A debate in Shakopee over whether the school district should release an unredacted version of a report is renewing some residents’ concerns about transparency two years after the community learned that the former superintendent had swindled district funds.
To settle the question of whether the entire document is public data, the Police Department has requested that the state Department of Administration issue an official opinion.
The conflict began anew in May when the local newspaper, the Shakopee Valley News, requested a copy from the Police Department of the NeuVest report, a 2017 document summarizing NeuVest’s findings about the school district’s organizational health. NeuVest is a St. Paul-based consulting firm that completes workplace investigations.
The newspaper had requested that document before and received a heavily redacted copy from the district. The Valley News tried again, this time asking the Police Department.
The Police Department was ready to release the document, but the school district stepped in to avoid violating data privacy laws since the report contained private personnel data, including current employees’ names, said district spokeswoman Ashley McCray. Violating those laws is a “very serious legal offense” that comes with steep penalties, she said.
Shakopee Police Chief Jeff Tate, however, said he disagrees with the district on whether the public should be able to see the full report.
“It’s our interpretation that it’s public data,” Tate said. “I know there [are] members of the community that want to see it.”
Tate said there’s no “smoking gun” in the report, but some residents need to view it to get closure.
Trust shaken after swindle
The Police Department and the school district were initially making a joint request for an opinion from the state agency, but on Wednesday, the district announced that only the Police Department would submit the request. Attorneys for the district and the city had been talking through the matter for weeks.
A district news release detailed how much the process cost — about $15,000 to make redactions and $2,905 in legal fees to respond to the local newspaper’s data request.
Trust in the district hit a low point after former Superintendent Rod Thompson pleaded guilty to swindling tens of thousands of dollars in a dramatic case that shook the south metro district.
Thompson used his school-issued credit card to splurge on items ranging from sports memorabilia to concert tickets.
The theft was first uncovered by residents who pored over district records after an unexpected multimillion-dollar budget shortfall. An FBI investigation found Thompson also used his position to coerce a construction company into renovating his basement in exchange for school contracts.
Residents on two Facebook community pages have sounded off on the district’s assertion that the report should remain redacted. Some have accused the district of “shenanigans,” a lack of transparency and making excuses.
Shakopee resident Ken Ludzack said, “It appears that [district officials] are trying to hide something even if they’re not.”
Others said the district was in the right. Protecting the anonymity of school employees is important, said Tim Johnson, a Shakopee resident who is also a law professor, adding that it’s what the workers were promised when NeuVest completed its research.
“The school district is not hiding anything here,” Johnson said. “They actually want to make sure they don’t get sued.”