A discussion over the delayed release of an independent investigation into the district’s “operational health” — otherwise known as “the NeuVest report” — was added to the agenda at the Monday night school board meeting.
During the discussion, the school board and superintendent aired frustrations over the Shakopee Valley News story which covered the delayed release of the report, and new school board members asked Shakopee Superintendent Mike Redmond to look into whether they could have access to the unredacted report.
On June 21, the Valley News published a story about the status of the public release of the NeuVest report, which was to be released that day but wasn’t, due to a disagreement about privacy laws between the police department and the school district, Shakopee Police Chief Jeff Tate said.
The investigation, which the school board spent $72,000 on, was launched in 2017, as questions swirled around former Shakopee Superintendent Rod Thompson.
When the 364-page NeuVest report was released in August 2017, most of it was redacted, and then it became evidence in the police investigation into Thompson, who was recently sentenced to two years in federal prison for swindling and embezzlement from the Shakopee School District.
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 letter from Sarah 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.
“It is my understanding that Mr. Thompson has plead guilty to and has been sentenced for his crimes,” the letter says. “Therefore… all investigative data are public as there is no ongoing investigation that would be jeopardized by the release.”
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.
“Data in the hands of a law enforcement agency that are classified as private under other statutes retain its private classification under those statutes even after the investigation has become inactive.”
The police department and the school district then made a joint request to the Minnesota Department of Administration for an advisory opinion on the release of the full report.
The Valley News headline from Friday’s NeuVest report story, “Shakopee school district fights release of NeuVest report,” frustrated the school board at Monday’s meeting.
Redmond alluded to the Shakopee Valley News coverage on the delayed release of the NeuVest report in a public statement at the meeting.
“We want to comply correctly with any data requests at any time, period. This one is incredibly complex, and therefore, we have worked with the city, and the attorney representing the city and the attorney representing the school district have communicated back and forth to try and provide clarity on which statutes apply to this,” Redmond said. “So the portrayal that we’re ‘fighting’ is incorrect. We’re working with the city to get this done correctly because if you do a data request and we inadvertently release private personal data, we’re liable for that. And that’s not a position I’m comfortable putting the school district in.”
The other school board members agreed with Redmond, and new board members — Judi Tomczic, Joe Aldrich, Kristi Peterson and Paul Christiansen — requested access to the full, unredacted report, even if it’s not available to the public yet.
Board member Kristi Peterson said “it’s hard for a majority of the board not knowing anything about what’s happening,” saying she knows just as much as the public about what the report contains. She also said she wished staffers would have notified the board about the delay of the NeuVest report’s release before Friday.
“I know this was something that was going on for five or six weeks in the district,” she said. “So I would have liked to know about it before Friday.”
Peterson then commented on the Valley News’ coverage of the delayed release of the report. Originally, the newspaper did not reach out to the school district for a comment because a statement from the school district attorney from a letter addressed to the police department was included in the story. Later on Friday, upon request, the Valley News amended the story to include a comment from Redmond.
“It frustrates me that somebody that has a journalism degree and has gone through ethics courses... that our local newspaper did not allow the district to respond and add our comments in response to what we’re doing,” Peterson said. “We were absolutely blindsided by this. Ethically, it was not right.”
Peterson then reminded the community that the school board isn’t trying to hide anything, because they haven’t seen the full report, either.
“I’d ask the community members to be patient with us,” she said. “And to respect the data privacy laws and the importance of data privacy laws.”
Board member Paul Christiansen also asked Redmond to look into whether data privacy laws could be lifted for the school board members.
“It astonishes me that newly elected members of the school board, who are charged with oversight, can’t have access to the full report,” he said.
Redmond, nodding, said, “And I don’t know the answer to that… but I will explore that. I’m happy to do so.”
Redmond said the worst part of his job is when he’s bound by data privacy.
“When you want to share information, but you can’t… that always feels lousy,” he said. “I don’t think I’ll ever get over that. But there’s also a responsibility that outweighs that.”
Redmond said the Minnesota Department of Administration should have a decision within the next two months about whether an unredacted report will be released to the public.