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Controversy over Stender buyout

The Frazee-Vergas School District is moving forward with a buyout option for Superintendent Deron Stender.

At the school board meeting Monday there was plenty of discussion and accusations regarding the issue and how it was handled.

A couple weeks ago, when an offered was presented to Stender, some of the board members argued they were not aware of the buyout offer, and that Chairman Steve Jepson had overstepped his bounds by moving forward with the proposal without the board's approval.

The offer was tabled to be discussed publicly at Monday night's regular school board meeting.

In March, the school board voted to switch legal firms to Pemberton Law, with attorney Kristi Hastings to representing the district.

And while she may have approached this government board like others she's represented, she said Monday night that she now knows now that was a mistake.

"I've learned a lot about your district in the last month," she said pulling a chair up in front of the board and talking directly to the six members present and Stender. Board member Ken Fett was absent.

"I underestimated the amount of controversy you have here," she continued.

Hastings posed three questions to the board that she wanted answered before she left: what should the authority of the board chair be, how does she handle questions from board members, and where does the board want to go from here with the buyout discussion?

Timeline of events

Hastings went through a timeline of the previous month's activity, when she sat down individually with board members and when talk of a buyout was first brought up.

When Hastings talked to Jepson in an individual meeting, it was meant to discuss issues within the district.

She brought up to Jepson that Stender had said in his meeting with Hastings that he would be interested in a buyout proposal.

Jepson agreed to move forward and have one drawn up, understanding that the full board would have to approve the final buyout.

In April, Stender said he would be open to a buyout, but wanted an offer in writing, Hastings said.

She sent a notice to board members that she was instructed to pursue a buyout unless she heard otherwise.

She didn't hear back from any board members, so on April 8 she went ahead and drafted the buyout offer with Jepson and board member Rich Ziegler reviewing it before it was delivered to Stender.

On April 21, she wrote to board members that she had moved forward as instructed. That's when she started to receive responses, mainly from board member Dana Laine, questioning the process.

With the uproar it caused, Hastings stopped the process and said it should be brought before the board at the meeting Monday night for discussion.

"No matter what I do, half of you will be upset," she said.

Chairman authority

Hastings' first question was how much authority the Frazee district wants its board chair to have.

She said that Jepson had the authority to have the buyout offer drawn up. That's according to the district's own policy, and is in line with policy at other public entities she works with, she said.

But because of the deep level of mistrust among board factions and the administration, she said Frazee-Vergas may want to reconsider the policy.

"It's not an unusual action," Hastings said, "but for this board, I understand it is."

She said the district would be tying its hands to limit the board chair's authority to contact legal counsel.

In the last two months, the board already put limits on when the superintendent can contact legal counsel, requiring him to first get chair approval.

If it opts to place limits on the board chair, she said, the school board would have to give proper notice, then wait three days to have a special meeting to get board approval before the chair could contact her.

When it comes to the chair's authority to talk to the district's law firm, "We're not talking about general board action," Laine said, but rather bigger topics like a superintendent buyout.

She added that she didn't respond to Hastings initial e-mail about the buyout because "pursuing is not drafting a proposal and sending it to the superintendent."

Hastings disagreed and said that's a matter of how someone reads it.

"I thought the whole process stunk," board member Keith Janu said. "And it did."

He said that Policy 202 of the school district says that no contract will be made without board approval.

Jepson said that nothing was made, but rather that he was told there was an interest, so he went forward. He wanted to give Stender the professional courtesy of looking over the offer before bringing it to the public.

When questioned about the money already spent -- around $1,000 -- on the process, Jepson said, "I felt it was worth it" to get the process started.

"I never intended to not be transparent in my actions," Jepson said, adding that he took advice from legal counsel and acted properly.

Janu accused Jepson of knowingly violating the open meeting law by negotiating with Stender.

Jepson said that wasn't true but that he had met with Stender to go over the meeting agenda, a normal practice, and asked if it should be on the agenda.

Stender made a statement about the buyout, and Jepson said that's all that was said about it. There was no negotiating, he stressed.

"We're doing a lot of 'I gotchas,'" Stender said Monday, saying that with the previous board, Jepson and Ziegler were always blaming the rest of the board members and trying to catch them doing something incorrectly, and now Laine and Janu are doing the same to the new board.

"We've got to stop playing this game, all seven of us (at the table)," he said, adding that he didn't feel Jepson willfully violated any laws.

The board decided to stick with the current policy where the chair is allowed to contact legal counsel without board approval. They also agreed that board members must have chair approval to contact legal counsel.

Continue with buyout

"Someone make a motion so I know what to do," Hastings told the board.

Laine asked why Jepson and Ziegler wanted to continue with the buyout discussion, and Jepson responded that he "wanted to make sure it was a viable option."

Laine said the buyout that was first offered was for six months salary.

Stender makes $94,200 a year.

"I can answer that for you right now -- I have a three-year contract," Stender said.

With a little more discussion, the board passed a motion to pursue buyout negotiations with Stender. Jepson, Ziegler and board members Jim Nelson and Matt Bauer voted for the motion, and Laine and Janu voted against it. Fett was absent.