The Stillwater Area School Board is still at odds over Superintendent Denise Pontrelli's future with the district.
At the board's Thursday meeting, members discussed whether to enter into mediation to settle differences with Pontrelli. The Lee S. and Dorothy N. Whitson Fund has offered the district a $10,000-$20,000 grant to fund the cost of mediation services, but a motion to further explore the offer failed in a 3-3 vote.
In July, the board voted 5-2 to enter into talks regarding a possible separation agreement with Pontrelli, which Pontrelli has said she is uninterested in. She and her supporters have instead encouraged the board to accept the Whitson Fund's offer and use mediation to resolve ongoing tension between the board and district administration.
During Thursday's open forum, fund advisor Dianne Polasik urged board members to accept the mediation offer.
“I'm asking you to set aside past emotions and talk together about the reality of where the district is now,” she said. “Will you try mediation respectfully and honestly? Those are two words in your code of ethics. It would be good for the community to know.”
However, some board members are hesitant to enter into mediation, as Minnesota's Open Meeting Law requires those discussions to be open to the public. Board chair Mike Ptacek said he consulted the district's attorney, who advised against public mediation as it could run the risk of disclosing private personnel data related to Pontrelli's recent job evaluation and potentially lead to defamation lawsuits.
“I just don't think, given the liability that's out there for the district, that we can do that,” Ptacek said.
Other board members echoed Ptacek's concerns and reiterated their preference to discuss Pontrelli's evaluation in a closed session. Though that would be permitted under Minnesota's Open Meeting Law, in June, Pontrelli decided against a closed session and instead opted for a public self-evaluation, meaning the board has not yet discussed her evaluation as a group.
“I would be much more inclined to mediation if we were first allowed to have a closed session,” board treasurer Liz Weisberg said. “We could actually talk about things, work through some things.”
At the Thursday meeting, Pontrelli alleged that board clerk Sarah Stivland, who was absent from the meeting, asked her to resign before the June 12 evaluation session. A week before Pontrelli shared her self-evaluation, she claimed, Stivland approached her, “asking for my resignation or a buyout or some type of an option.”
Pontrelli agreed that her decision to reject the board's request for a closed evaluation was unusual.
“Not very many people do that. But there was a reason that I did that because I think it's important for the community to know that we have a good evaluation tool, that we're doing great work as a school district,” she said. “Are there places to improve? Of course, but there was a very large disconnect between those.”
Pontrelli also said that she has invited board members to discuss the evaluation with her individually, as board members Mark Burns and Jennifer Pelletier have done.
“(They) came in and had a conversation and gave me critical feedback on things that were working, things that they'd like to see more of. I haven't had that conversation with the rest of the board members,” she said. “I think that would be very helpful, because when I look at (the evaluations), there's either a gross misunderstanding of what we're doing as a district or something's going on because it's not matching what we shared at the open evaluation.”
However, other board members said conversations about Pontrelli's performance and evaluation needed to be held collectively, with the whole board present.
“We speak as a whole board, not as individual board members,” said board member Tina Riehle.
Pelletier, who made the motion to add the mediation discussion to the Aug. 8 agenda, said that her colleagues were confusing the evaluation conversation with the Whitson Fund's mediation offer.
“I think we're kind of jumping the gun in making this about the evaluation …. This is an offer to have a discussion about how we might be able to work collaboratively together with the superintendent,” Pelletier said. “I think we owe it to ourselves, as well as our community, to take (the offer) seriously.”
Burns added that set boundaries would ensure the board did not discuss private information during public meditation sessions.
“If there is a well-defined structure to the mediation, I do not understand why it puts us in legal jeopardy,” he said.
Yet others said that mediation sessions would not allow board members to discuss Pontrelli's evaluation openly and thus would not prove fruitful.
“I don't know if (mediation) would do any good without being able to discuss the evaluation. I think that's just unfortunately where we land,” said Shelley Pearson, board vice-chair.
“I agree with Shelley; it has everything to do with the evaluation,” added board member Tina Riehle. “And things that the board needs to discuss as a whole together to build off of one another because we are one board."
A motion, proposed by Pelletier and seconded by Burns, to further explore mediation failed in a 3-3 vote, with Ptacek, Riehle and Weisberg against.
In other actions, the board:
• Approved the district's membership in the Minnesota State High School League for the 2019-2020 school year, at no cost to the district. The board also reviewed the district's membership in the Minnesota School Board Association at $14,037, the Association of Metropolitan School Districts at $11,364 and Schools for Equity in education at $9,023. It is expected to vote on those memberships at a future meeting.
• Approved the release of the final retention payment of $77,500 to the Peterson Companies for 2015 referendum work related to Stillwater Area High School's tennis courts. The payment was previously delayed due to a dispute over the cause of surface cracking.
• Approved a $64,000 contract with APEX Learning, an online learning platform to be used at the St. Croix Valley Area Learning Center and in the district's special education programming. APEX Learning will replace Edgenuity.
• Voted to appoint Peter Mikhail, of LaVander, Gillen & Miller P.A. to represent the district in matters related to the bus terminal.
The board next meets 6 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 22, at Stillwater City Hall. 216 N. 4th St.