In a crowded Stillwater Area School Board race viewed by many as a referendum on planned school closures, candidates opposed to the closures did not win the majority needed to reverse the decision.
Jennifer Pelletier, incumbent Mike Ptacek and Sarah Stivland won seats on the board Nov. 8. Incumbent Amy Burback lost her seat. Outgoing board member Kathy Buchholz did not run for re-election.
Of the three candidates elected, only Ptacek and Stivland support reversing the plan known as BOLD (Building Opportunities to Learn and Discover), which calls for the closure of Marine, Oak Park and Withrow elementary schools. To have enough votes to reverse the decision, anti-BOLD candidates needed to win all three seats, plus have the support of sitting board member Shelley Pearson, who voted against the closures along with Ptacek in March.
Proponents of the closures say the action will save $1.2 million annually and help the district run more efficiently and increase
equity districtwide. Opponents say the closures are unnecessary, go against commitments made by the district, and will harm communities. Three lawsuits have been filed in an attempt to block the closures.
Ptacek said he and Stivland ran “as a threesome” with Chad Gamradt, who also opposed the closures. According to unofficial results, Ptacek and Stivland received the most votes among the 10 candidates, with 16.7 percent of the votes and 17.3 percent respectively. With 14.1 percent of votes, Pelletier beat Gamradt, who had 12 percent. Burback was a close fifth, with 11.3 percent of the vote.
Although the anti-BOLD camp didn’t win a majority, Ptacek and Stivland both pointed out that about 60 percent of the votes cast went to the six candidates who said they’d seek to keep all the schools open.
“To me, that is a resounding message from the community that they want to keep the schools open,” Stivland said, adding that she hopes to see a some sort of compromise.
“What this forces us to do, in my view, is negotiate,” Ptacek said. “I hope the current board is willing to do that.”
He said it could be somewhat positive that neither side of the issue had a complete victory, if it fosters dialogue.
Ptacek said that, during the campaign, he was impressed by a grassroots movement emerging in the community that sparked innovation and involvement.
“What I would love to see the district do is to build on that,” he said.
What happens next, Ptacek said, depends on a lot of moving parts, and ideas may evolve over time. The first thing to do, he said, is have a conversation about what happens next and, he hopes to revisit the decision on school closures.
Stivland said the district needs to move quickly to find definitive, final answers for parents and students regarding next school year.
“Parents are very stressed,” she said. “They’re trying to be patient, but parents are really worried about ‘where is my kid going to go to school next year?’”
Once short-term questions are answered, she believes the district needs to address what she views as the negative publicity the district has received recently, and get the word out that great things are happening in the district.
“I don’t see marketing as something schools have to pay a lot of money for,” she said. “The most powerful marketing is word of mouth.”
She also believes the district is on the verge of growth.
“This is a community that’s growing, and in my mind, once we get the current issues resolved, it’s going to be about planning for the future very quickly,” she said.
Ptacek and Stivland both praised Pelletier, saying they looked forward to working with her.
Stivland sees Pelletier as a strong but open-minded candidate.
Pelletier described herself as a pragmatic thinker, and said she believes voters trust she’ll listen to all sides of an issue before making a decision.
She wants to help restore unity to the district.
“I believe that we can reach unity again by doing what we say we’re going to do and following through and following up with people,” she said. “I care very deeply about listening to the voices of people that come to me, but of equal importance to me are the people that don’t speak up. Everyone’s voice matters, whether it’s heard or not.”
True to her word in the campaign, Pelletier said she won’t seek to reverse the school closures.
“I’m not going to seek to reverse BOLD,” she said. “But that being said … I had a lot of questions procedurally about how they presented this to the public. I think it was things like that, that made people feel like they weren’t being heard. My goal would be at some point … to have enough kids coming back to the district to reopen those schools. But as for right now, I want to do the very best we can with what we have in front of us.”
Pelletier wants to focus on improving communication with families and providing rigorous programming for students.
Current school board chair George Hoeppner, hopes the district can move forward now as well.
“Simple math would seem to indicate that there’s a majority on the board now to support BOLD and to support the superintendent,” he said.
He plans to take the election at “face value” and doesn’t buy into the argument that voters have given the district a mandate on school closures. He hopes residents weren’t single-issues voters, but picked candidates they believe will represent them well in the next four years.
He also said it’s inaccurate to characterize BOLD as being about school closures.
“It’s really not,” he said. “That’s a piece of a much larger puzzle.”
Hoeppner said his “number one wish would be that we have more open-minded conversation, that everybody is willing to learn from one another and not just be locked into something.”
Pelletier and Stivland will take their seats in January, replacing Burback and Buchholz.
“We look forward to welcoming Sarah Stivland and Jennifer Pelletier to the school board, and continuing to work along with incumbent Mike Ptacek,” Superintendent Denise Pontrelli said in a written statement. “We will be spending the next two months bringing our new members through an orientation process to help them understand more deeply the opportunities and challenges facing our district. We look forward to working together with all of our board members to ensure smooth transitions during the many changes underway in our district. There is no doubt that each of our board members, and all of our district leaders, have the best interest of our students at heart, and we’re committed to working together to provide our students with the very best learning opportunities possible.”
Contact Jonathan Young at [email protected]