A rush of new housing developments could overwhelm some already-crowded schools in the Stillwater school district, forcing officials to redraw school boundaries just a few years after a similar effort led to the controversial closing of three elementary schools.
Among the options the board might consider: reopening Oak Park Elementary on the border of Stillwater and Oak Park Heights, one of the three schools shuttered in 2017. The closings sparked three unsuccessful lawsuits from parents and caused deep divisions on the school board.
The stark reality of possibly hundreds of new students coming to the district has the Stillwater school board now calling for a new study of district demographics, in hopes that it could steer school planning as the board prepares for a likely school referendum next year.
“The cities of both Woodbury and Lake Elmo have grown considerably faster, even beyond their [comprehensive] plans, than anybody would have known or could have projected,” Kristin Hoheisel, executive director of finance and operations, told school board members at its meeting last week.
Board Chairwoman Sarah Stivland, who was elected to the board after campaigning against the school closings, said any discussion about redrawing boundaries in Stillwater will be “extra sensitive” given recent district history.
“Boundary changes are very disruptive for our families, and we want to be conscientious about causing a lot of turmoil for our families for very little gain,” she said.
The board followed the administration’s recommendation and ordered a more detailed demographic study.
Concerns over rising student populations come just as the board prepares to hear a report from a community committee tasked with creating a long-term facilities plan and expected next month.
Stivland and other board members said the problem they’re facing right now is the unknown. As many as six housing developments are planned in the area around the district’s newest elementary school — Brookview, in Woodbury. If all are fully built, it could mean as many as 200 new students by the fall of 2021, according to an analysis done by Assistant Superintendent Robert McDowell.
“I say that with caution,” McDowell told the board last week, adding he was using the worst-case scenario so that the district isn’t taken by surprise. If just one development doesn’t happen, it could mean many fewer students going to Stillwater schools, he said.
A community survey conducted last fall showed that a majority of the survey’s 400 respondents believed the district didn’t have enough space to meet its needs in five years. The survey, from the Morris Leatherman Group, found much stronger support for renovating older buildings than building new ones, with some 68% of respondents saying they supported renovation. Among the key findings: “hostility” to higher property taxes.
The future of Oak Park could hinge on the question of whether taxpayers want renovations or new construction. The Stillwater district administration has considered moving from its main offices on Greeley Street into the Oak Park school, a move that could add pressure to build a new elementary school elsewhere.
At the time that Oak Park was closed, along with schools in Marine on St. Croix and Withrow in rural Hugo, Superintendent Denise Pontrelli said the closings were necessary to better balance enrollments and accommodate population growth in the district’s south.
Carrie Rolstad, a member of the Community Design Team, said she’s more in favor of reopening Oak Park as an elementary school.
“Why would we have to build a second school when we could have one that could accommodate up to 500 students?” she asked.
The district has some room for growth, depending on the age of incoming students. There’s room for about 100 students at Rutherford Elementary, 145 at Stonebridge Elementary and 50 at Lily Lake Elementary, all Stillwater schools — a total of about 300.
In some ways, Board Member Tina Riehle said, boundary changes are a normal part of operating a school district. “You can’t pick up and relocate your school” to accommodate areas that need more classrooms, she said.
So the school board will gather as much information as it can before making a decision, with the aim of minimizing disruptions.
“It’s hard,” Riehle said. “You have to pay attention to what your community is saying. … You have to remember that as a board member you are working on behalf of the taxpayers and the students in the district.”