The Stillwater school board shot down another attempt to pursue mediation with Superintendent Denise Pontrelli at the Sept. 12 board meeting.

The motion to consider potential parameters that addressed liability concerns with the district’s legal counsel for mediation failed 2-5, with Board Chair Mike Ptacek and Director Liz Weisberg voting for.

The motion was to authorize Ptacek to ask legal counsel to draft an agreement asking for Pontrelli’s consent to the release of her personnel data for mediation, which must be held in an open meeting, and hold board members harmless for liability arising from mediation.

Weisberg said the motion was a first step to pursue mediation and to draft an initial offer. Ptacek added he hoped to find a compromise that would also ease board members’ concerns about liability, defamation or the release of private personnel data.

“The liability or the openness there sometimes has significant costs and in this case, the cost would not only go to the district, which could be substantial, but also to individual board members,” Ptacek said.

At the Aug. 8 meeting, a motion to explore mediation paid for by a $10,000-$20,000 grant from the Lee S. and Dorothy N. Whitson Fund failed 3-3. During the Aug. 22 open forum, Stillwater Township resident Dianne Polasik made a different offer on behalf of the Whitson Fund that included funds for the board to meet with mediators and discuss concerns about conducting mediation in an open meeting.

Not all board members thought the motion was the right step.

Director Mark Burns said in his legal practice, he advises clients to craft an agreement with the other party before involving counsel.

“It’s a much more efficient process to have the two parties discuss and try to come to some sort of agreement on terms,” Burns said. “I really don’t see the necessity to open up personnel data.”

Director Jennifer Pelletier called the proposed parameters “bullyish in nature.” She asked Ptacek to define what personnel data the agreement would ask Pontrelli to release.

“I’m not positive I can give you the exact data that would be approached,” Ptacek said.

“Respectfully, that’s a problem,” Pelletier said.

Directors Shelley Pearson and Sarah Stivland said they didn’t believe the board could have a productive conversation at an open mediation meeting. Pearson added conversations need to include the full board because the board is Pontrelli’s boss collectively. Board members are allowed to have individual discussions with Pontrelli.

“We need the conversation together as a board to be able to move to the next step,” Pearson said.

The school board also discussed a policy for open forum speakers.

The proposed policy allows 15 open forum speakers with three minutes speaking time each.

The board increased the number of open forum speakers from 12 speakers with five minutes each to 40 speakers with two minutes each, following the board’s July 11 decision to seek a separation agreement with Pontrelli.

There were nearly 40 speakers at the July 25 meeting but interest has decreased.

Stivland said the new policy balances the desire for public input with efficient use of time. The policy is flexible, she added, and the board will review it again in November.

“Three minutes is pretty standard for most districts,” Stivland said. “If it doesn’t seem long enough for us, we certainly can change it.”

Pelletier said she was concerned the new policy silenced public voice. Pearson disagreed.

“For me, it’s not at all about limiting voice,” Pearson said. “I would rather have more speakers and just decrease the time.”

Director Tina Riehle said regardless, the board needs a consistent policy so residents know how to prepare.

“I don’t feel it’s fair to change it on the spot,” Riehle said.

Ptacek will likely decide and share the time limit for open forum speakers with the public prior to the Sept. 26 meeting.

Additional Notes:

The Stillwater school board will hear the results of the Morris Leatherman Company survey at the Sept. 26 meeting. The company conducted a telephone survey of 400 randomly selected residents of Stillwater Area Schools. The survey gauged public opinion on: education quality, district referendum atmospherics, facility needs and demographics.

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

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