Stillwater’s divided school board votes to renew superintendent’s contract — again

18December 2020

For the second time this month, a bitterly divided Stillwater school board voted Thursday night to negotiate a new contract with interim superintendent Malinda Lansfeldt to extend her term.

Chairwoman Sarah Stivland will now have less than a week to hammer out a one-year agreement with Lansfeldt for the board to take up at a special meeting no later than Wednesday.

Board members were expected to vote on approval of a three-year contract at Thursday’s meeting, but that agenda item was removed at Lansfeldt’s request Thursday afternoon.

Malinda Lansfeldt (Courtesy of Stillwater Area Schools)

Lansfeldt explained during the meeting that she pulled out of the negotiations over the proposed length of the contract, which had stirred controversy among some on the board and members of the public.

Although Lansfeldt’s current contract as interim superintendent doesn’t expire until June 2021, a lame-duck majority of board members voted Dec. 3 to negotiate a new contract that would install her as the permanent superintendent of Stillwater Area Public Schools.

This drew pushback from incoming board members and some in the community, who accused the outgoing board of ignoring the will of the voters by naming a new superintendent at the tail end of their terms.

“What, frankly, is the urgency to get it done this year, when it could be done in January?” new board member Beverly Petrie asked Thursday night during the meeting, which was conducted online because of the coronavirus pandemic. “It is the new board that is going to be working with Malinda, so it seems to make more sense to me that the new board negotiates this contract.”

Five of the board’s seven seats changed hands in the November election — one incumbent board member decided not to seek another term, while four others were defeated by challengers. Three of these incoming members won’t be seated until January.

The two new members who have already been seated, Petrie and Alison Sherman, along with outgoing board member Jennifer Pelletier, argued that if the new board insisted on inking a new contract with Lansfeldt, the term should be limited to one year.

An amendment was put forth at the board’s Dec. 3 meeting to shorten the term of the contract to be negotiated to one year from three, but it was voted down. The same amendment passed Thursday.

Before the vote, board members traded barbs and accusations. Treasurer Tina Riehle and board member Liz Weisberg accused Petrie of organizing a public pressure campaign aimed at discouraging Lansfeldt from accepting a three-year contract, which the pair characterized as “bullying.”

Outgoing board member Jennifer Pelletier decried the personal attacks she said she has endured from other board members during her term.

“This is divisive,” she said. “It is small, and it is petty.”

Despite bitter disagreements over process, the board had nothing but praise for Lansfeldt, who took on the role of interim superintendent in July after the ouster of her predecessor, Denise Pontrelli.

Petrie, who opposed the three-year contract, nonetheless endorsed Lansfeldt for the permanent superintendent job.

“Although some people might think we need to do a search to find a permanent superintendent this coming year, I am not one of them,” Petrie said. “I think we need to keep superintendent Lansfeldt in her chair.”

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