Community members packed Stillwater City Hall Thursday, July 25 to let the Stillwater school board know how they feel about a potential separation agreement with the district’s Superintendent Denise Pontrelli. 

Emotions were high for nearly 40 speakers during open forum.

While some said they support a buyout of Pontrelli’s contract, others, many who identified themselves as district staff, said the Superintendent has their support.

The board increased the number of open forum speakers from 12 to 40 with a two-minute limit following a rowdy July 11 meeting where it approved a resolution 5-2 to explore a separation agreement.

Ptacek said the board hopes to do the same at the next meeting on Thursday, Aug. 8 at 6 p.m. at Stillwater City Hall, located at 216 Fourth St. N. in Stillwater.

Several community members said they would not vote to renew an operating levy with Pontrelli in leadership, citing hurt in the community caused by Building Opportunities to Learn and Discover (BOLD), a plan that closed Marine, Oak Park and Withrow Elementary Schools.

If the school board decides to renew the levy, it must go to voters by November 2021.

The approved 2013 operating levy generates $16.2 million per year to financially support the district.

Kiva Sherr, of Stillwater, said the community’s division detracts from focusing on education. She called for district administration to acknowledge the pain felt as a result of school closures.

“This district feels broken and the person in charge is responsible for that,” she said. “Whether or not that person is capable of fixing it is the question. Some of us have doubts.”

Susan Mattys, of Bayport, said no one has stepped in to repair the division created between the northern and southern ends of the district.

“We the voters spoke on election day. We need someone who’s willing to work with the board, not against them,” she said.

Others said a separation agreement is a waste of taxpayer dollars. A handful of district staffers also said Pontrelli’s leadership puts kids and learning at the center of her decisions. Ben Halley, a fifth-grade teacher at Lake Elmo Elementary, said he spoke in support of the superintendent on behalf of about 15 of his colleagues who stood behind him during open forum.

“In my 12 years in this district, I’ve seen three full-time superintendents and twice had an interim superintendent. No school district can build and sustain a productive and child-centered culture with such constant turnover of leadership,” he said.

Other speakers urged the board to explore mediation.

Andrew Jenks, of Stillwater, spoke on behalf of the Lee S. and Dorothy N. Whitson Fund of the St. Paul Foundation, which offered the board a $10,000-$20,000 grant to facilitate and mediate internal issues between the board and administration.

“The lack of ability to internally solve problems by leadership has limited productivity, increased financial cost for district taxpayers and caused significant negative polarization within the community,” Jenks said. “Neutral intervention is needed.”

The board also unanimously approved a community design team roster of about 100 total community members who will help the board decide how to enhance and prioritize long-term facility maintenance.

The board received more than 90 applications this spring for the task force and approved about 30 in April. Director Shelley Pearson said the board’s community engagement working group formed the roster at the recommendation of Cuningham Group, the company the board hired to facilitate long range facilities task force meetings.

Pearson said the Cuningham Group recommended the board add additional members to ensure more diversity, including representatives from local government, businesses, students and district staff.

“They wanted and we wanted people from every, really all parts of the district, of every opinion, to make sure this is really an authentic team,” Pearson said.

Director Tina Riehle said she wished the board had asked for a second round of applications for the roster.

“Initially, I wasn’t very thrilled with the change of process,” Riehle said.

The board also unanimously appointed Directors Mark Burns and Sarah Stivland as well as Board Chair Mike Ptacek to the community design team. According to the district’s website, the team will start work in September.

Additional Notes:

- The school board unanimously approved all other action items including the renewal of a five-year contract with Schoology Learning Management System for $170,701 total. Schoology is the district’s managing software for all secondary students, according to the board packet.

- Board members approved the 2019-2020 district handbook, available for review at stillwaterschools.org/handbook.

- The board approved Northland Recreation, LLC to provide and install rubberized playground surfacing for the Afton-Lakeland Elementary preschool and kindergarten playground, replacing woodchips. The fall zone resurfacing will cost $58,787 using funds from the 2015 referendum proceeds.

Contact Kim Schneider at kim.schneider@ecm-inc.com

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