More than four years after Superintendent Denise Pontrelli made a controversial decision to close three elementary schools, the Stillwater school board on Thursday approved a $300,000 separation agreement that ends her tenure at the end of the month.
“I acknowledge that this is a difficult transition, but I trust that our school district will rally together, support one another and continue to work on the important issues we face in our community,” said board Chairwoman Sarah Stivland, who voted for the agreement, in a statement.
The 5-2 vote to sever ties with Pontrelli, who was named superintendent in 2015, comes a year after the board unsuccessfully tried to remove her from the district’s top job.
The agreement means that she will receive her $195,800 salary for 2020-21, $64,312 for the release of legal claims against the district, $29,165 of accrued unused vacation time, district health care and contributions to her annuity plan and health savings account.
Tension has been brewing in the east metro district since Pontrelli’s decision to shutter the schools, which immediately put her at odds with some school board members and residents.
The closures were part of a district plan called BOLD (Building Opportunities to Learn and Discover) that aimed to accommodate enrollment growth in the southern part of the district.
“She’s been punished for [that decision] ever since,” said Board Member Jennifer Pelletier. “I think it’s a single-issue board focused on trying to find some kind of retribution.”
Another pressure point was a garage for school buses the district purchased in Lake Elmo. When the district failed to connect it to city utilities, the city took away the permit needed for its operation.
Stivland said the garage ultimately wasn’t usable and cost the district $7 million. It’s become “kind of a mess,” she said, adding that the School Board has hired a lawyer to investigate the debacle.
Pelletier, who voted against the separation agreement, said the garage had become an excuse used by some board members to rationalize ousting Pontrelli.
Following the vote, taken during a meeting held online because of COVID-19 concerns, Stivland read a joint statement from the school board and Pontrelli.
“After serving the Stillwater Area Schools for five years, Denise Pontrelli has agreed to a separation agreement with the Stillwater Area school board,” the statement said. “Superintendent Pontrelli wishes to extend her gratitude to the students, staff and community for their partnership to create and improve learning systems for all. The district expresses its gratitude to her and to her leadership for the past five years.”
Pontrelli declined to comment for this story.
The vote, Stivland said, indicated that separation was in the district’s best interest. Board Member Shelley Pearson agreed but resigned at the end of the meeting.
A number of residents and teachers in the district of about 8,600 students recently had expressed support for Pontrelli, but the campaign wasn’t enough to keep the school board from agreeing to the separation.
Josiah Hill, an English teacher at Stillwater High School and head of the teachers union, told the board that Pontrelli had the backing of 81% of educators, something he said was unheard of.
“I’m deeply troubled that the board is looking to separate with our superintendent during turbulent times,” Hill said, referring to the pandemic and the recent unrest following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.
He said that Pontrelli’s leave-taking “will harm our students, district and community for years to come.”
Pelletier said the closing of the three schools wasn’t just about balancing enrollment numbers, but righting “incredible inequities” in the district. She praised Pontrelli’s work on equity issues. “I believe our families of color trust her,” she said.
But Kristie Mack, a district resident, said it was time for Pontrelli to go, citing the divide in the district created in the past few years.
Assistant Superintendent Robert McDowell recently left Stillwater to lead Hastings Public Schools, and Board Member Mark Burns said that letting Pontrelli go with McDowell gone and Finance Director Kristen Hoheisel on leave is “operationally irresponsible.” The decision to cut ties with Pontrelli, he said, was “fiscally irresponsible.”
The district will look for an interim superintendent right away and hire a search firm to find an “excellent leader” who will be a good fit, long term, for the district, Stivland said.
“I wish it could start tomorrow,” she said.