A long-awaited report on the future of Stillwater public schools recommends as much as $254 million in new buildings and renovations to accommodate rapidly rising student numbers and to repair aging infrastructure.
The report, compiled over several months by a design committee and presented Thursday to the Stillwater school board, urges immediate work to add classrooms in Lake Elmo and Woodbury, where housing developments promise to bring a crush of new students to already overcrowded schools.
It recommends that the district replace the existing Lake Elmo Elementary School with two new schools and add eight classrooms to Brookview Elementary in Woodbury.
The report was intended to guide the school board as it prepares to go to voters with a referendum, perhaps as early as next year. But several board members said more work needs to be done.
Board Chairwoman Sarah Stivland said she wants to see the board “come up with something that truly does unite our community.”
“We want something that’s going to succeed,” she said.
Other high priorities listed in the report include renovations to Stonebridge Elementary in Stillwater and the remodeling of the former Oak Park Elementary School, on the Stillwater-Oak Park Heights border, for school district offices and two specialized learning programs.
Also on the list of proposed improvements are a new middle school gym and music room, an expanded high school auditorium, possible construction of a new Early Childhood Family Center in the southern portion of the district, and new classrooms, natural lighting and flexible learning spaces.
The report recommends selling the shuttered Withrow Elementary School in rural Hugo, as well as the current administration building in Stillwater.
District officials said earlier this year that student populations have risen faster than even the latest projections and that schools will be pushed beyond capacity with new housing being planned for Lake Elmo and Woodbury.
A survey last year found that most of the 400 respondents believed the district didn’t have enough space to meet its needs in five years. The survey also found much stronger support for renovating older buildings than building new ones.
Jeff Holtz, a member of the design team, said he thinks voters will support building new schools if they look at the details. He pointed to neighboring districts where voters last year passed slightly larger referendums: $326 million in White Bear Lake and $275 million in North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale.
“I have confidence that our community will do what is right for our students,” he said.
At least one design team member, Carrie Rolstad, said she’d like to see the district consider what she called the cheaper alternative of reopening Oak Park, one of three elementary schools closed in 2017. The school closings drew three unsuccessful lawsuits from parents and caused deep divisions on the School Board.
“I don’t believe that building two new schools is going to be agreeable to the public when we have one school building ... Oak Park, that could be used immediately,” she said.
But design team member Dan O’Connor told the board Thursday that Oak Park makes more sense as an administrative building and home to two specialized learning programs, one for at-risk students and another for students transitioning to the workplace. The school isn’t located near rapidly growing neighborhoods, making it a poor choice for an elementary school, he said.
Design team member Sarah Van Niewaal said it’s now up to the board to take recommendations to the public. Whether voters support paying for all the recommended improvements will “depend quite frankly on the board’s reception,” she said.
Stivland, who was elected to the board after campaigning against the 2017 closings of the three elementary schools, said she wants a referendum everyone can support. She added that some voices have not been heard. “I really value the experience that we’ve been through, but we’re not finished yet,” she said.