Stillwater School Board Meets Amidst Allegations of Closed-Door Meetings and Conflicts of Interest

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Tonight’s Stillwater Area School Board meeting will be a doozy.

On the heels of a third legal challenge — and an investigative series by KSTP — alleging conflicts of interest and open meeting law violations surrounding the district’s bond deal and the BOLD vote, the Stillwater School Board will meet to consider a resolution to delay all further actions to the BOLD plan by the district and its staff pending the outcome of litigation.

834 Voice, a group of parents and community members opposed to BOLD, brought forth the request to stay all action while litigation plays out in court.

The 834 Voice lawsuit filed in district court on April 13 alleges:

  • The school district illegally closed three schools;
  • School district leaders violated open meeting laws;
  • District 834 violated the Minnesota Fair Campaign Practices Act by promising to improve the schools it now plans to close during the bond campaign;
  • School Board Member Kathy Buchholz and Finance Director Kristen Hoheisel did not disclose conflicts of interest, even though their spouses are employed by architecture and financial firms the district contracts with for construction and financial services related to the bond.

Stillwater Area Public Schools Superintendent Denise Pontrelli has denied the allegations, saying the claims “have no merit.”

834 Voice Legal Challenge to Stillwater BOLD

In addition to the most recent legal challenge, Stillwater Area Public Schools have been on the defensive following an investigative series by KSTP.

KSTP’s first story aired Tuesday night saying the district “failed to disclose a district employee had a potential financial interest in a almost $100 million bond deal approved by voters last year.”

The potential conflict involves Kristen Hoheisel, the Stillwater’s director of finance. She is married to Michael Hoheisel, a managing director at Robert W. Baird, an employee-owned and operated financial firm in Minneapolis that serves as the district’s financial adviser.

Here is a letter Stillwater Schools sent to families following that story,

“If you watched the news recently you’ve no doubt heard Stillwater Area Public Schools mentioned. We have a feeling you’ll be hearing a lot about our district – and our district leaders specifically – in the near future.

It’s an interesting and dynamic time in our school district. Our community has been divided on a very difficult and complex issue, and there are vastly different opinions on how we might proceed. That is no surprise. As parents, teachers, administrators and support staff we all have our children’s best interests at heart. We all are engaged in doing what we believe is best for them. We just don’t always agree on how to do that.

And so there is dissension with some in our community. Questions are being asked. Allegations are being made. Doubt is being cast. It’s part of a political agenda and we expect it will continue until legal action has been resolved.

As district leaders we will do our best to answer questions and respond appropriately when allegations are made. There are some things we cannot say in a time of litigation. There are some things we will not devote taxpayer dollars to addressing. Our mission is about learning, and our priority is to meet the needs of every single one of our students. We are looking forward and we are devoting our time, attention and resources toward planning and implementing the school board approved changes with excellence.”

On Wednesday night, KSTP followed up with this report claiming:

“The Stillwater School District held closed meetings with school board members before they voted to close three elementary schools last month, according to internal emails obtained during a 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS investigation.

“A January email from Superintendent Denise Pontrelli’s office warned board members to meet with her individually or in groups no larger than three. Board members were specifically told “no fours please” when asked to schedule their meetings to discuss the controversial school closures.”

The school board will discuss and act on the proposed stay during its regular board meeting, which will begin at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, April 14 at Stillwater City Hall.

The meeting will also be broadcast live at and on Cable Channel 15. A listening session will be held prior to the meeting beginning at 5:30 p.m.

If the Board votes to approve the stay resolution, a decision on boundaries and all other BOLD-related planning would be delayed until the courts rule on the lawsuits.

The appeals court briefing should be completed in early-August and district counsel expects it would be sometime between November 2016 and January 2017 before a decision on the case is made.

If the board votes down the stay, school officials expect the Board to take up boundary changes at its next meeting.

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