Response to recent news coverage

April 14, 2016

(Updated 4/27/16)  A group called 834 Voice has filed a second lawsuit against the School District and school board members on April 20, 2016.  On its website, the group identifies its primary goal “to reverse the ISD 834 decision to close three elementary schools in the District:  Marine Elementary, Oak Park Elementary and Withrow Elementary.”  The District is now faced with time-consuming and expensive litigation, but we are confident that the school district has acted well within the boundaries of the law. 

The decision to close three schools was a difficult policy decision made after serious study and consideration of the best interests of all the students in the district as a whole.  We understand that some individuals disagree about this very important decision, and we know firsthand the sincerity and vigor of their point of view.  This policy decision was made by our elected school board, who have a duty to make the tough calls, and we believe that the Court will recognize that the governance of Stillwater Area Schools is properly with those officials.

As to the allegations in the lawsuit regarding the bond referendum, we can say this much at this early stage in the litigation.  The statements made in support of the bond referendum were honest and based on the documented plans and expectations that existed at that time.  The referendum amount and the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) review were based on the project at a concept level.  MDE understood that the project would actually be designed over a period of many months after the referendum passed.  Cost estimates based on construction-level plans have a healthy margin of error; all the more so for estimates based on concept-level plans.  Of the $97.5 million estimated, less than 0.5 percent was slated for work at the schools that have since been approved for closure. 

The lawsuit also makes unrelated conflict of interest allegations against the District’s Executive Director of Finance and Operations, Kristen Hoheisel, and a Board member.  In response to concerns brought to the Office of the State Auditor (OSA) regarding the relationship between Ms. Hoheisel and Michael Hoheisel from Robert W. Baird Company, (the district’s financial advisor), OSA stated in an April 1, 2016 letter:  “With regard to the concern of the Executive Director of Finance and Operations having a potential conflict of interest, the District informed the OSA that this position has no decision-making authority with regard to contracting with financial advisors.  Absent decision-making authority, there cannot be a statutory conflict of interest.”  Similarly, when Ms. Hoheisel was employed with the St. Anthony-New Brighton School District, OSA issued a report to that school district on January 7, 2011 which stated:  “Based on the information provided, the Director of Business Services does not have authority to participate in making contracts with bond underwriting firms or its representatives, and we therefore conclude that there is not a statutory conflict of interest.”  OSA has emphasized to the school district that its statements are not legally binding opinions and are, of course, based on the information provided to OSA by the complainant and the District 834. 

In regard to the allegation that a board member had a conflict of interest because her husband works for the architecture firm selected by the school district, the board member disclosed her husband’s relationship to the firm in routine annual disclosures.  Nevertheless, to avoid any appearance of impropriety, the board member abstained from voting on the selection of the firm; and, of course, the selection of the firm is unrelated to the later decision to close schools.  Like the issue regarding Ms. Hoheisel, OSA has emphasized that it has not made a determination or issued an opinion on whether there was a conflict of interest.  It did make recommendations as to the factors that should be considered in determining whether a Board member has a conflict of interest. In its April 1, 2016 letter, the Supervisor of Special Investigations from OSA stated:  “The OSA considers this matter closed and will not take further action.”

We will continue to do our best to answer questions and communicate with our residents and families, within the limitations that litigation presents.  We remain committed to meeting the needs of all of our students in ensuring that we are supporting them academically, socially and emotionally.