ST. CLOUD — Nearly two dozen employees of the Sartell-St. Stephen school district could be out of work on July 1 if the school board doesn't approve their contracts this week.

But that could continue to prove difficult as half of the six-member board — on the superintendent's recommendation — has tried to approve the contracts for months while the other three members have voted down any motions to approve them.

The three opponents of the pacts — Emily Larson, Jen Smith and Scott Wenshau — have said they want the contracts to be voted on individually instead of all together in one motion. But Interim Superintendent Tom Lee has warned that would set a dangerous precedent "that the board, with no supervisory responsibility, can pick somebody off that they just don't like."

At recent board meetings, Larson and Smith have repeatedly told Lee that is a mischaracterization of what they are doing. However, they have not offered an explanation other than that the 22 workers do not belong to a bargaining unit so their contracts should be considered piecemeal.

Lee has said the board — with the exception of the superintendent's contract — has never voted on contracts individually.

The 22 employees include directors of business services, human resources, technology and nutrition services, as well as a safety and facilities coordinator, three technology specialists and the activities coordinator.

Contacted by phone Friday, neither Larson, Smith nor Wenshau responded to requests for comment.

Lee said Friday that the board's role, as listed in its policies, is to oversee the superintendent and create policies for the district, not to act as a manager and oversee operations. Whereas supervisors, such as the superintendent or building principals, do oversee employees and give performance reviews.

"Do any of you work that closely with any of these individuals to make that kind of a judgment call? That's not the way the system is set up," Lee told board members at their June 17 meeting. "This appears to me to be an effort to get rid of an individual that these board members have a vendetta against."

While Lee did not publicly identify the individual, he said Larson and Smith approached him a few months ago with "concerns they had about their personal experiences with an [employee]." Lee said the two shared those concerns with the other board members during a closed meeting.

He said he considered their concerns but said they did not rise to the level of firing the employee or not renewing their contract.

Lee first presented the contracts for approval in February during the board's search for a new superintendent. Because board members voted 3 to 3 on the pacts, the motion failed.

"I was surprised, to be honest," Lee said. "It's like, OK — you just sent the message to your superintendent candidates that the superintendent's recommendation doesn't necessarily mean anything to you."

The board again considered the contracts in May and twice in June. They were voted down each time.

"People have been on pins and needles," Lee said.

If contracts are not approved this week, the board could vote to reinstate employees in July. But the workers would lose at least one month of insurance and short-term disability if they have a preexisting condition such as pregnancy.

Lee said district operations would suffer, and because the district provides IT services for the city of Sartell, those operations would be affected, too.

"Shutting down the school district for this purpose probably isn't in anyone's best interest," he said.

The school board will meet at a special meeting Tuesday and, if the contracts are still not approved, could meet again Friday.

Larson, Smith and Wenshau were elected in 2022. They ran as a conservative slate, leading the district's teachers union to endorse candidates — three other candidates — for the first time in its history.

Before the election, Larson and Smith had helped create a group called Kids Over Politics, which challenged the findings of a study that showed students in the district were concerned about racism, homophobia and discrimination.

"What's unique here is all three came on board at the same time; they ran as a slate, and they vote as a slate," said Lee.

He said he has never seen anything similar in his decades of work in school administration.

Mike Rivard, an assistant superintendent at the St. Cloud school district, will take over as superintendent on July 1. Lee said he has enjoyed his time in Sartell and feels district employees are competent and high quality.

"But," he said, "the politics have been extremely disappointing and difficult and stressful — and I will not miss that."