In a 4-3 vote, the Stillwater school board delayed the expansion of the district's newest elementary school until a soon-to-be-formed task force completes its work regarding the district's other long-term facility needs.
At the board's March 21 meeting, members voted to postpone the approval of administration's request to borrow approximately $5.8 million to fund the addition of six to eight classrooms at Brookview Elementary. The Woodbury school, which opened in 2017, is at full capacity, and its student body is projected to increase as the district's southern portion continues to expand.
The previous board approved the Brookview expansion in November (prior to the elections of Mark Burns, Tina Riehle and Liz Weisberg) with the understanding that it would help address projected growth near the school but would not provide long-term space for growth throughout Woodbury and Lake Elmo. It also did not vote on a funding mechanism at that time.
The March 21 decision, tabled from the board's March 7 meeting, was on the approval of the administration's recommendation to fund the expansion via a Certificate of Participation, a lease levy that would not require voter approval.
Approximately 240 homes are expected to be built near Brookview within the next few years, leading to an increase of about 100 students as soon as the end of 2019. Continued growth could lead to the addition of nearly 400 students in Stillwater schools throughout the next 10 years. Nearly half of the students on the district's 50-person waitlist are waiting to enroll at Brookview, Finance Director Kristin Hoheisel said.
While the district could redraw boundaries to alleviate some of the pressure for the short-term, Hoheisel said, the district's southern schools are already crowded. “We are full in the south,” she said. “Anderson does not have space Lake Elmo is creeping up quickly. Brookview is there, and Afton is there.”
The student bodies at both Brookview and Lake Elmo are approximately 30 percent students of color—the highest percentage in the district. Hoheisel said this fact must be kept in mind while redrawing boundaries to avoid creating a racially-identifiable school.
“That conversation has been centered around Brookview, but really the site that is closest to being in danger (of becoming a racially-identifiable school) is Lake Elmo,” Hoheisel said. “If we have to redraw, that is going to be a significant consideration on how that gets redrawn. You cannot knowingly create a racially-identified school.”
In her presentation to board members, Superintendent Denise Pontrelli made the case for the administration's request. Acting immediately, she said, would allow for the construction of the additional Brookview classrooms to begin later this year, thus guaranteeing that the addition would be ready by the 2020-2021 school year.
“We think the timing is good now to be able to do this for our students. That's our main concern,” she said.
The school board could offset the cost of the project by utilizing proceeds from the completed sales of Washington School (approximately $1.3 million) and property in Afton (approximately $200,000), as well as the pending sale of Marine School (approximately $900,000).
Pontrelli also said that the use of a certificate of participation would not be a new funding mechanism in the Stillwater-area district.
“We've used it throughout the district; many districts do,” she said. “It's typically used for those projects that aren't as big, and they're also used when you're in a place where you see growth, and you need to make things happen.”
The tax impact of the Certificate of Participation would vary based on property type and value. Hoheisel estimated that the annual impact would be approximately $15 for a $300,000 home, $23 for a $425,000 home and $27 for a $500,000 home.
However, board members were split on whether the immediate funding of the Brookview expansion was necessary, or if there is time to wait for additional information on long-term space needs throughout the district and to pose the question to taxpayers.
“This is beyond a no-brainer for me,” Jennifer Pelletier said. “I quite honestly can't come up with a single reason why we wouldn't move forward.”
Mark Burns made a motion to approve the use of a certificate of participation to fund the expansion. It was later amended via a motion set forth by Sarah Stivland to wait until the Long Range Facilities Planning Task Force can deliver a recommendation.
“I'm not opposed to the addition; I'm not opposed to the funding mechanism,” Stivland said. “I'm opposed to doing it in this way …. We have a big problem with growth, and we need to be very careful, comprehensive and considerate. We need to gather data. We need to take our time. We need to honor and respect our community, and bring them along with us on the journey.”
Weisberg echoed the sentiment, saying the decision to implement a Certificate of Participation would be akin to telling community members, “We just want your money; we don't want your voice.”
The amendment to postpone the decision passed 4-3. Burns, Pelletier and Shelley Pearson cast the dissenting votes. Pearson said that she struggled with the decision, but ultimately voted for the immediate expansion of Brookview.
“I would rather have one year of having to make adjustments than 10 years of struggle. I know this decision affects people in real ways …. We can be intentional about how we care for our families,” she said. “I don't want to create further instability for any more of our families.”
Burns and Pelletier also expressed concern that the delay in expanding Brookview meant the board was unable to tell community members how the district would be moving forward.
“There are likely families considering moving into this district watching us tonight …. I think it's very important that we give the public an understanding of what then, what are we going to do from here,” Burns said. “If not a certificate of participation, how do we move forward?”
SAHS student council co-president and student representative to the school board Abdulaziz Mohamed shared with board members his disappointment with the final vote.
“When you have the opportunity to provide space for new families, current and new students, reduce overcrowding, retain students, you take that opportunity ten out of ten times,” he said. “When you have all the facts on the table, yet you choose not to act on it, it puts to question what you stand for, who you stand for.”
What happens next is unclear. If the board reconsiders the Brookview expansion after the Long Range Facility Planning Task Force force delivers a recommendation toward the end of 2019, the district could hold a bond election in May 2020.
The district received 96 applications from community members seeking to serve on the Long Range Facility Planning Task Force, which is expected to begin meeting in May and complete its work as soon as November.