The Stillwater Area School Board voted to explore a possible expansion of the district’s Spanish immersion program.

The motion had some board and community members riled as it included a request for district administration to gather information on moving the Amigos Unidos program from Lake Elmo Elementary to the Oak Park building, an elementary closed along with Marine and Withrow Elementary Schools in 2017.

Today, the district uses Oak Park to conduct professional development and to house the 18-21 Bridge Transition program.

The motion also directed administration to determine if the district could provide transportation from all elementary schools and if opening the program in Oak Park is feasible by fall 2020.

The board voted 4-3, with Directors Mark Burns, Shelley Pearson and Jennifer Pelletier dissenting.

Director Sarah Stivland said Amigos Unidos is a popular district program with a wait list. The district also does not provide transportation. Moving the Spanish immersion program to Oak Park could alleviate overcrowding in the district’s southern schools, Stivland said.

“I’m asking the question — is this something we want to do?” Stivland said. “We have space in Oak Park and it’s a centrally-located building.”

Burns, Pelletier and Pearson said they were concerned the motion interfered with the Community Design Team’s (CDT) process. Nearly 100 community members, district staff, local officials, district parents and students make up the CDT, which will give the school board recommendations for future uses and needs of district buildings. Burns also questioned why Stivland brought the motion forward now as the board has not prioritized foreign language programs.

“By simply asking for information, are we undermining the Community Design Team?” Burns said.

“I think we need to let those people do their work,” Pelletier added.

Stivland said the motion only asked for further information.

“No decision would be made until the Community Design Team comes forward with their decision anyway,” she said.

Overall, board members have disagreed on how to respond to district growth and overcrowding in the south while the CDT works.

At the Sept. 26 board meeting, the board voted 4-3 to add a Certificate of Participation (COP) to the 2020 property tax levy to fund the expansion of Brookview Elementary. Directors Tina Riehle, Sarah Stivland and Liz Weisberg dissented. Under state law, the board can lower the levy before finalizing the budget in December.

Weisberg said moving the Spanish immersion program could ease overcrowding at Lake Elmo Elementary.

“We need to do whatever we can to help that building. If taking this program and putting it somewhere that would be accessible to more students would help, then I think we need to do everything we can,” Weisberg said.

Stillwater Area Public Schools (SAPS) Superintendent Denise Pontrelli said the district placed the dual immersion program in Lake Elmo for a reason.

“Our community is bilingual in that area,” Pontrelli said.

Pontrelli added hiring basic staff to run Oak Park as a full school would cost $650,000. Transportation would be an additional expense, she said.

If the board moves the Spanish immersion program, SAPS Finance Director Kristen Hoheisel said they would have to make further budget reductions or increase district revenues.

Burns moved to postpone the motion until the CDT concludes. Ptacek amended that motion to postpone until the next board meeting. That amendment failed 3-4 with Burns, Pelletier and Ptacek voting for.

During open forum, community members who spoke about expanding the program were opposed to moving it.

Erin Mathaus, of Lake Elmo, said moving the program would disrupt students in the Bridge Transition and Amigos Unidos programs.

Francis Porbeni, of Woodbury, said he also did not support moving the program.

“Lake Elmo Elementary has the most diverse student population in this district, both ethnically and income. It serves the purpose the Spanish immersion program is supposed to,” he said.

The school board also unanimously approved the district’s Flex E-Learning plan.

Bob McDowell, SAPS executive director of learning and innovation, said a new Minnesota statute allows school districts to operate five e-learning days per year due to inclement weather. Administration would put “Flex Days” into effect following the first two inclement weather days, announcing by 5:30 a.m. the day of.

McDowell said Flex Days will help avoid mid-year calendar reconfigurations and provide consistent learning opportunities. Attendance will be taken via Schoology or assignment completion, he added.

Additional Notes:

- Matt Rantapaa of R.W. Baird, the district’s financial advisors, presented a report about refinancing the 2011A COP. Based on the current market, he said the district could save $650,116 by exchanging higher borrowing rates for current lower rates. The board will likely vote on the refunding at the Oct. 24 school board meeting.

- District staff presented a report on the district’s 2018-2019 results in the Minnesota Northstar Accountability System. Northstar assesses school data in five areas: academic achievement, progress toward English language proficiency, academic progress, graduation rates and consistent attendance.

SAPS’ percentages of students who met or exceeded standards in math and reading achievement were above the state average across the board. SAPS students mostly performed above state averages in math and reading progress, measured by comparing student scores from one year to the next.

Notably, the math progress percentile of SAPS black students was 65%, about 24% above the state average. SAPS Hispanic students were the only group to perform about .5% below state average for math progress. In reading progress, SAPS Asian students performed slightly below state average.

Additionally, the vast majority of SAPS students met or exceeded district performance benchmarks in math, reading and science. Interestingly, all students who tested in reading met or exceeded the district performance benchmark for reading.

Rachel Larson, SAPS director of learning and student engagement, said the district could review test expectations and use data to increase student mastery of standards. Overall performance and graduation rates were among the district’s strengths, she said.

“We are making strong growth gains in reading, math and English Language Proficiency,” Larson said.

Contact Kim Schneider at kim.schneider@ecm-inc.com

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