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About 50 protesters rallied June 11 in support of Stillwater School Superintendent Denise Pontrelli. (Photo by Alicia Lebens)

In a 5-2 vote, the Stillwater Area School Board voted June 11 to approve a separation agreement with district superintendent Denise Pontrelli. Pontrelli’s last day will be July 1.

Pontrelli had a year left on her three-year contract. According to the separation agreement, Pontrelli will be paid her 2020-2021 salary of $195,826 and $29,165 of accrued unused vacation leave. The agreement also paid her $64,312 in exchange for her release of any legal claims against the school district. The district will contribute $5,500 to her 403(b) tax-sheltered annuity plan and $4,500 to her health-reimbursement account, and she will stay on the district’s health and dental plan at the school district’s expense until the end of the 2021 school year or until she finds a different job before that.

Following the vote to separate with Pontrelli, school board member Shelley Pearson — who voted in favor of the separation — announced her intention to step down from her place on the board. Pearson was reelected to the school board in 2018 and has two years left on her term.

“I am 100% certain that we cannot keep going like this,” Pearson said. “Our kids are hurting, and our community is hurting, and we just can’t continue in this way. It’s not healthy for any of us. We all need to be in a place that is healthy for all of us.”

In the weeks prior to the vote, Pontrelli received significant support from district staff, community members and students. At the time of the meeting, more the 2,500 people had signed a petition in support of Pontrelli. About 80% of the members of the district’s teachers’ union signed a letter in support of Pontrelli, and all of the district’s principals signed a similar letter in support.

A group of 28 black students and alumni of Stillwater Area High School wrote an open letter to the school board addressing racism they have experienced in the district. As part of actions the board should make to improvements, the group cited Pontrelli’s leadership and asked that she continue as superintendent.

Board member Mark Burns — who voted against the separation agreement — cited both fiscal and operational concerns for the next school year if the district was left without a superintendent. Currently, three of the district’s top spots in administration are vacant. Dr. Bob McDowell, who served as the assistant superintendent, will be taking the job of superintendent in Hastings. The director of finance and operations, Kristen Hoheisel, was placed on administrative leave on March 30. She has since filed a lawsuit claiming the school board violated open meeting law, the whistleblower statute and the state’s data practices act.

“Planning for the upcoming school year may be the most challenging in memory,” Burns said. “I oppose it simply because it hurts our students, and ultimately, that’s what our decisions have to be based upon: Does it help our students? I don’t believe it does. I believe it hurts our students.”

Board member Mike Ptacek called the negotiations for the separation agreement to be “amicable.” Pontrelli interjected that the negotiations were not amicable by both parties, but that the negotiations between the district’s attorney and her attorney were amicable.

As part of the separation agreement, a joint statement was read by board chair Sarah Stivland:

“After serving the Stillwater Area Schools for five years, Denise Pontrelli has agreed to a separation agreement with the Stillwater Area School Board. Superintendent Pontrelli wishes to extend her gratitude to the students, staff and community for their partnership to create improved learning systems for all. The District expresses its gratitude to her and her leadership over the last five years.”

The school board has scheduled a special meeting for 5 p.m. Tuesday, June 23 to discuss the hiring process for the superintendent and the assistant superintendent.

Contact Alicia Lebens at alicia.lebens@ecm-inc.com

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