It was standing room only at the Stillwater Area School Board meeting Thursday night. Community members, many wearing t-shirts and stickers with the words “Ponies 4 Pontrelli,” packed the room to voice their opinions on the board's recent efforts to force out Superintendent Denise Pontrelli.
Earlier this month, the board voted 5-2 to pursue a separation agreement with Pontrelli, who joined the Stillwater district in 2015. Pontrelli has said that she is uninterested in leaving her role and would prefer to seek mediation services to resolve the oft-tense relationship between administration and board members.
The open forum that preceded the July 25 meeting stretched over 90 minutes, as roughly 40 speakers addressed the board. Many mentioned division between the north and south parts of the district, as well as the strained working relationship between district administration and board members, but were divided over who was ultimately responsible.
Some blamed Pontrelli, whose BOLD (Building Opportunities to Learn and Discover) proposal led to the closure of Withrow, Marine and Oak Park Elementary Schools after voters passed a $97.5 million referendum for improvements in May 2015.
“BOLD was the beginning of deception and division for our district …. Terms like 'Nurture the North; Sever the South' and 'Southside Pony Pride' were born,” said Lisa Hill, of Marine on St. Croix. She encouraged board members to follow through on negotiations to terminate Pontrelli's contract. “BOLD may have been the beginning, but this board can make it end. Some have said that the superintendent was hired strictly to close the three schools. Her job is done; let's move forward.”
Others, however, blamed the board, saying members are focused on past decisions like BOLD at the expense of the future of the district and deeming the board's pursuance of a termination with Pontrelli retaliatory. The board voted to approve BOLD in March 2016
“It's time to look to the future of the district and the actions best for your students,” said Abby Banks, of Woodbury. “If your job is to prepare students for the future, maybe you should take a minute to actually contemplate what the best future for the district would be, rather than continue on a childish vendetta with adult consequences.”
“I would assert that the board majority has created many of their own problems.” said Peggy Franklin, of Lake Elmo. “Good people would not participate in a closed social media page that engages in personal attacks on students, parents, teachers and board members,” Franklin said, referring to “Support Our Schools – 834 Unites,” a private Facebook group whose founding followed that of 834 Voice, the community group that sued the district over the 2016 school closures. Tina Riehle, Sarah Stivland and Liz Weisberg are current members.
Franklin also cited the secret meeting Stivland, Weisberg and board chair Mike Ptacek held with legal counsel Jan. 29. “Good people tell the truth and respect others. Accessing legal counsel without notifying every board member is lying by omission. To use unallocated taxpayer money to fund inappropriate legal fees constitutes theft,” she said. “To bill the taxpayers with (Pontrelli's) severance pay and the cost of recruitment for another superintendent salary is to waste resources that this community has dedicated toward students.”
Former board member Amy Burback, of Stillwater, spoke on behalf of four other former board members who had voted to approve BOLD: Kathy Buccholz, George Hoepnner, Tom Lehmann and Paula O'Loughlin. She said anger towards Pontrelli over BOLD and the closure of the three schools was ultimately misplaced; as it was the board who ultimately voted to approve the proposal.
“The BOLD decision does not belong to Superintendent Pontrelli. As the legal entity charged with governing the school district, it is the board and board alone who has the authority to make any final decisions affecting the district,” she said. “No one wanted to consolidate school buildings, and yet the overwhelming evidence that came before us made it clear that we had an ethical and financial obligation to make the decision that was going to provide the most resources to the most students in the most fiscally responsible way possible.”
Burback went onto say that she and the four other former board members on whose behalf she spoke were “incredibly proud” of Superintendent Pontrelli and other district administrative staff for successfully implementing BOLD. “The numerous and positive ways in which BOLD has impacted our students cannot be overstated. At the heart of BOLD is our students, and we thank Superintendent Pontrelli and her team for always keeping kids at the center of everything they do.”
Since 2016, candidates running on anti-BOLD platforms now makeup a majority on the board; board members Mark Burns and Jennifer Pelletier cast the sole votes against the resolution, proposed by Stivland, to explore a separation agreement with Pontrelli. Some speakers at the Thursday meeting said the district should interpret the 2016 and 2018 election results as a mandate to change.
“The old board and their vision for the district (were) roundly rejected and defeated …. This new board is saddled with the top executive who designed and administered the vision of the rejected board,” said Stillwater resident Bill Gillis, who has children in district schools. “The governing visions don't align, and this board must act, and I'm thankful that's what you are doing.”
Pontrelli's contract was last renewed in 2018 and expires in mid-2021. She is due a salary of $192,932 for the 2019-20 school year and $195,826 for the 2020-21 school year. Pontrelli has said that she is not interested in discussing a separation with the district and would prefer to enter into mediation over the board's differences with her.
Through the Lee S. and Dorothy N. Whitson Fund, the St. Paul Foundation has offered the district $10,000-$20,000 for mediation services. Andrew Jenks, speaking on behalf of fund advisor Dianne Polasik, urged the board to accept the offer. “This seems in best interest of the district and communities being affected,” he said. “I would hope the board is willing to pursue this avenue of intervention or other mediation resources as found acceptable to both parties.” As of press time, the school board had not yet discussed the offer.
The board next meets 6 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 8, at Stillwater City Hall, 216 N. 4th St.