The Stillwater school board, already divided over controversial school closings, is awaiting findings of an investigation into two of its members after hearing a complaint from a district employee.

The board voted 4-2, with one abstention, to hire a Fergus Falls, Minn., law firm to investigate Sarah Stivland and Mike Ptacek, both of whom opposed the decision to close three elementary schools.

Stivland and Ptacek, the two top vote-getters in the 2016 election, said this week they are the targets of unsubstantiated accusations. Stivland said the board should have resolved what she called “ridiculous claims” without an investigation, and Ptacek said the probe further damages relations on a board that he said was making progress in mending differences.

Board members have declined to discuss the nature of the complaint. But Jennifer Pelletier, who was elected to the board last fall with Stivland, said the investigation wasn’t retaliation over the closings dispute.

“Absolutely not,” she said. “We were presented with a formal complaint, consulted with our attorney and dealt with it as any organization would. It was the only appropriate course of action to take.”

Ptacek said the nature of the complaint and the person who made it will become public once the investigation is completed. It was unclear when that might happen.

“It’s not a criminal suit or a civil suit at this point, it’s a complaint, and I believe it lacks substance,” he said this week. “I do not plan to stop asking the tough questions. I will continue to operate with civility and respect in my quest for public transparency.”

Three of the four board members who voted in favor of the investigation — George Hoeppner, Paula O’Loughlin and Tom Lehmann — supported the administration’s decision to close the schools. The fourth member voting in favor was Pelletier, who said during her campaign last fall that she stood by the closings decision. The one member who abstained, Shelley Pearson, opposed the closings.

Hoeppner, the board’s chairman, confirmed this week that an investigation is pending “against individuals subject to the board’s authority” but declined to say more.

Seeking to bridge differences

Elementary schools in Stillwater, Marine on St. Croix and rural Hugo closed after school ended last spring. The displaced students were reassigned to other district schools, but several families enrolled their children in charter schools or left the district.

The board vote to investigate Stivland and Ptacek was taken Oct. 10, followed by a separate vote to hire attorney Kristi Hastings of Pemberton Law in Fergus Falls. The district will pay her $200 per hour, as well as $135 per hour for a legal assistant and $100 per hour for administrative work, according to the board’s agreement.

Ptacek said the board had been using an outside facilitator in recent months “to bridge our differences.” Subsequent votes on various issues showed that some progress had been made. “I hope this polarization does not continue,” he said.

Stivland posted a statement on Facebook after the Oct. 10 vote in which she said “this complaint is completely without merit and is an attempt to harass and intimidate me.”

Pearson, who abstained from the investigation vote, said she was unsure whether the decision would lead to further polarization on the board. Two community members, she said, asked her to resign for failing to vote on the probe, but she said she didn’t have “adequate information” to do so.

“I will continue to do what I can to bring about healing on the board and in the community,” she said.

Pelletier said the investigation won’t derail board business.

“Despite statements that have been made publicly, this situation has nothing to do with board dynamics,” she said. “Each of us presents a different perspective, all equally valuable to me. I’m hopeful my colleagues feel the same.”