The Stillwater school board had a tense meeting June 27 after a board member said the district superintendent was concerned two board members privately discussed terminating her contract.

Director Jennifer Pelletier said Stillwater Area Public Schools (SAPS) Superintendent Denise Pontrelli emailed board members Tuesday, June 25.

In the email, Pelletier said Pontrelli wrote she believed Board Chair Mike Ptacek and Director Sarah Stivland were moving to terminate her contract.

The issue came up as part of an action item to place a copy of the 2018-2019 superintendent evaluation in Pontrelli’s personnel file. The board approved the action item 5-2, with Director Mark Burns and Pelletier voting against.

Pelletier said Pontrelli’s email stated that Ptacek and Stivland “planned to begin conversations for terminating Denise Pontrelli’s contract.”

The Gazette sent SAPS a data request for June 25 emails between the superintendent and board members but did not receive the request as of press time Wednesday.

Pelletier said a school board member also called her and said “‘it is time for Superintendent Pontrelli to go.’”

Ptacek and Stivland said that was incorrect.

“For the record, there is not a move to terminate the superintendent,” Ptacek said.

“You are misunderstanding the situation,” Stivland said to Pelletier.

In a follow up phone call, Pelletier said she does not believe she misunderstood. Pelletier also said Stivland called her with the information.

“I am the person who called and that stemmed from a conversation that I had with Denise,” Stivland said.

Stivland said she met with Pontrelli about a month ago to discuss how the decision to close three elementary schools continues to divide the community. They also discussed differences in Pontrelli’s and the school board’s approaches to what is best for the school district, she added.

“Superintendent Pontrelli is the person who is responsible for the BOLD decision,” Stivland said. “In my personal opinion, that has not been something that’s benefited our community.”

At the open session for Pontrelli’s self-evaluation, Pontrelli addressed tension between administration and the school board.

“This tension has a significant impact on the district and on our entire community, causing polarity, negativity, misperceptions and misunderstanding,” Pontrelli said. “Hard feelings about past decisions made by previous administrators and previous school boards can not continue to drive our current and future conversations.”

When asked to clarify if any board member took action to terminate the superintendent’s contract, Stivland said, “no action or decision has been made at this time.”

Asked the same question, Ptacek said: “Terminate is a very strong word. I would not terminate the contract. I would not fire the superintendent.”

Stivland said she thought miscommunication about Pontrelli’s contract stemmed from confusion about the evaluation process.

The board held previous superintendent evaluations in closed sessions, Ptacek said. The superintendent has the right to hold evaluations in an open session, as Pontrelli did with her self-evaluation, he said. Since Pontrelli requested an open session, Ptacek said he is not required to summarize the evaluation.

Additionally, the evaluation’s status as private data limits what information board members can publicly discuss, Stivland added.

“Our legal counsel said ‘No, don’t say anything,’” Stivland said.

The previous school board approved a three-year extension to Pontrelli’s contract through June 30, 2021 at the Dec. 14, 2017 board meeting with a 5-2 vote. Director Shelley Pearson and Ptacek dissented.

The contract’s renewal included a 1.5% salary increase annually with a salary $190,081 in the 2018-2019 school year; $192,932 in the 2019-2020 school year; and $195,826 in the 2020-2021 school year.

If the board terminated the superintendent’s contract, the board could buy out the remainder of her contract and hire an interim superintendent. When the district sought a new superintendent in 2014, they hired Tom Nelson for $165,000 to serve as interim during the year the board conducted the search.

Split votes on levy, task force management

The board also discussed levying additional funds for the QComp program.

Pelletier made a motion to levy for the maximum $91 per pupil or $750,000 for instructional coaches and the new teacher mentoring program.

“It’s very difficult to find the funds to support that mentoring program,” Burns added.

After further discussion, Pelletier amended her motion to approve QComp for $321,000 plus an additional $50,000 for the mentoring program. According to the board meeting packet, a $300,000-$400,000 QComp levy adds a tax of $8.63-$11.51 per year for a $300,000 home.

Stivland said she did not support the non-voter approved levy because she’s concerned the operating levy will not pass when it goes up for renewal by November 2021.

“We have not levied on a local level for this,” Stivland said. “I think it’s asking too much from our community right now.”

The board voted 2-5 on the amendment, with Burns and Pelletier voting for. The main motion also failed 1-6, with Pelletier voting for.

With a split vote, the school board hired Kraus-Anderson to provide construction management services for the long-range facilities maintenance plan task force.

While Kraus-Anderson has a long history working for the district, Stivland said she preferred Wenck’s environmental focus. Five companies submitted proposals.

Pearson said she prefers Kraus-Anderson’s fee structure, which guaranteed a $20,000 bill for unlimited meetings. Wenck charged per hour.

The board voted 4-3, with Directors Tina Riehle, Stivland and Liz Weisberg voting against.

The board also unanimously approved updated school board goals for 2019 and 2020.

The school board changed the time of the July 11 board meeting, which will be held at 8 a.m. at Central Services, located at 1875 Greeley St. S. in Stillwater. The main agenda item will be approval of the disbursement register and the Human Resources personnel report.

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