explanation of the plan and community comments, the Stillwater school board is expected to vote on March 3. It should proceed with BOLD.
For the sake of students and to heal community rifts, parents and others should channel the passion for their current programs into supporting the new schools their kids will attend.