Sarah Lahm – The Progressive

On a recent Thursday night, in a darkened middle-school auditorium in suburban Stillwater, Minnesota, a showdown between agitated parents and reticent school administrators took place. On the auditorium stage stood two long tables draped in black cloth, with microphones positioned for Stillwater school district personnel and board members.Also attending this school board meeting were legions of parents and community members—many armed with notepads and dressed in bright red or yellow T-shirts. The shirts were emblazoned with slogans opposing the district’s hastily announced plans to close three Stillwater-area elementary schools.As board members and Stillwater Area Public Schools Superintendent Denise Pontrelli sat nearly motionless, parent after parent approached the stage. One woman, Dee Dee Armstrong, handed out cans of Coke to the assembled school officials. “Golly!” she called out loudly, “It’s been a stressful fifty-seven days, hasn’t it?” The soda, she explained, was a peace offering, in anticipation of a trying night.It had been fifty-seven tense days since Pontrelli announced plans to shutter three district schools. The community responded with alarm and disbelief, while Pontrelli defended the move as necessary to conserve limited district resources.It also drove home a point: The market-based education reform movement has come to the suburbs. This movement—which has led to the shuttering of public schools based on the advice of outside business consultants and an insistence that schools must do more with less—has to date been largely directed at urban school districts. Cities including Chicago, Philadelphia, and New Orleans have borne the brunt of massive school closings (Chicago shut down nearly fifty neighborhood schools in 2013 alone) and increased competition from school choice and charter schools, in exchange for the promise of a more “equitable” education landscape.Now this movement has extended its reach beyond the city and into areas once thought to have better schools—or, at least, wealthier parents and better protection from invasive, outside education reform groups. And, as parents and community members are figuring out, one group in particular seems to be leading this invasion: the Boston-based District Management Council.

The suburban school district in Stillwater, Minnesota, is long and narrow, and includes rural areas as well as dense, highly developed pockets, with mixed-income families. In recent years, the district has been through a handful of superintendents, and also passed a 2013 tax levy increase. Residents say the tax increase came with a promise that no schools would be closed, which the district disputes.

In 2014, Stillwater asked for—and got—another $97 million in a taxpayer bond to help fund upgrades, including new athletic facilities. That same year, the school district became one of the District Management Council’s new members.

Stillwater parent Lance Cunningham, who moved to the district from nearby Minneapolis when his children were old enough to attend the area’s well-regarded schools, says school closings were never part of the picture until Superintendent Pontrelli was hired. Pontrelli brought in a whole new administrative team and produced new research—which community members allege was flawed—that showed the district would be losing children and money over time, and that schools had to be closed to stave off a financial crisis.

Pontrelli unveiled this plan—called BOLD, for “Building Opportunities to Learn and Discover”—at a school board meeting last December. Parents responded with their own plan, calling it STOP BOLD COLD. They organized quickly to try to save the three schools on the chopping block, and to push back against Pontrelli’s actions.

In January, the website Alpha News reported that twenty Minnesota school districts, including Stillwater, were sending superintendents to New York City for a summit called “Shifting Resources to Support Strategic Priorities,” spending tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars for the required memberships.

Meanwhile, Cunningham and his fellow Stillwater parents found that closing the three schools as planned would save the district around $1.2 million per year, or just over 1 percent of its annual $97 million budget. The district’s money-saving logic did not seem to hold water.

Read the full article: Source: School Austerity Measures Come to the Suburbs | The Progressive

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