Community group advocates for Dist. 834 students

In recent months, the names and faces of a group of concerned community members have become familiar to the public comment section of the Stillwater Area School Board meetings. Calling themselves the Stillwater Schools Community Action Network, these parents, grandparents, school district staff and other interested residents have given impassioned speeches and requested meetings with administration with one uniting goal — do what is right for all kids.

When Lake Elmo Elementary School parent Paula O’Loughlin heard in March that class sizes in the school would increase, she and other parents turned to her school board liaison, Board Member Mike Ptacek, with the question, “What can we do?”

“When we met with Mike, we found that there was an opportunity as parents of Lake Elmo to join together, and voice our concerns and engage with the school board,” O’Loughlin said.

Fred Anderson, with children going through Stonebridge Elementary School, saw a similar class size increase in their school. During the March 27 school board meeting, Anderson heard that some classes could have as many as 35 students.

As O’Loughlin and Anderson worked to understand some of the issues facing the school district, they eventually met and got in contact with a parents group for Rutherford Elementary school.

“We found that while each of our schools were facing our separate issues, themes were emerging during our talks with others,” Anderson said. As a group, they found that the best way to stay informed and to support the school district in the future would be to join forces and come up with four goals they wanted to achieve. According to Anderson, the group now has about 250 members.

“We have four pillars for the Stillwater Schools Community Action Network — equitable class size, communication between the school and the community, strong leadership, and active community involvement in education,” O’Loughlin said.

The group had its first official meeting on June 17 at the Stillwater Library, with a focus on class size.

“We want to focus on class size now, because it is at the forefront of concerns for parents right now,” O’Loughlin said. “We want to do what is right for all kids — for the students currently in the schools and the ones that are yet to come — and to do that in a way that is not only financial sound, but in a way that is equitable for all.”

With the most current information that they have from the school district, dated in March 2014, the group identified nine classrooms with projected sizes above what they consider to be equitable. With two allotted full-time equivalents to devote to class size reduction, and an additional $250,000 from the state that the board set aside for class size reduction, the group wants to know how the district plans to use those funds.

“The principals are working on it,” said Board Member Amy Burback. “It is a building-level decision, and the principals are monitoring it. But we do know that right now Stonebridge and Lake Elmo are high.”

The group was also able to meet at an earlier date with the incoming interim superintendant, Tom Nelson, to discuss their concerns with him.

“There were a lot of points being made about budget and moving forward, and I think a lot of parents are on the same page with those issues,” O’Loughlin said.

A common statement made by those who attended the Stillwater Schools Community Action Network meeting was that the message coming from the school administration is that change is coming.

“We want to make it clear that we are ready for that change,” Anderson said. “We have watched the fund balance going down, and changes need to be made.”

“We are ready to support the school board as they make those tough and maybe unpopular decisions,” said Sara Letourneau, a Rutherford parent.

As they move forward, Anderson and O’Loughlin wanted to be sure they conveyed that they are not the leaders of the group, but instead just organize a larger group of members with differing ideas and opinions on how to improve Stillwater Area Schools.

“If each person came up with a plan, we would each have a different way of reaching that goal,” Anderson said. “I think we all have the same goal, and each person has ideas that contribute to that goal.”

More information about the Stillwater Schools Community Action Network can be found on its website, stillwaterschoolscan.org.

Contact Alicia Lebens at alicia.lebens@ecm-inc.com

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