Updated: Stillwater Area School Board considers closing 3 schools, hearings scheduled

Three elementary schools in the Stillwater Area Public School District could face closure based on a proposal presented to the board Dec. 17. The plan is expected to save an estimated $1.26 million per year.

After an extensive look at student capacity in school buildings, finances and staffing, superintendent Denise Pontrelli and other district administrators presented a plan to close Marine, Withrow and Oak Park elementary schools.

“We started an initial capacity study to find room within our current buildings for our Central Service Building and our West Campus programs,” Pontrelli said. “As we dug deeper into this work, we realized that many inputs and realities in our system have changed in the last 18 to 24 months.”

After some preliminary reports about anticipated elementary school capacity issues, the school board directed staff to look closer at staffing, operations and programs within the district.

“We also wanted to take a look at our financial planning, because part of what we believe will support sound programing for our kids for the sustainable future is a sustainable financial plan in place for more than nine months,” Pontrelli said.

For several years, creating a final budget has been a painful process for district administration, staff and families. At the Dec. 17 meeting, Finance Director Kristen Hoheisel presented a graph to the board of a 15-year history of budget reductions that had to be made at the end of the budget process.

“In our 15 years, the most we have ever cut is $3.5 million, and our average over the course is approximately $2 million,” Hohesiel said. “We have students and families where their entire school experience is in volatility.”

Hoheisel said that due to inequities in services, staffing and class size, the district doesn’t spend the same amount to educate each elementary school student — the cost varies from school to school. In the district’s most efficient school, it spends about $1,600 less per student in a year than it spends in the district’s least efficient school, Hoheisel said.

“At one point, that was about $2,300 so we are making progress,” she said. “But we are getting to a point we are at an impasse, we can’t continue on the model that is being delivered. That presents challenges.”

District-wide inequities

District staff said the district’s current configuration presents various barriers to students in the district.

“We spent a lot of time (talking) as a board, with our administrative team and our staff, about what is our current reality, because for us to be planning for the future we have to start on a strong foundation and have a common understanding,” Pontrelli said.

“The barriers that rose to the top of the list for all the groups are class size, staff issues and access to resources,” said Robert McDowell, director of learning and innovation.

For some schools — particularly in the northern part of the district — class sizes are smaller, but students have less access to supportive services and specialists. For other schools — some of those on the south end of the district — class sizes are larger, but students have more access to in-school services such as psychologists, nursing and English language learning. Throughout the district, students and staff have a wide range of technology and supplies, leaving some pockets without some learning tools others have.

“Based on school of attendance, a student may have access to a psychologist four days a week or as little as one day a week,” said Paul Lee, director of student support services. “The ability to develop relationships with students and effectively respond to a crisis is greatly enhanced when a psychologist is available in a student’s school throughout the week.”

“At this point, one might say that we need to simply make things equal,” McDowell said. “We don’t believe that to be true. We believe we need to position our district so that we can provide the best for all students, which means that we are really talking about the difference between equality in learning and equity in learning.”

“I received an email from a community member saying that our district isn’t going to be fixed by building schools or moving schools around,” Pontrelli said. “We completely agree. But we know that we need to have a sustainable financial foundation. We think some of the adding and subtracting of staff has really hurt our district in the last several years.”

The proposal

The plan presented by administration recommends the district consolidate three elementary schools — Marine, Oak Park and Withrow — with neighboring schools to create seven elementary schools. Currently, the district has 10 elementary schools, including the Valley Crossing Community School.

Earlier this year the school board agreed to sell Valley Crossing to South Washington County Schools, but students from the Stillwater district will continue attending the school until the Stillwater district builds a new elementary school in the southern part of the district. The new school is slated to open for the 2017-2018 school year.

“We want to make sure that people understand that we looked at multiple sites,” Pontrelli said of the proposal to close schools. “Every school was considered when we were doing this work.”

By closing the three elementary school locations, administration has projected an annual cost saving of $1.26 million from operations, staff and transportation costs.

Other changes being considered include boundary adjustments, moving offices and programs, sale of real estate and expanding the construction of the planned elementary school in Woodbury.

“Nobody likes to do this, and this has not been a fun process for the team and it is not a fun process for the board to consider, and we all know that it is not fun for communities to consider,” Pontrelli said. “But we wouldn’t be recommending it if we didn’t think it would be giving us the long-term financial stability that we need.”

“Why should we assume that if we close three schools that teachers will have success at increasing student achievement?” asked board member George Hoeppner.

“When you start having these conversations about capacities, it can feel less about learning and more about the efficiencies,” Pontrelli said. “Over the years we have had a lot of holes in our programs, which started out as comprehensive solid programs. … We see some system misalignment because positions have been cut.”

By closing the schools and creating a stable financial foundation, Pontrelli argued, the school district would be able to focus on building programs instead of cutting from them with every budget.

If approved, the change would happen for the start of the 2017-2018 school year. A formal staff recommendation will come to the board on Jan. 7. Public hearings are scheduled to discuss Oak Park Elementary on Tuesday, Jan. 26; Withrow Elementary on Wednesday, Jan. 27; and Marine Elementary on Thursday, Jan. 28. All the public hearings will be at 5 p.m. at Oak-Land Junior High in Lake Elmo.

The board is scheduled to vote on the recommendation on Feb. 11.

Community reaction

After presentation of plan, parents and community members are grappling with the announcement. Parents planned a gathering at Withrow Elementary Dec. 22 to discuss the topic.

“We are extremely disappointed,” Helene Anderson told The Gazette in an interview Dec. 18. Anderson is a parent at Marine Elementary and a member of the Marine School Association. “We have been battling for years to keep our school open.”

While many parents are planning to write letters in opposition, Anderson said, she knows other parent groups are considering different options — including opening a charter school.

“After spending last year fighting to keep a full-time teacher for each grade, it was made clear that the board doesn’t want to listen,” Anderson said. “After the changes to the open forum and not allowing public comments during the board meeting, it is clear they don’t want to hear. That’s disappointing.”

Editor’s note: The Gazette has provided extensive coverage of Stillwater Area Public Schools’ BOLD proposal. See more stories here.