The Stillwater Area School Board will pursue a potential separation agreement with Superintendent Denise Pontrelli.
In a 5-2 vote during the board's meeting Thursday, July 11, the board authorized a resolution for Chair Mike Ptacek and Clerk Sarah Stivland to “enter into exploratory conversation and possible negotiation” regarding the remainder of Pontrelli's contract.
As Ptacek asked for approval of the agenda, Stivland requested that said resolution be added; director Tina Riehle seconded. Directors Mark Burns and Jennifer Pelletier immediately voiced their disapproval.
“You know my feeling about amending the agenda last minute. Not only are we amending the agenda at the last minute, but we are doing so with a very significant agenda item,” Burns said. “I'm concerned that we are not serving the public in the best way by amending the agenda at the last minute with what could potentially be the biggest agenda item that we can have in a year.”
“I am vehemently opposed and outright disgusted,” Pelletier added. “That's all I have to say.”
The board voted 4-3 to add Stivland's resolution to the agenda. Burns, Pelletier and Vice Chair Shelley Pearson cast the dissenting votes.
The timeframe and cost of buying out Pontrelli's contract, which was last renewed in 2018 and expires mid-2021, is currently unclear. Pontrelli is set to receive a salary of $192,932 for the 2019-20 school year and $195,826 the following year; however, those figures do not include the cost of benefits payout.
“I understand that the board's biggest job is to hire a superintendent. Unfortunately, sometimes that means firing a superintendent, but the piece that comes in the middle is working with the superintendent,” Pontrelli said. “This, in my opinion, is not a governance act. It's more of a political act.”
Stivland cited unresolved tension between the school board and administration, and a desire to bridge the divide within the community as her motivation for proposing the resolution.
“It's clear to me that something needs to change, (and) I am no longer willing to accept the current reality,” she said. “If hitting the reset button is what the superintendent has called for, then, for me, this is what the reset button looks like.”
The meeting grew tense as Ptacek struggled to control the crowd of community members, several of whom expressed frustration with the last-minute addition to the agenda and the public's inability to comment on it, as the meeting did not include an open forum.
The Thursday morning meeting was intended to be short; at the June 26 meeting, the board voted to change the time of the July 11 meeting from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m., with the primary agenda items being the approval of the disbursement register and that of the human resources personnel report. Pontrelli said given that, she suggested to Ptacek and Pearson that the meeting not include open forum, to which they agreed.
“I was not aware that this agenda item (the separation agreement) would be added today,” Pontrelli said. “Typically (removing the open forum) is what we do when it's just disbursements and HR reports. I wasn't aware that this was, until right before I walked in here, being added.”
Burns expressed concern about the timing of the resolution to explore a separation agreement with Pontrelli and urged board members to allow more time for further information, particularly a forthcoming district-wide survey of community members, to be gathered.
“Why are we not waiting until we gather information and evidence and understand what the community really says, what their beliefs are? We represent the community, not a portion of the community, or our own personal beliefs,” Burns said. “I feel that without having an understanding of truly where the community is … it is premature to bring this resolution.”
Pelletier echoed Burns' concerns and warned that the board's decision to terminate Pontrelli's contract could have longterm negative consequences for the district.
“Do you realize what this is doing to our children? I want to ask what are the consequences of this. Have you weighed the consequences of whatever weasel word, termination or buy-out or whatever the appropriate terminology is?” she asked. “If we buy (Pontrelli) out to the tune of $500,000, we all know we don't have any money. Where's that money coming from? If we terminate her, who's going to want to come here?”
Ptacek said that he doubted any board members took the decision lightly. “I suspect everybody who's sitting here didn't sleep too well last night,” he said.
“I didn't know this was going to be on the agenda, so I slept fine,” Burns replied.
The resolution passed in a 5-2 vote, with Burns and Pelletier against. In a statement released Thursday afternoon, Pontrelli said that she was uninterested in discussing a separation agreement with board members.
“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," she said.
The board's next meeting will include an open forum and is scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday, July 26, at Stillwater City Hall, 216 N. 4th St.