The Burnsville school district should not have blacked out portions of a $250,000 settlement agreement made with a former human resources director, a state agency said Monday in a legal opinion that could lead to more public disclosure in other similar cases.
As a result, the school district late Monday afternoon released an unaltered copy of the separation agreement reached with Tania Chance, who was paid $254,000 to leave earlier this year with about 18 months left on her contract.
The district continued to insist Monday that it did nothing wrong and was acting in good faith when it blacked out parts of the controversial agreement released publicly.
"No school district can afford to release information that is later determined to be private data about an employee -- that can cost a school district hundreds of thousands of dollars," the district said in an unsigned statement released Monday.
Laurie Beyer-Kropuenske, director of the Community Services Division for the state Department of Administration, said the opinion from the Information Policy Analysis Division (IPAD) is nonbinding. But a government entity following an opinion -- in this case to release an unredacted version of the agreement -- would be shielded from criminal or civil liability.
Late Monday afternoon, the district also said that it would release redacted versions of letters of recommendation given by the district to Chance, in compliance with the opinion.
"The district appreciates the opinion because it provides new guidance to school districts and the media," the school district said.
Details of the full agreement surfaced in March when copies were leaked to news organizations, including the Star Tribune. The redacted portion stipulated that Chance would drop complaints she had filed with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights and the Minnesota Board of Administrators.
The latter complaint was identified as being against Superintendent Randall Clegg. The nature of the complaints was not disclosed and Monday's opinion does not compel the district to do so.
Beyer-Kropuenske said the opinion sets a precedent for others confronted with similar issues, in this case whether refusing to release some terms of a settlement agreement violates a state law requiring that all such terms be disclosed if more than $10,000 in public money was spent.
"We are glad that the Commissioner ... held that all the terms of the separation agreement should be released to the public," said Leita Walker, the attorney representing the Star Tribune, which challenged the district's authority to withhold the information. "The opinion reminds government agencies that they have obligations to taxpayers and cannot enter into confidential settlement agreements."
The Chance payment, one of the largest in state history paid to an educator who was not a superintendent, spurred outrage, both because of the dollar amount and because of the secrecy surrounding the agreement.
Asked why it entered into the agreement, the district would say only that both sides desired to end their employment relationship, and that the agreement forbade the district from saying more.
Residents, parents and news organizations complained about the lack of an explanation, and the school board asked IPAD to issue an opinion on whether it had acted properly in redacting portions of the agreement.
The Burnsville district maintained that the redacted version of the agreement was enough to satisfy the law's requirements, but that was challenged in Monday's opinion, written by Spencer Cronk, commissioner of the Department of Administration.
"The specific reasons for the agreement ... are public," Cronk wrote in the six-page opinion. "The redacted portions of section II of the separation agreement ... are public."
IPAD also determined, however, that the district was not required to release any further information to explain why it made the agreement with Chance or paid the large severance, as the Star Tribune contended it should.
Rep. Pam Myhra, R-Burnsville, is trying to close loopholes in the disclosure law. Her House bill, which passed 131-0 last week, would mandate that if there is a dispute, complete terms of the agreement must be disclosed. Also, if more than $10,000 is spent on a separation agreement, then specific reasons for the expenditure must be given. Finally, the underlying data surrounding the investigation must be disclosed for nearly all public officials, which Myhra said would hold a lot more people accountable.
"I think taxpayers and parents are wanting clarity as to why this is happening," she said. "This bill will bring a lot of clarity."
The Senate could vote on its own version this week, she said.
Heron Marquez • 952-746-3281