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Henry Sibley principal resigns -- with $64,590 payout

  • Article by: HERÓN MÁRQUEZ ESTRADA
  • Star Tribune
  • February 6, 2013 - 11:21 PM

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

The $64,590 payment was made this week 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 state Rep. Pam Myhra, 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 remainder of the school year.

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

But critics claim that West St. Paul simply has found a new loophole to prevent disclosing potentially embarrassing information about employee 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 an uproar in the Burnsville district last year after human resources director Tania Chance was paid more than $250,000 to leave her job.

The Burnsville district refused to say why, going so far as to redact the separation agreement to hide the fact 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 Wednesday.

But the district maintains that another clause in the statute overrides this because it says such data are not public if an employee is not disciplined or leaves after the investigation is complete, which apparently is what happened with Percival.

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

"I believe they have been transparent," Ruff said of school district officials, who she said are "following the spirit and letter of the law."

Hilger said the district investigated a complaint against Percival. But she would not say who filed the complaint, when it was filed, when the investigation began, when it was completed, when the superintendent became aware of it, when the school board was informed or when Percival was offered the separation agreement, which the district released Wednesday.

"I don't believe that data is public," Ruff said.

State law also requires public entities to disclose "specific reasons" for entering a termination agreement with an employee if the employee receives $10,000 or more of public money. Ruff said the separation agreement meets this by specifying that the document is intended to end the employment contract and settle all disputes between the two sides.

That circular argument is similar to one used by the Burnsville district, which eventually asked the State Department of Administration for an opinion on its interpretation of the data privacy statute. The state agency ruled that Burnsville had to disclose specific reasons and ordered an unredacted copy of the separation agreement with Chance to be made public.

John Borger, a data privacy attorney whose office handled the Chance case, said West St. Paul's position does not pass the smell test.

"It certainly isn't meeting the spirit of the law," Borger said. "Whether it meets the letter of the law is not as clear cut."

Hilger maintains that the district wants to say why the money was paid out, but can't because of the new law.

Borger suggested that if the district is serious about that then it could follow the Burnsville example and let the Department of Administration make a ruling, which would free the school district of legal liability.

Ruff said the district does not intend to ask for such an opinion because it is interpreting the law correctly.

"That certainly is an option," Ruff said. "We would do that if the law is unclear. But we think the law is pretty clear."

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

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