The Shakopee School District said it's been waiting on a decision from the Minnesota Department of Administration about whether an unredacted report on the district's overall operational health can be released.
But Katie Bealka in the department's data practices office said Tuesday afternoon it had yet to receive such a request. The Department of Administration often provides assistance and advice on data practices and open meetings to the public and government.
The district announced as recently as Monday, Aug. 5 in a press release it was still awaiting a decision.
“I don’t know if (the request) got lost in the mail or what happened,” Bealka said, adding that her office reached out to the school district Tuesday afternoon to ask it about the request after seeing it discussed in a story by the Shakopee Valley News.
When questions began swirling around former Superintendent Rod Thompson in 2017, the district hired a third party to investigate the overall operational health of the district. The report, called a NeuVest report for the company that does it, was turned over to the Shakopee Police Department as evidence. Earlier this year, Thompson was sentenced to prison in federal court for soliciting bribes and in state court for swindling and embezzlement.
The district has resisted releasing the full report, citing personnel privacy concerns, even as police have said it should be public.
Shakopee Superintendent Mike Redmond said at a June 24 school board meeting that the request to the Department of Administration was in the process of being made, noting the attorney's best estimate for a response was approximately two months.
"As of now, our district is still awaiting the decision by the Department of Administration on whether the report is to be considered public and released in its unredacted version," the Aug. 5 news release from the district said, in bold font. The press release on the district's website has since been altered and no longer contains that statement.
On Wednesday, Aug. 7, Shakopee Police Chief Jeff Tate told the Valley News the police department and district's attorneys are "still going back and forth on drafts," contradicting the school district's press release.
Under Minnesota Statute Section 13.03, if the responsible authority denies a data request, it must cite the specific statute under which it cannot release the report. The police department did not provide the Valley News with that statute, but said in a statement:
"The school district raised multiple legal arguments as to why the report should be private data. We are honoring the district’s request to have the Department of Administration issue an advisory opinion on the matter," Tate said. "Releasing private data exposes our city to civil remedies and we would rather be right than fast. Again, we believe the report is public, the district does not."
In a statement to the Valley News that same day, Redmond said the district was also frustrated by the "slow pace of the process."
“We thought conversations between the attorney for the school district and the attorney for the City of Shakopee would last a few days; not a few weeks," Redmond said.
The district also said in a Wednesday afternoon statement it "knew conversations were taking place and thought those conversations were going to be wrapped up a couple weeks ago.”
Bealka said once an opinion request is submitted, the Department of Administration has five days to deny it or follow through with it. Opinion requests can be denied if they have already been formed through similar cases or there isn’t enough information provided in the request, she said.
After the Valley News published a story online Wednesday about the delayed submission to the Department of Administration, Shakopee Public Schools released a statement later that day that said the responsibility to fulfill the opinion request was solely on the city.
"Late this afternoon, Shakopee Public Schools was informed by an attorney working for the district that the Shakopee Police Department (City of Shakopee) has decided to no longer send a joint request to the Department of Administration regarding the release of the NeuVest Report," the statement said. "The City of Shakopee will make this request to the Department of Administration on its own."
The update then explains that any requests to view the NeuVest report were made to the police department, so the city has "always controlled the final decision as to whether to make a joint request, a lone request, or to not send a request to the Department of Administration."
Thursday morning, the police department told the Shakopee Valley News that a request has been sent to the DOA on behalf of the city. The paper is awaiting a copy of that letter from Sarah Sonsolla, the city attorney.
Shakopee City Administrator Bill Reynolds said in a statement Thursday morning:
"It is unfortunate that the school district seeks to shift responsibility to the city for the continued failure to release the NeuVest report. Our position has been clear. We believe the vast part of the document to be public data. The district has blocked our action and has spent the last month debating the cover letter that should be attached to submit it to the state. That ended (Wednesday). We look forward to this being behind us all and moving forward."
Jeff Tate echoed Reynolds' frustration, saying he was disappointed in the school district's press release Wednesday evening that "shifted the blame" onto the city. The city decided to move forward on its own with the request because it was tired of the back-and-forth with the district. He added the city's attorney sent its original opinion request to the DOA Wednesday. He said the reason the joint request was taking so long was because the school district continued to go back and forth with the city in attempts to edit the police department's original letter.
The district spent at least $2,900 in legal fees for the month of June to prevent the city's release of the report, with more invoices likely to arrive from the district's attorney for legal fees that have accrued in July, according to communications supervisor Ashley McCray, who said the attorney's office is typically two to three months behind in its billing.
History of NeuVest report
Shakopee Public Schools has spent about $2,900 in legal costs since May regarding the release of the report. The district released an invoice from Knutson Flynn & Deans, a Mendota Heights-based law firm, on Aug. 5 which detailed related legal costs. According to the invoice, the last date of legal work was on June 28.
The Shakopee Valley News submitted a public data request to view the completed NeuVest report in 2017. The district said it was bound to comply with the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, which generally classifies data on individuals regarding current and former employees of the school district as private data, according to the release.
The request was fulfilled, but the report was largely redacted, or blacked out.
The district has now spent nearly $75,000 on the report and related legal costs, which began accumulating in 2017. The NeuVest investigation cost $56,733.72, according to the district, and the process of redacting the information cost an additional $15,179.95.
The Valley News requested the report from the school district before Thompson's sentencing in federal and state courts this year. After his sentencing, the newspaper requested it from the police department.
The district said it made a joint request with the city to obtain an opinion on the data privacy matter from the Minnesota Department of Administration. Emails between the police department and district attorneys show Sonsalla, the police department's attorney, believed the report should have been made public since the investigation ended.
On May 30, the school district’s attorney, Stephen Knutson, sent a letter to Tate stating “the police department is prohibited from providing the complete unredacted report to the public” because of private data contained in it.
A June 13 response from Sonsalla, the police department’s attorney, said because the report is in the hands of the city and the investigation is complete, the report should be made public.
Knutson pushed back, saying because the NeuVest report contains private information under the jurisdiction of the school district, that privacy also applies to the police department even in an inactive investigation.
Updated at 2:22 p.m. Thursday.