Two-thirds of the so-called "GPS" ticket won a right Tuesday to be on the Stillwater Area School Board.
Newcomer Sarah Stivland and incumbent Michael B. Ptacek will ask District 834 officials to reconsider closing three elementary schools in the northern part of the district.
Jennifer Pelletier, another first-time board member, narrowly held off other challengers on the 10-candidate ballot. She is a Building Opportunities to Learn and Discover (BOLD) supporter.
The large field of candidates might've thinned the vote for Gamradt, who finished fourth after partnering with Ptacek and Stivland as GPS to campaign for change. Incumbent Amy B. Burback, who on one campaign sign was pictured in a trash can, finished fifth and was also left on the outside looking in.
The results: Stivland of Stillwater, 17 percent; Ptacek of Stillwater, 17 percent; and Pelletier of Lake Elmo, 14 percent; Gamradt of Stillwater, 12 percent; Burback of Stillwater, 11 percent; challenger Robert Craggs of Lakeland, 8 percent; challenger Donald G. Hovland of Oak Park Heights, 7 percent; challenger Tom DeGree of Lake Elmo, 6 percent; challenger Michelle Deziel of Lake Elmo, 5 percent; and challenger Jerry Clark of Stillwater, 4 percent.
"We had a lot of anti-BOLD candidates," said Stivland, the leading vote-getter.
She and Ptacek said voters cast more votes for the six candidates who want to keep Marine, Oak Park and Withrow elementaries open than they did for candidates who want to proceed with the BOLD plan that includes closing the schools.
"The community voted in favor of keeping the schools open," Stivland said. "That they voted for Mike, who voted against BOLD and resoundingly against Burback, who voted for BOLD, I think means a lot."
Woodbury's key role in the election
A portion of northeast Woodbury and part of Afton are within the Stillwater Public Schools boundaries and interest in District 834 has been piqued due to the construction of new school Brookview Elementary in Woodbury.
Pelletier said she thinks Woodbury propelled her to victory, and Ptacek said that was no surprise. As the end of election night neared, results from Woodbury precincts remained to be reported.
"It was a bit stressful at the beginning," Pelletier said, as results from smaller districts capable of counting ballots faster were reported to the state and publicized. "It was definitely nerve racking."
When Woodbury precincts reported, she leapfrogged Gamradt to win.
"That Woodbury population really showed their support for me," Pelletier said. "It was a special moment."
She also did surprisingly well in parts of Stillwater, and she promised to unify the district.
"I just want to work for all the families, all the kids," Pelletier said.
She is excited to see what Superintendent Denise Pontrelli can do, she said. It's only been a year for the new superintendent, and the district needs to push forward and keep some consistency in its administration, Pelletier said.
Flaws, respect and what is next
Ptacek was complimentary of Stivland, Pelletier and several other candidates in an election admittedly fueled by others' contentious comments on Facebook. Ptacek said he has a thick skin and tends not to partake in social media back and forth, but the three election winners agreed there were points at which the campaign became personal.
Unlike his past two election campaigns, candidates spoke of each other's flaws and weaknesses, Ptacek said. Past candidates kept the focus on their political stances, which is what Pelletier said she tried to do.
While he called the wins by Stivland and himself a huge victory, he is looking forward to immediate work that needs to be done, adding new members' skills to the School Board, electing leadership in January, giving voice to BOLD opponents, and pushing for marketing strategies for schools that each have unique characteristics.
"For the most part, it's a clean slate," Ptacek said.
One of the two incumbents in the race, Burback, won't be returning to the School Board in 2017.
"I respect Amy as a person. She's a very nice person, but politically her and differ," Ptacek said. "I think the big question people have now is, 'What comes next?'"
Stivland, Ptacek and Pelletier said they each met parents who felt their wishes hadn't been respected, people who wanted to be more engaged in the district, and causes that need increased attention from the School Board, not the least of which is financial.
Ptacek said people in the northern and southern parts of District 834—not a big-city school district—have incentives to cooperate with each other. A referendum could come before voters in four years, he said, and closing small-town schools in the northern part of the district isn't going to help the southern part of the district pass a referendum that might include an expansion of Brookview Elementary in Woodbury. A referendum will need broad support if it is to pass, Ptacek said.
"We're not one community," Ptacek said. "We're more like about 18. They're all a little bit different, and I think you build on those differences."
Stivland wants residents of the district to treat each other like cousins or siblings, she said.
"I just want to unify the district," Pelletier said.
Overturning BOLD won't be easy, Stivland said, but all three election winners said residents should feel respected.
"There are some who believe a win is a win is a win," Ptacek said of Pelletier edging out Gamradt. "It'd be easier if we had a majority, but maybe this is better. It'll force us to work together."