A union-backed slate of five candidates who swept the Stillwater school board race on Election Day will see a smooth transition in January with the help of the incumbents they defeated, said outgoing board chairwoman Sarah Stivland.
Stivland's loss — along with incumbents Mike Ptacek, Tim Brewington and Bill Gilles — follows a tumultuous year that saw the resignations of two board members and the firings of Superintendent Denise Pontrelli and Finance Director Kristen Hoheisel.
Adding to the rift between the board and district officials was a board-initiated investigation of a bus garage deal handled by the administration and an ongoing lawsuit filed by Hoheisel against the board and Stivland personally.
"It has been hard," said Stivland, who said she's going to take a rest before thinking about her next move.
Matt Onken, one of the five incoming board members, said the backing of the St. Croix Education Association was helpful to him, though he wasn't sure why it chose him over other candidates. He said he was surprised that all five union-backed candidates won.
"I'm not sure the community is as divided as some people would like to make out," he said, pointing to the high percentage of votes won by the slate of union-backed candidates.
Onken, along with Katie Hockert and Annie Porbeni, topped an eight-candidate field for three board seats (one seat was open because Board Member Jennifer Pelletier chose not to seek re-election). Hockert got 19% of the votes, Porbeni 17.7% and Onken with 17.6%, easily besting Ptacek with 11.7% and Stivland with 11%.
In the separate special election for the two seats given up this summer by Board Members Mark Burns and Shelley Pearson, Beverly Petrie and Alison Sherman each won with about 29% of the vote. Gilles and Brewington, who were appointed to fill the vacancies and hoped to win terms in their own right, took 16.2% and 14.3% of the vote, respectively.
Stivland, who served only a single term, became a lightning rod for those who saw her as punishing district leaders after they closed three elementary schools in 2017, including two in the northern portion of the district where she lives.
Stivland said she was alarmed by the district's unilateral leadership style under Pontrelli when it closed the schools, and had vowed to be more responsive as a board member while questioning the district's practices. The board named Afton-Lakeland Elementary School Principal Malinda Lansfeldt as interim superintendent in July.
The school closings set off a bitter divide in the 8,300-student district that popped in social media postings and occasional flare-ups at board meetings. Stivland said the closings ended up coloring every other subject that came before the board.
"Throughout my whole term of being here I felt like it was difficult to propose new ideas, because that dynamic was just always there," she said. "I really hope that our district can get back to a place where ideas are just ideas and they aren't divisive, that we really should be open to creative solutions and new ways of thinking."
Stivland said she thinks the St. Croix Education Association declined to endorse her because she voted to oust Pontrelli earlier this year, and because of her opposition to a plan to expand Brookview Elementary School in Woodbury shortly after it was built.
A call to Josiah Hill, who has served as president of the St. Croix Education Association since 2010, was not returned.
Ptacek, who has served 12 years on the school board, agreed that the board's decision to sign a separation agreement with Pontrelli proved divisive and likely was one reason he was voted out. "The fact is that we made some significant moves," he said.
Ptacek said that campaigning during a pandemic was difficult, since it limited door knocking to mostly campaign literature drops rather than one-on-one conversations. He said that he's offered to help incoming board members with the transition, a move he called "kind of an olive branch. … At the same time, you've got to give them time to get their feet on the ground."
Onken said his focus will be on finding a new superintendent, preparing for a new operating levy and looking at recommendations for new construction — particularly in Lake Elmo, where a new elementary school has been proposed, and at Brookview.
Hockert, who won more votes than any other candidate, said she's eager to start despite the district's recent turmoil.
"Stillwater is very much a microcosm of the whole United States," Hockert said. "We are a deeply divided community just like the whole nation is. I think my approach moving into this position is hopefully to focus on common goals. …
"I am so thrilled by the group that was just voted in. For me, it is the best-case scenario."