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$377,000 buyout for Frazee-Vergas superintendent outrages taxpayers

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The Frazee-Vergas School Board on Wednesday agreed to buyout Superintendent Deron Stender's contract for about $377,000.

And regardless of how they felt about Stender, audience members were very upset and vocal at the special meeting Wednesday morning about that much taxpayer money being spent on a buyout.

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Kristi Hastings, an attorney with the school district's law firm, Pemberton Law, said she met with Stender on May 13 to discuss buyout options per instruction from the board.

She said that at the meeting, Stender said that he was "interested in a full buyout of his contract."

The cost of the buyout presented at Wednesday meeting was just over $377,000, with about $354,500 going directly to Stender.

Hastings said those numbers will vary slightly because of $15,543 that Stender wants to contribute to Teachers Retirement Association of Minnesota, a non-taxed pension plan.

Once the buyout offer goes to Stender, he has 21 days to consider the offer and sign it. He can also waive the 21-day waiting time and move forward.

"If he doesn't sign it, everything returns to status quo, no questions asked," Hastings said before there was a discussion and a vote on the offer.

After he signs the contract, in Minnesota there is a 16-day period where he can change his mind and pull his signature. Hastings said that is very rare because of the discussions, agreements and process leading up to the signing. Once Stender signs the papers, his employment with the district ends that day.

Board member Keith Janu said he wants the reasons for Stender's buyout to be included in the settlement because it is something that will follow his career. Hastings said those reasons don't normally go into the document, but they will be included in a letter that goes with it.

"I believe it's in the best interest of the school district," Board Chair Rich Zeigler said of the buyout offer.

Janu questioned how the district is going to pay for the buyout, and that it certainly didn't fit into the referendum promises. Spending the money will not help maintain buildings, technology or curriculum.

Board member Ken Fett said that he hated to spend the money, but it would be good for the district to start over because there has been such negativity in the district since Stender arrived six years ago. He added that Frazee's enrollment is declining while neighboring districts are growing.

"We have to get this district back on track," he said.

Stender said that Fett's accusations were inaccurate, and questioned how many teachers and students have left the district since the new board started at the start of the year.

Board member Matt Bauer said he also hated to spend the money but thought it could be recouped, although he gave no explanation how.

Discussion became more and more heated, between board members, former board members in the audience and others in the audience.

Resident Carey Alger blamed the old board, saying they extended the superintendent's contract for three years -- long before the old one was up -- so that it would tie the hands of the new board.

Laine, who sits on the board and was a part of the old board Alger was referencing, said she stands behind that decision because five of the board members thought Stender was doing a good job in the district.

"If this board buys him out, it's this board's responsibility. Let's not blame past boards," she said.

Former board member Nancy Dashner said she strongly opposed having her tax money pay for a buyout.

"Every time you five don't like someone, are you going to buy them out?" said an audience member who lives in the district. "You guys should be ashamed of yourselves."

Resident Pat Furey said, "Take one thing into consideration -- we have a great staff."

He said that he doesn't always agree with the administration, teacher's union or the board, but Frazee is a good district and that it needs to be united to ever get anything done.

"If you're just replacing the superintendent, that's not going to solve the problem," he said.

He suggested instead of buying out Stender's contract to instead hire a management firm to come in and teach the district leaders to get along and work together. He said without that united front, the district will never pass another referendum.

The district is holding public meetings in the future to discuss passing a referendum because the current one will soon be over.

"We're at a point where we have to do something," he said, adding that the district has been messy the past 10 years, changing superintendents and board members.

The buyout offer passed 4-3, with Steve Jepson, Fett, Zeigler and Matt Bauer voting in favor of it, and Laine, Janu and Jim Nelson voting opposed. Laine and Janu also opposed adjourning the meeting because they felt everyone hadn't been heard.

After the meeting, tensions continued to rise with past board members lashing out at current members about the work they had gone through to pass the referendum for the students -- and now it was being used to buy out Stender's contract.

Dashner called Zeigler a coward for adjourning the meeting without further discussion.

Also, Hastings was accused of working for only the five board members who usually are united on decisions, not the district.

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