District influences shift as community notices internal politics

“I’m never going to vote yes on any future school district [levy]. That bond referendum was such a slap in the face,” Denise Knoll, parent of three fourth-generation Stillwater graduates and member of the Superintendent Advisory Committee, said.

The $97.5 million bond referendum and the BOLD 5-2 vote broke much of the community trust with the school. Accusations of a conflict of interest in regards to Kathy Buchholz, whose husband works for one of the architecture firms in one of the projects, dominated conversation, while the district faced three different lawsuits.

Superintendent Advisory Committee

The uproar of the community contrasted with the years where no levies were passed. While the outpouring of criticism has subsided, much of the community still is stinging. Superintendent Denise Pontrelli, who was in charge of the BOLD plan, cited wanting more community involvement and input as her reason for beginning her Superintendent Advisory Committee, which entering its second year.

“We spent a lot of time those first two years on school closures, to be honest, and not being able to do as much of the work as we’d really like to do. So I think that you’ll see a lot of these things changing,” Pontrelli said.

As the committee continues, the school district is becoming more active in engagement between groups in the district, especially within the last two years, which Pontrelli had stated earlier.

“The first meetings of that council we were very intentional about getting people from all over the district, whether they have kids, don’t have kids, to come together and really, the first year they created a  list of topics of things they wanted to know more about. So we spent a lot of time sharing information, getting feedback from them, trying to understand some of these topics,” Pontrelli explained.

Community Outreach

While some of the community wants to be more involved, almost 80 percent of the district population does not have kids in school. The school district is focused on outreach, and currently has online Think Tanks, the Thought Exchange which has been up for about 18 months, as well as partnerships with outside organizations like Lakeview, Optum Health, and Anderson Windows.

The Thought Exchange was not only distributed in the district, but are also sent to voter registrations. Optum is using IdeaQuest to allow people to propose ideas, and then will bring the district through a process of looking at top issues.

“I think that gives us an extra challenge as a school district, to communicate with folks who might have had students in our district in the past and were very supportive, but now that their kids are gone, they’re focussing on something else. . . I think that’s something everyone in the Metro Area is struggling with right now,” Pontrelli said.

“I think whenever there’s big decisions to be made that it’s wonderful to have the community involved and active, and we definitely have a very active community,” Andrew Jurek, math teacher at Stillwater Middle School and member of the advisory committee, said.

Students’ participation

In terms of student involvement, the new flex time windows are opening opportunites for student feedback. Pontrelli plans on opening up discussions for students on what they find important during the newfound free period. Student Council has recently distributed polls and surveys centered around issues relevant to student life, which Annabel Gregg and Ava Yokanovich, seniors and class presidents, share at school board meetings.

“Concerns mentioned in the Quarter 1 survey referred to the school having a later start time, keeping PLC Wednesdays, having more passing time in the hallways, parking pass expenses, and the parking lot in general. These are issues and concerns that are at the forefront of students’ minds that are worth considering for the near future,” Yokanovich explained at the Nov. 9 School Board meeting.

Last year, Pontrelli also began the Student Innovation Council, meeting with students to try and get their feedback on district changes.

“We each time brought new students in to get more perspective, but then they weren’t able to hear how we were following through on some of their concerns. I went to the Student Council just on Monday [Oct. 30], and visited with them. They are going to create a group for me of 20 students who represent diverse perspectives from the high school, and are going to meet during flex time, once a month, to sit down and have conversations about what’s important to you, what’s working, and what’s not. And when that’s a consistent group we will be able to go back and talk about what has changed what has not,” Pontrelli added.

Bridging the gap

However, some students and parents feel that the district does not actually pay attention to their feedback. Knoll, who has been a consistent committee member for years before her work on the Superintendent Advisory Committee replied with “No,” when asked if the school used Superintendent Advisory Committee ideas, whereas Pontrelli said, “I could give you a laundry list of opportunities that we have where kids and students and community members and parents are involved in making some of the decisions.”

“It was that BAAC. Budget Adjustment Advisory Council. I don’t know how many hours we put in. . . When we went to go present [her proposal for elementary music programs], they said ‘Oh, we’re going to cut the fifth grade orchestra program,'” Knoll explained.

“I remember I drove a young lady home who didn’t have her license yet. They wanted students on [the council]. She was friends with one of the school board members that was there, supposedly being involved. And she said, ‘Oh yeah, his son is a friend of mine and said his dad just sits there and texts back and forth to him.’ So he’s there physically, so he can say he was part of the program, but he didn’t do anything,'” Knoll said.

“So you walk out thinking, this is all predetermined, and they can just say, ‘Oh, we had X amount of people come to X amount of meetings, and so they were part of this.’ And that’s the same dang thing with that bond referendum too. I always feel that things are already determined and we are just going through the motions, and its very sad. I don’t even know what’s come out of this Superintendent Advisory Committee, to be honest with you,” Knoll further explained

In the past two years with the introduction of a large portion of these groups, there are many more opportunities for any community member to get involved, and to see their peers doing the same.

“The Superintendent’s Advisory Committee is one thing that’s happening where we do that, the other piece is our Mental Health Initiative. . . Those are all action based groups that are out there going and doing the work,” Pontrelli explained.

“We have a very with-it community here, and a very tight knit community, and I think any impact that the community has, good or bad, when we all band together and care about kids we do great things,” Jurek added.

The Mental Health Committee was another initiative introduced by Pontrelli in recent years. It tackles issues related to mental health, and was initiated after the first of three suicides in the past three years in Stillwater.

“I think what people don’t always understand is the work that has been going on behind the scenes. For instance with this mental health initiative, since the Day 1 that I’ve been here, we’ve been working on reimagining what  the support for students can be. Part of that part of the whole school consolidation was taking the money that we were going to quote unquote save and reinvest in student advocates, student councils, mental health counsellors, which we’ve done. That doesn’t happen overnight, that started two years ago I think people are sometimes quick to judge without asking really what’s happened so far,” Pontrelli commented.

Information in small towns tends to have a breakdown in internet connections. In in aging community such as Stillwater, internet newsletters aren’t always the most effective tool, and Pontrelli cites word of mouth as the as the most effective method of information distribution in Stillwater.

“Unless you’re working on it, you don’t always know that it might be happening, so one of the things we have these groups doing is working on communication, because obviously there’s a communication gap between what we’re doing and what people are understanding is happening,” Pontrelli stated.