Warning from Stillwater: Don't trust the promises of school bond referendums

Voters were sold, in part, by promises of almost $200,000 in improvements to Marine Elementary, only to be told later that the school would be closed.

Voters were sold, in part, by promises of almost $200,000 in improvements to Marine Elementary, only to be told later that the school would be closed.

Stillwater Area Public Schools posed in May 2015 what seemed at the time to be an expensive yet simple question.

Would taxpayers be willing to approve almost $98 million in bonds "for the acquisition and betterment of school sites and facilities?"

Among the projects earmarked were "playground improvements," "HVAC upgrades," and "renovations" at three elementary schools: Marine, Oak Park, and Withrow, totaling around $2 million.

Parents and kids were psyched. Marine was the district's old workhorse. Its establishment predated Minnesota statehood. A new playground would be a welcomed community addition.

Likewise would be the case at Withrow, which served a more rural area, functioning as the neighborhood's epicenter. The biggest bang would be reserved for the 450 kids at Oak Park. That student population, with 30 percent qualifying for free and reduced lunch, would see improved air quality through HVAC upgrades as well as substantial improvements to its playground.

Oak Park was also home to the district's program for children with autism.

The referendum was approved by almost 58 percent of voters. But within weeks of receiving the money, district officials began having closed-door meetings about shuttering the three schools because of overlooked shortfalls from increased operating expenses.

They'd drop the bomb on the public months later. Not only were they bagging on all the referendum improvements at the trio. But Oak Park, Withrow, and Marine would be shut down to save money.

Resident Melissa Douglas filed suit, arguing that the district was guilty of a bait-and-switch. They'd sold voters an itemized bill of goods, only to change it after they'd gotten the money. 

Douglas contended it was illegal for the district to use referendum cash for uses that differed "from the bond referendum's original purpose." Stillwater Schools countered it was well within its discretion to make changes.

Earlier this week, the Minnesota Court of Appeals sided with the district, affirming a District's Court previous decision. 

The Appeals Court ruled, in essence, that killing the schools did not rise to a level of a "drastic change' to the overall bond purpose. Instead, it said closing them was "minor in scope."

Days after the ruling, Douglas remains flummoxed — and saddened. Gone, she believes, is the relationship of trust between school boards and residents. 

She thinks this marks a new dawn. Schools now can and will say whatever they want to get a referendum approved, at the same time the process is being co-opted by behind the scenes by school officials.

"The checks and balance is gone," says Douglas. "When you have school boards, administrators, and special interests operating often in secrecy, away from the public interest making these decisions, no one any longer is there to look out for what's best for children, taxpayers, and the respective communities."

While Douglas understands schools should be afforded some leeway because school building plans are often years in the making, and districts need the ability to adjust to changing enrollment, economics, construction costs, etc., she's also convinced the process is broken. 

Douglas believes referendums are often commandeered by businesses specializing in school construction, and administrators who pad their resumes with mentions of captaining the successful passage of multimillion-dollar projects. 

"Now, as long as [school districts] write the ballot language in a general enough fashion, they can do pretty much whatever they want with the bond proceeds once the referendum has been approved by the voters, and the voters have no recourse."