Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher authorized spending up to $35,000 in county funds for the planning of his new, independent charter school, according to paperwork provided Wednesday by the county.
The money paid to consultant Donna Swanson in 2019 and 2020 appeared to be for laying the groundwork for the creation of the School of Leadership for Public Service, the sixth- through 10th-grade charter school envisioned in a news release Fletcher's office issued last week.
The money was sent to Swanson, a teacher who taught three of Fletcher's children, at the local office of Tony Doom Supply Co., a Marshall, Minn., political sign maker, at the company's temporary St. Paul office. The office was at the same address as Fletcher's campaign office during his successful election run in 2018, the records show.
No one from the supply company was immediately available for comment Wednesday, and attempts to reach Fletcher and his spokesman Roy Magnuson were not successful.
Magnuson said last week that the school is not affiliated with the Sheriff's Office, but the contracts describe a school in which county sheriff's employees "and other employees in Ramsey County" work with the school to, among other things, help students choose a career path while "a new chapter in relations between law enforcement and the community is formed."
The use of county funds and other resources to plan and promote the charter school drew questions from the County Board and County Manager Ryan T. O'Connor. On Wednesday, O'Connor sent Fletcher a letter reminding him that the county's administrative code and policies restrict how public funds and resources can be used.
The contracts have been a puzzle for O'Connor for months, and on Dec. 4, he wrote Fletcher asking about them.
"I did not receive any response regarding that inquiry," O'Connor wrote Wednesday.
He said the contracts paid about $35,000 to Swanson, who, in addition to acting as Tony Doom Supply's local employee, is listed as a founding member of the school.
O'Connor pointed to several other ways that Fletcher's office may have run afoul of county rules, including when his office director, Kyle Mestad, announced the school's formation Oct. 20 in an e-mail sent from the Sheriff's Office account. The same message was sent the next day to 4,964 subscribers of the county's e-mail system who had signed up for Sheriff's Office updates. Mestad sent the e-mail on a workday.
Magnuson, who also is listed as the school's spokesman, told the St. Paul Pioneer Press last week that the school and the Sheriff's Office have no connections, despite the language in the contracts, the e-mails and the involvement of several people, including himself, in both the school and the Sheriff's Office.
At Tuesday's County Board meeting, the many connections drew a bewildered response from members. Commissioner Jim McDonough said Fletcher is spending public money outside the statutory scope of his office, and Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt said she was "very unhappy" about the expenditures. Chair Toni Carter said it has become a matter of trust.
"We are a governing body of Ramsey County, and we support the sheriff's budget for those statutory requirements in those areas of work that are agreed upon together with this board," Carter said at the meeting. "There is a lack of trust that that is actually the circumstance at this point in time."
The contracts were signed by Mestad, for Fletcher's office, and Swanson on behalf of Tony Doom Supply. Swanson is also listed in Fletcher's news release as the startup coordinator of the charter school. Saying she is a longtime teacher and advocate for education reform and community, Fletcher's statement said Swanson was the person who brought the charter school idea to the sheriff.
A phone call to Swanson on Wednesday was not answered, and a message left for her was not returned.
The first contract, for $25,000, began Aug. 23, 2019. It asks Swanson to provide a community outreach and public education assessment so the Sheriff's Office could plan "educational opportunities that will promote public service, law enforcement and other methods of improving the relationships between law enforcement and the community."
It doesn't mention the proposed charter school by name but asks Swanson to propose "new programs that have an educational and service-based focus."
The second contract was for $10,000 and started May 18, 2020. It says Swanson should, among other tasks, create a curriculum focusing on leadership and service, one that can be used to invite Ramsey County sheriff's employees "to participate in the activities of educational outreach."
The contract mentions the charter school by name and says Swanson will explore how Sheriff's Office employees "and other Ramsey County departments" can assist in career exploration for the charter school's students.