Stillwater School Board Chair Mike Ptacek and Director Sarah Stivland will begin exploratory discussions with the Stillwater Area Public School’s (SAPS) Superintendent Denise Pontrelli about her future in the district, including a possible separation agreement.
As Ptacek asked for approval of the agenda at the 8 a.m. Thursday, July 11 meeting at the Central Services building, Stivland asked to add the resolution as an action item.
The board voted 4-3 to put it on the agenda, with Directors Mark Burns, Shelley Pearson and Jennifer Pelletier voting against. Ultimately, the board approved the resolution 5-2, with Burns and Pelletier dissenting.
While some board members said discussing a separation agreement is premature, others said passing the resolution was necessary to heal the divide between the board and the superintendent, as well as within the community.
“This, in my opinion, is not a governance act. It’s a political act,” Pontrelli said.
It is unclear how much a separation agreement would cost the district.
Pontrelli has two years left on her contract with a salary of $192,932 in the 2019-2020 school year and $195,826 in the 2020-2021 school year. These figures do not include the cost of benefits.
If the board bought out Pontrelli’s contract, it’s likely they would hire an interim superintendent, as they have done in the past when a superintendent has left the position. When the district sought a new superintendent in 2014, they hired Tom Nelson for $165,000 to serve as interim.
Stivland said she added the agenda item because tension between the school board and the superintendent continues to go unresolved.
“It is clear to me that something needs to change,” Stivland said.
Stivland said she wants to repair the divide in the community.
“It is our job as leaders to fix it. And that’s what this is about,” Stivland said.
Ptacek, as the board’s chair, struggled to control the crowd of about 50 people, with standing room only, crammed into the Central Services conference room. Several SAPS teachers were also in attendance.
At the last board meeting, the board voted to move the meeting to an 8 a.m. meeting at Central Services with only disbursements and a personnel report on the consent agenda. The morning meeting also wasn’t live-cast, Ptacek said, because the cameraman’s live stream and conference room’s microphone equipment wasn’t working. He did record the meeting and uploaded it online later in the day.
Several audience members asked why an open forum wasn’t on the agenda. Ptacek said the board usually doesn’t hold an open forum if the agenda includes just disbursements and a personnel report.
Before they voted on the resolution, Burns said the board should seek the community’s opinion about the direction they want the board to take. The board should wait, he said, until the district completes an upcoming survey gauging community support for the operating levy as well as perception of the superintendent, board and use of tax-payer dollars.
“There are many, many ways that we can have a conversation that don’t require a resolution,” Burns said, citing a work session or mediation. “I do not feel that we have anywhere near sufficient evidence to even bring this topic up.”
Pontrelli said she has asked for a facilitator in the past. She added she and her staff want to work through issues with the school board.
“I need it to be a two-way street,” she said.
Burns asked Stivland why she couldn’t have a discussion with Pontrelli without the resolution. Stivland said since it includes the possibility of a separation agreement, the district’s legal counsel advised the board vote on a resolution publicly.
Pelletier did not support the resolution.
“I am vehemently opposed and outright disgusted,” Pelletier said. “Do you realize what this is doing to our children?”
Ptacek said none of the board members took the decision lightly.
“I suspect everyone who’s sitting here didn’t sleep too well last night,” Ptacek said.
“I didn’t know it was going to be on the agenda,” Burns responded.
The board recently completed the superintendent evaluation, voting at the previous meeting to place a copy of it in her personnel file.
Since Pontrelli wanted the evaluation meetings to be open, Director Liz Weisberg said the board did not have an opportunity to openly discuss their working relationship because the conversation contained private personnel data. She said approving the exploratory discussion allowed board members to do that.
After the meeting, Ptacek said he knew about the action item before Stivland brought it up at the meeting. When asked why it got added last minute, he said: “This is a very difficult topic to deal with no matter when you deal with it.”
Asked the same question after the meeting, Stivland said she hoped to discuss the sensitive issue at a meeting that usually has less people from the public in attendance.
“I really was trying to protect the superintendent by trying to make this a little more private,” Stivland said.
Stivland added the current relationship between the board and the superintendent “just isn’t working” and that she “felt strongly that something needs to change.” She said she believes the tension comes from differing visions for the school district, such as her view on class sizes.
“I’m honest when I say I don’t know what that looks like,” Stivland said. “At this time, I am interested in trying to work with the superintendent as best I can.”
After the Gazette went to press Thursday afternoon, Pontrelli issued a statement saying she had no interest in entering into exploratory conversations with the school board to pursue a separation agreement.
"I believe this conversation would only serve to further divide our community, stretch our already stretched resources, and create more disruption and change in our system -- none of which would be in the best interest of our students," Pontrelli said.
Pontrelli is interested in collaborating with the board to resolve conflict, according to the statement.
"I believe we have the opportunity to model to our students and community what it looks like to work through differences to come to a positive outcome," Pontrelli said. "That is my focus both today and into the future."
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