Burnsville school board flayed over buyout to former school district employee

  • Article by: HERÓN MÁRQUEZ ESTRADA and ASHLEY BRAY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 2, 2012 - 6:29 AM

Taxpayers are angry over the secrecy behind a $254,000 buyout paid to former human resources director Tania Chance.

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Laura Wickham of Savage was one of many people wondering why the district paid more than $250,000 to Tania Z. Chance to leave her HR director job.

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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Dozens of angry parents, teachers and taxpayers peppered the Burnsville school board Thursday night with questions about why the district paid a former employee more than $250,000 to leave.

Several speakers demanded that board members resign immediately, while others said they should be voted out.

"You guys need to step aside and put new leadership in place," said Mark Nesvig of Savage, who has a child in the district. "I just don't see how the district moves forward with the current leadership."

Said Andy Karageorgiou, a teacher in the district: "This is a mess right now, and it needs to be fixed. I've always told my kids to tell the truth, even if you screw up. This is something that can be corrected, but it has to start tonight."

The source of the anger: a $254,000 buyout the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage district paid to Tania Chance, its former human resources director, who resigned Feb. 1, six months into a new two-year contract.

The issue is even having a ripple effect at the Legislature. Rep. Pam Myhra, R-Burnsville, said she will introduce a bill to change the law so agencies would have to disclose reasons for any payouts over $10,000.

The buyout and the lack of information about it have generated a groundswell of anger that was starkly evident at Thursday night's meeting, attended by about 250 people.

"We all remember Watergate," said Ron Melin, a Burnsville resident. "Don't cover up. Be transparent."

Said Pam Johnson: "There needs to be disclosure. I'm asking for that now."

Chance said in an e-mailed statement that she also could not elaborate on the separation agreement. "My empathy is with the public as I believe they fully deserve answers," she wrote. "Unfortunately, I am not at liberty to provide any details. All I can suggest are proper data requests on current leadership."

District officials say they are acting on the advice of lawyers and are limited by data practices laws in what they can say on buyouts.

News agencies have challenged that claim, arguing that state law requires a government agency to disclose specifically why a payout is made if it is more than $10,000.

Board chairman Ron Hill has said the district has asked the state to review its handling of the situation to see if it acted properly.

Myhra said that her bill, if approved, would not affect the Burnsville case but would keep it from happening again. "Going forward, it will help give parents information on the use of public funds," she said.

Money down the drain?

Residents questioned how the district is spending their money, especially as it faces huge budget cuts next year.

"This money should be in the classrooms," said Laurel Mirs, a district teacher.

"Why will no one say, 'I made the decision?'" said John Soderholm, who has a child in the district. "They are all avoiding their responsibility."

Under the agreement, Chance received a payment of $254,814 for the salary and benefits remaining in her contract. In exchange, the district parted ways with Chance and was freed of any claims and liabilities.

She signed the new contract in July, when several board members questioned why she was getting a contract even though by law she was not required to have one. Hill said the district is reviewing its policy on contracts.

Board member Paula Teiken, who had wanted Chance's contract reviewed before it was approved, urged residents not to express their displeasure by withholding approval of future levy increases, as several speakers threatened to do.

"I feel terrible about the distress that this has caused," Teiken said. "It isn't being done in arrogance. We are following the advice of our attorney."

"This doesn't make any sense to me at all -- the school board chose against the kids," said Jason Forde, a Burnsville High School graduate. "My mom was one of those people laid off to pay for this woman. I am going to work ... to get you all out of there."

Ashley Bray is a University of Minnesota student on assignment with the Star Tribune. hme@startribune.com • 952-746-3281

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