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Sibley principal resigns -- with $64,590 payout

  • Article by: HERÓN MÁRQUEZ ESTRADA
  • Star Tribune
  • February 6, 2013 - 9:38 PM

The $64,000 question in West St. Paul is why a popular high school principal was paid tens of thousands of dollars this week to resign.

The $64,590 payment was made as part of a separation agreement between the West St. Paul school district and Principal Robin Percival, who had served at Henry Sibley High School in Mendota Heights since 2008. The district has refused to fully explain why Percival resigned or why the payment was made.

That's despite state efforts to close loopholes over such unexplained separation payments to educators, which can sometimes total hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The payment drew the ire of Rep. Pam Myhra, R-Burnsville, who crafted the new termination disclosure law last year. Myhra said Wednesday that West St. Paul is obligated under her law to explain more fully why Percival was paid the money.

But the district maintains that it is complying with "the letter and the spirit" of the law by withholding the reason for the payout, which is equivalent to Percival's salary and benefits for the rest of the school year.

"We're trying to navigate our way through a lot of legalities," said district spokeswoman Carrie Hilger.

But critics claim West St. Paul simply has found a new loophole to prevent disclosing potentially embarrassing information about employees' or school officials' conduct.

"It's legal balderdash, and everyone knows what balderdash means," said Rick Neumeister, an open-government advocate who helped Myhra craft the law in 2012. "The public has a right to know why $64,000 was paid out. This is Burnsville II."

That was a reference to last year's uproar after the Burnsville district's human resources director, Tania Chance, was paid more than $250,000 to leave her job. The district refused to say why, going so far as to redact the separation agreement to hide the fact that Chance had filed complaints against the superintendent.

That case led to calls to oust the school board and the inclusion of the "Tania Chance" amendment in the law, which for the first time said school human resources directors, superintendents and principals are among those public officials covered by the new disclosure requirement.

Myhra and others noted that the new law also sought to close a loophole whereby no specific reason for a payout was needed if a public official reached a separation agreement while a complaint was being investigated.

The new law says all data are public "upon completion of an investigation of a complaint or charge against a public official, or if a public official resigns or is terminated from employment while the complaint or charge is pending." "I think it's pretty clear," Myhra said.

But the district says another clause overrides this; it says such information is not public if an employee is not disciplined or leaves after the investigation is over, which apparently happened with Percival.

Sara Ruff, the district's attorney, said the school board has released all information it believes is public, and that providing a more specific reason for the dismissal would open it to possible legal action.

Staff writer Susan Feyder contributed to this report. Heron Marquez Estrada • 952-746-3281

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