Photo by Paige Sanders
Superintendent Pontrelli addresses concerns of trust among board members
“I’m well aware that three of you did go and talk to our lawyers, and I don’t believe that all of you are aware of that,” Superintendent Denise Pontrelli said at the school board retreat Feb. 11.
The new school board took office in January. With the newest school board having only been in office for one month, they gathered with Pontrelli and Executive Director Bob McDowell for over six hours to discuss goals and brainstorm ideas for the coming year. They also shared suggestions for important items they want added to the agenda and as school board member Mark Burns asked, “how do we set the course for the future”?
About two and a half hours into the retreat, board member Shelley Pearson addressed the topic of rebuilding trust not only with the community, but among board members and district leadership. She said, “I think we need to reestablish trust,” and acknowledged that “we keep getting stuck.”
In response, Pontrelli said in a discussion about the board governance process, “Things have even happened since the new board came on that have not helped me with the trust piece.”
Among other examples, Pontrelli cited operating norms she felt had been possibly violated. Pontrelli said, “I know of things have happened that are not honest between each of you.”
Pontrelli brought up her awareness of three board members who met with district attorneys without the knowledge of the full board or superintendent prior to the meeting.
This meeting occurred Jan. 29 and cost taxpayers $2605.50, according to an email sent out to undisclosed administrative officials as a result of a community member filing for that information under the Minnesota Data Privacy Act.
Board members Sarah Stivland and Liz Weisberg, as well as Board Chair Mike Ptacek, are the school board members who met with attorneys. They said they cannot discuss the contents of the meeting under attorney-client privilege.
Pontrelli brought up this meeting when she specifically referenced item School Board Operating Norm 6.8. This states that any communication with district legal counsel regarding superintendent evaluation needs to be held with unanimous knowledge and consent on the board.
In response to the meeting, Weisberg said that board policy was not violated, “[The policy] says the ‘superintendent evaluation,’ so that was not violated [in the meeting].”
According to Jennifer Pelletier, the board is “working out details” about the meeting, as well as how to increase board communication. Pelletier said she no idea that the meeting occurred until Pontrelli brought it up at the board retreat.
“I believe that our taxpayers deserve to know,” Pelletier added. “I believe strongly our taxpayers deserve to know, as well as our entire community.”
None of the board members can comment about the content discussed at the meeting. Attorney-client privilege protects them unless the school board votes to allow discussion of the contents of the meeting.
The school district’s attorneys sent a memo titled “Attorney-Client Privileged” to board members. Stivland said in an email to community member Alison Sherman the memo was not to be discussed with the public “in any way”.
“Our attorney issued a letter saying that that nothing can be discussed without the full approval of the board,” Weisberg explained. “And so the fact that that it was brought up at a meeting violated the attorney-client privilege. Chair Ptacek tried to say that at the meeting because they were not supposed to talk about anything. Our attorney asked us not to speak of anything until the whole board can vote to talk about it, which has not happened. So until the board votes that we can talk about what happened at the meeting, I can’t discuss it under attorney client privilege. I can say that the statutes that were represented, the policies that were referenced, were not violated.”
District legal counsel told Ptacek that the fact that the meeting took place and that a memo went out to the entire board and the superintendent about it was not confidential, but that the contents of both were confidential due to attorney-client privilege and “the discussion of private data”.
At the subsequent board meeting on Feb. 21, board member Mark Burns read from a message he had earlier sent to Ptacek during his Board member report.
“Given that we are public officials of a public school district, that nonprivileged, nonconfidential should be freely shared with the public,” Burns read. “Some of the themes in which this board has placed high value include trust and transparency. I believe that we all agree that those themes are important to achieve our collective goals for this district. I have carefully studied the memorandum and in my opinion, there is nothing in the memorandum that justifies continued nondisclosure of its contents at the expense of transparency.”
Burns urged the board to open the meeting to the public. This would allow the board and Pontrelli to speak freely about the contents of the meeting and the memorandum, barring confidential data.
According to both Pearson and Burns, the school board would have to vote in order to waive the attorney-client privilege. Burns is expected to ask the board to vote to waive the attorney-client privilege at the March 7 board meeting.