Stillwater School Board Votes 5-2 to Close Elementary Schools; Lawsuits Imminent

“I doubt if many community members, even those who had students in our schools, knew or cared much about Marine, especially, or Withrow…” Stillwater School Board member, George Hoeppner

The same day the Stillwater Ponies hockey team beat the Farmington Tigers 4-1 to move to the State tournament semi-finals (students chanted “Save Our Schools” during the game), the Stillwater school board voted 5-2 to close three elementary schools despite parents, community members, local leaders and lawmakers rallying together to oppose the plan and imploring the board to save their schools.

The two board members voting against the plan to close Marine, Withrow and Oak Park elementary schools were Mike Ptacek and Shelly Pearson, who voiced their opposition to the plan prior to the vote.  The five members voting for the closures were George Hoeppner, Kathy Buchholz, Paula O’Loughlin, Amy Burback and Tom Lehmann, who claimed that supporting the plan would better serve all the children in the district.

District leaders and Superintendent Pontrelli have argued that the school closures were necessary to make the district services equitable for all students in the district, and that the closures would save the district $1.26 million.

However, Star Tribune reporter Kevin Giles reported that as the March 3rd board meeting stretched on “…it became apparent as board members made statements before the vote that many of them wanted to support Pontrelli, a first-time superintendent they hired last summer. Buchholz said Pontrelli was hired to make a difference and said the district needed a strong new direction.”

An opposition group, 834 Voice, recently released an email (acquired via the Minnesota Data Practices Act) between Shelly Peason and George Hoeppner where Hoeppner stated: “I doubt if many community members…knew or cared much about Marine, especially, Withrow…Frankly, Marine School was always seen as this artsy little school, and Withrow was perceived as a school with mostly farm kids…”  and claimed that “boasting” by Marine and Withrow staff when the schools received the Blue Ribbon Honor led to resentment by staff in other Stillwater schools toward the two smaller schools.


Hoeppner email North South-page-001


Lawsuits Imminent

On February 9, 2016, 834 Voice announced the group had retained Attorney Fritz Knaak who notified Supertintendent Pontrelli and Stillwater Schools the intent to file a lawsuit against the district; citing the school board’s failure to follow open meeting laws, lack of communication with stakeholders and ignoring its own evidence in the proposal to close the schools.

Attorney Erick Kaardal publicized on March 1 that he had been retained by Stillwater school district resident Melissa Douglas and had filed a lawsuit in Washington County District Court naming ISD 834 and all Stillwater Schools board members as Defendants.  In the “Verified Petition for Peremptory Writ of Mandamus” (“A writ of mandamus is an order to require the School District to obey the law ― here, the School District exceeded its authority and failed to meet its statutory obligations to the voters who approved the bond referendum.”) Kaardal (who was also retained by the South Washington Citizens for Progress committee for an Election Contest lawsuit disputing the passage of South Washington County ISD 833’s $96 million bond earlier this year) states in the Petition: “Stillwater Area School District, after obtaining voter approval for school building bonds not to exceed $97.5 million now seeks to materially change the original purpose for the obligation proceeds. By doing so, the School District is violating not only statutory law, but the social contract between it and the parents to obtain passage of the bond obligations. Instead of making improvements to existing schools it now plans to close three elementary schools.”

The opposition group, Stop Bold Cold, has appealed to their Facebook followers to complete Affidavits to formally support Melissa Douglas’ Petition against ISD 834.  The group is also hosting a “Celebrate Our Schools and Fundraising Party” 4-8:30 p.m., Saturday, March 5 at the Withrow Ballroom and Event Center.

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Andrea Mayer-Bruestle