Two Stillwater school board members didn’t create a hostile work environment at the school district but did behave disrespectfully toward an employee, according to an attorney hired by the district to investigate allegations against the pair.
A 95-page report, much of which was redacted to conceal the identity of the complainant, offered no recommendations other than to encourage “straightforward, honest and clear communication” among the school board’s seven members.
Sarah Stivland, one of the two members accused of bullying, said the $200-an-hour investigation amounted to “unnecessary drama” relating to disagreements over the closing of three elementary schools last spring.
The other accused member, Mike Ptacek, said he had simply exercised his First Amendment right to ask questions of district staff members.
Each will meet with the complainant and a mediator in coming weeks, they said Friday. Portions of the report that weren’t redacted suggest the complainant is a district employee with decisionmaking responsibilities.
District officials declined to comment on the report, written by Fergus Falls, Minn., attorney Kristi Hastings after she interviewed all seven school board members last fall.
Hastings wrote that “the backdrop to this complaint” was the board’s controversial decision to close the three schools after voters approved a $97.5 million referendum for improvements in May 2015.
Superintendent Denise Pontrelli subsequently proposed the closings as part of a program titled “Building Opportunities to Learn and Discover,” or BOLD for short.
“The BOLD plan was, and continues to be, a divisive moment in the history of the district,” Hastings wrote in the report.
Ptacek, who has been on the board for nine years, voted against closing the schools. Stivland was subsequently elected to the board after campaigning against the closings.
Board Chairman Tom Lehmann said Friday that he didn’t know the total cost of the investigation because Hastings hadn’t yet sent the bill. In addition to the $200 hourly fee for Hastings, the school district agreed to pay $135 per hour for a legal assistant and $100 per hour for administrative work.
In her report, Hastings dismissed the bullying allegations made by the unnamed complainant against Stivland and Ptacek because she said the district’s bullying policy applies only to students.
She also wrote there was no evidence that the school board members had violated the district’s policy on race, religion, sexual harassment, violence and hazing. Moreover, she added, there was insufficient evidence to believe the complainant was treated differently because of gender.
But Hastings concluded that Stivland and Ptacek violated the district’s policy on respectful behavior, which states that everyone “should be treated in a manner which enhances self-esteem and supports the dignity of the individual.”
“Poor communication, tension, attempts to ask ‘gotcha’ questions in public settings to drive innuendo, and disrespectful actions have all resulted in [redacted] feelings about [redacted] work environment,” Hastings wrote.
Stivland wrote on her Facebook page: “Everything in the complaint is found to be without merit or evidence sufficient to support any action other than to sit down and have a conversation to clear up any misunderstandings that have occurred.
“I have been accused of saying something I did not say. Mike is accused of talking to people he supposedly shouldn’t have been talking to.”
In the report, Stivland said the investigation amounted to harassment against her, that she had the right to question staff members and that she was treated “like an enemy” by board colleagues unhappy that she and Ptacek opposed the school closings.
“We’re seen as bad guys so we’re under attack,” she said in an interview Friday. “The whole situation was ridiculous from start to finish. This is not an effective way to solve problems.”
In the report, Hastings took issue with Stivland’s involvement with a closed Facebook group called “Support Our Schools — 834 Unites,” which claims more than 1,800 members. Many comments on the page, often critical of district policies, come from citizen activists who attend board meetings and request documents.
“Stivland’s participation in this group is disappointing in light of her obligations as an elected official and ambassador for the district,” Hastings wrote.
Right to speak out
Ptacek said in the report that the school board and the district’s administrative team “beat” on him for two hours last year during a workshop with an outside consultant.
“The administration wanted assurances that the board would have their backs covered, and Ptacek continued to just say that, ‘If it’s defensible, I will defend you,’ ” the report said.
Ptacek said in the report that he would continue to ask “tough, penetrating questions” about district finances, and added that a board policy attempting to restrain such inquiries is unenforceable.
“I think there are some people out there who challenge my right to speak out, in what I would call free speech,” he said.