When the Stillwater school board voted to close three elementary schools four years ago, support for families who lost their schools helped usher into power a new board controlled by people from the northern half of the district.
Two of the shuttered schools were in the north, and the board’s decision widened a north-south divide increasingly apparent due to demographics and development. While the less diverse northern area of the 8,600-student district saw steady or declining enrollment, southern cities including Lake Elmo and Woodbury recorded booming growth, with hundreds of new homes planned each year.
Last week the school board voted 5-2 to separate from Superintendent Denise Pontrelli, who engineered the school closures, with a year left on her contract. Those who voted to sever ties with Pontrelli live north of Hwy. 36; those opposed, to the south.
The decision leaves the district without a superintendent as of July 1, the latest in a string of high-level disruptions within the district. An assistant superintendent left this spring for a job elsewhere, and the district’s finance and operations officer was placed on indefinite paid leave earlier this year; she has since filed a lawsuit against the board.
Board Chairwoman Sarah Stivland said Pontrelli had pushed forward with ideas on her own when she should have involved the board. The closed schools played a role in the board’s decision, she said, but there were other reasons as well: costly renovations to remake one of the closed schools into offices and an expensive bus garage deal that blew up in the district’s face.
“We have struggled with issues related to communication and decisionmaking. It’s become a pattern. It just seemed impossible to resolve,” said Stivland.
Pontrelli’s separation came despite signs of widespread support for her from across the district. A unanimous letter of support from District 834 principals was submitted to the board, along with a letter of support from the St. Croix Education Association signed by 81% of union members. Union President Josiah Hill said it will directly endorse school board candidates in this fall’s election for the first time in decades.
Pontrelli declined an interview, saying she was legally unable to comment on the separation agreement. The terms of her separation require the district to pay her about $312,000 in salary and benefit payments.
The board will meet Tuesday to finalize the assistant superintendent search process and discuss the superintendent search. But even as the board prepares to find Pontrelli’s replacement, those who opposed her departure are preparing to take on the school board.
Three people already have stepped forward to run for the seats of incumbents Mike Ptacek, Jennifer Pelletier and Stivland. Lake Elmo resident and school parent Alison Sherman said she’s running because “the community is ready to just move forward.”
“It doesn’t matter if you live in the south of the district, or the north of the district. [Students] all deserve education that is top-notch,” Sherman said. People don’t want to talk about “spending money for removing superintendents.”
Another candidate, Afton resident Pete Kelzenberg, said he expects the current board majority will lose in the fall elections. He senses more people paying attention to the district’s operations, especially residents in Woodbury and Lake Elmo where classroom space is needed most.
“We’ll get things back in order and fix the damage,” he said. “There’s a lot more people down in the south end here that will oppose what they’ve been doing.”
Special education teacher Matt Onken, a Stillwater resident, said he’s running because of the turmoil within the district. “I feel like right now there’s been a lot of funding focused on things outside of the classroom, whether it’s the separation agreement with the superintendent, the bus terminal fiasco, different lawsuits that are taking place,” he said.
Shortly after he announced he was running, Onken heard from a parent who “expressed some very hurt feelings” over the closing of Withrow Elementary School in 2017. “I’m hopeful that whoever is on that board, they will find a superintendent who is focused on doing what is most equitable for kids in the district,” he said.
In addition to the seats of the three incumbents slated to go before voters this year, that of Board Member Shelley Pearson will be open as well. She has two years left in her second term. But last week, after joining the majority to separate from Pontrelli, she said the acrimony within the district had become too much.
“People are devouring each other,” she said, and announced her plans to resign.