Close Three Elementary Schools? Not So Fast: Legal Action Possible Against MN School District

Voters feel bullied and deceived. The school district asks for $97.5M in tax dollars, threatens to cut programs…promises to spend the money to benefit all of our schools, promises not to close schools, and as soon as they have our votes and our money, they break their promises. ~ 834 VOICE Press Release, Feb. 9, 2016

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Another Washington County school district is facing possible legal action by taxpayers.  In early January, South Washington County ISD 833 won the election contest lawsuit filed against the passage of its $96 million bond referendum (by five contested ballots); now Stillwater School District ISD 834 is facing its own impending lawsuit by parents and citizens opposing a plan that will close three district elementary schools.

In a Press Release, a new non-profit group, “834 VOICE” (“VOters Invested in our Children’s Education”) announced that it had retained legal counsel  (Attorney Fritz Knaak of Holstad & Knaak, PLC), and has started the process toward legal action action against ISD 834 by serving a Notice of Claim through a letter to Stillwater School District ISD 834 Superintendent Denise Pontrelli.

Describing themselves as “a non-profit group that has been formed to effectively block the efforts by the (Stillwater ISD 834) School District to close three elementary schools in the District: Marine Elementary, Oak Park Elementary and Withrow Elementary,” 834 VOICE does not mince words when outlining their grievances against the district:

The District allegedly violated open meeting laws; the Board ignored its own evidence and made its decision on the matter without paying attention to its own data and for political expediency.

Voters feel bullied and deceived. The school district asks for $97.5M in tax dollars, threatens to cut programs…promises to spend the money to benefit all of our schools, promises not to close schools, and as soon as they have our votes and our money, they break their promises.

Voters also have a fundamental lack of trust with the new district leaders…we’ve been totally cut out of this process.

834 VOICE does acknowledge in the press release that the district needs to make changes to address disparities within the district, but is requesting that ISD 834 find a new plan that includes involvement of all stakeholders, including voter input and is transparent with their process.  They go on to state that a lawsuit would be “designed to protect everyone in the district from arbitrary, rushed and capricious overreach by the board and district leadership.”

The Stillwater School District School Board is set to make a decision on the controversial BOLD plan on Thursday, February 11, 2016.  The plan, announced late December 2015, includes closing three elementary schools – Marine, Oak Park and Withrow, and has been met with fierce resistance by parents, legislators and city leaders who oppose the school closures and subsequent shuffling and busing of hundreds of students from northern district schools to schools located in the central part of ISD 834.

Concerned parents and community members formed a group, STOP BOLD COLD, quickly after the BOLD plan (“Building Opportunities to Learn and Discover”) was announced, and has effectively used social media to mobilize and fund-raise, as well as inform the public about the plan and flooding the district’s school board members’ email boxes with letters pleading for them to slow down the process and listen to the people.  The group also helped pack the Oak-Land Junior High School auditorium for three district “listening sessions” on the BOLD plan.  Passions ran high as parents advocated for their children and begged the district leadership to slow down and reconsider the plan. Superintendent Pontrelli was also severely criticized after it was discovered that her adult children failed to disclose their relationship to Pontrelli when they spoke in favor of the plan at one of the meetings.

At the time of posting this article, the Stillwater School District had not publicly acknowledged the Notice of Claim on the district website.  However, the Feb. 11 meeting information is posted including information about a Listening Session at 5pm that evening, which will accommodate up to 18 speakers on a first come, first serve basis.  Due to the community attention to the decision, the school board meeting has been moved to the Stillwater Junior High auditorium and will be shown live on Cable Channel 15, with the video posted on the district website after the meeting.

Stay tuned to Alpha News for continuing coverage of this story.