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Wrenshall superintendent contract is renewed

The Wrenshall school board meeting Monday featured one of the more enthusiastic votes a board can give. Each of the five members exclaimed their affirmative vote to extend the contract for part-time superintendent Jeff Pesta.

In doing so, the members lightly razzed the administrator about his loquacious manner — getting their money’s worth as far as the number of words he uses, they said.

But thorough, detailed explanations were necessary to help get the district out of a $300,000-plus deficit last year. In accomplishing that, as well as initiating consolidation intentions with neighboring Carlton, a mutual admiration formed.

“It’s an honor to extend this with you,” board chairwoman Mary Carlson said.

“This has been, in my opinion, a high-performing board,” Pesta said after the meeting. “They’ve been a great team, and I’m willing to continue to help bridge this for them based on that.”

Pesta’s extension kicks in July 1 and runs through June 30, 2025. In doing so, Pesta accepted a modest salary of $40,576 for half-time work. The district will also provide a match of up to $25,000 into a tax-sheltered annuity, according to contract details available online through the district’s BoardBook agenda for the July 10 meeting.

The technically retired Pesta was sked why he wanted to go another school year in Wrenshall.

“It’s enjoyable being in a leadership position when the team that does the leadership is working well together,” he said. “It’s not much fun at all when there’s controversy and conflict.”

Prior to Pesta’s arrival, the school board was rife with both, calling for the previous superintendent’s resignation on multiple occasions as well as trafficking in personnel conflicts and matters that seemed ripped from national headlines, such as book bans.

“School boards have really been challenged over the past few years, because of different personalities coming in with different goals,” Pesta said, describing one-on-one meetings he conducted with board members prior to joining the district last July.

“When I met with everybody last year, they passed every test,” he added. “They’re doing this for the kids, not for pet projects or personality issues, and that is not as common as it’s supposed to be.”

Pesta is retired from Deer River Schools and has a 43-year career in public education in the state that began with teaching science in Burnsville. He resides in Deer River, nearly 100 miles away, and, as a result, is not an everyday presence in the school. Instead, he conducts a lot of work remotely, and has spent the past year supporting principal Michelle Blanchard as she took over the onsite, day-to-day administration.

“Somebody has got to be the face of the district,” he said. “If the fire alarm goes off or a kid gets hurt on the playground, somebody has to respond to that.”

Pesta has guided the board as it got creative with cost savings measures, including purchasing services for business administration, community education and boiler maintenance — positions that had previously been permanent within the district.

Regarding his salary, Pesta said he’s the one who makes budget recommendations to the board, and it wouldn’t make sense to make an outlandish salary request.

“I know what’s the maximum they can do,” he said. “I’m hoping the return on it is that I can focus my time more efficiently and cut my trips down.”

Pesta considers himself a bridge until a more permanent solution comes along, whether that’s a shared superintendent with Carlton someday or a full-time intern superintendent who grows on the job.

An intern had been the plan, but candidates were sparse in northeastern Minnesota. So when a search this year turned up no viable candidates, extending the contract with Pesta seemed like a no-brainer alternative.

“My goal is to help find them whatever is their next leadership model,” he said. “I enjoy working with this group. I enjoy the staff.”

For now, Pesta is enjoying the cause of making the Wrenshall school viable into the future. To that end, the district finished the year with an enrollment of 336 students, well beyond the budgeted for 325. The rebounding district is also attracting outside, open-enrolling students to the point it is now looking monthly at class sizes and closing certain grades to help manage building space and learning environments.

“Towns this size are losing their schools,” Pesta said, before lobbing a final compliment the board members’ way. “The school is the identity of Wrenshall, and that’s what they’re here for.”