Public school board forum

Shakopee resident Mike Renner questions the board about its low cash reserve balance on March 20, after a $4.5 million budget shortfall was made public.

Updated at 7:30 p.m. Thursday

The Shakopee Police Department opened an investigation last week after a Shakopee Valley News story showed the superintendent used his district credit card to make about $5,000 in personal purchases.

Superintendent Rod Thompson reimbursed the district for the purchases at the end of the 2016 fiscal year.

Detective Sergeant John Buetow said the police department has been in contact with the Office of the State Auditor regarding the case. Communications Director Jim Levi of the state auditor’s office said the office cannot legally confirm or deny whether it will investigate the district.

Asked whether the investigation is focused on Superintendent Rod Thompson or the district in general, Police Chief Jeff Tate said via email, “The only information we’ve been provided is on the superintendent.”

According to the police incident report, the investigation was opened due to a “complaint by multiple citizens that (the) superintendent has made improper charges on (the) district credit card.”

Thompson made more than 40 personal purchases on his district credit card in 2015 and 2016, the Valley News investigation found. Thompson reimbursed the district for those purchases in a lump sum of $3,500 on June 30, 2016, when he realized he accidentally used his district card several times, according to district spokeswoman Ashley McCray.

Making personal purchases is considered a misuse of the district credit card, according to the district’s credit card program manual.

In May, the Valley News also published a report delving into school district travel. Thompson reimbursed the district $1,448 after Valley News staff discovered a receipt for a Sept. 10-12, 2016 flight to Nashville booked using Thompson’s district card. The receipt indicated the tickets were for Thompson and his wife, Lori, at a cost of $724 per passenger.

Thompson’s executive assistant, Sarah Koehn, said the trip was initially booked in April as a business trip to Nashville, and Thompson’s wife was going to come along to celebrate their anniversary.

As September drew closer, Koehn said, Thompson realized he couldn’t ask someone to meet him to conduct business on a weekend, and he didn’t want to leave his wife for their anniversary. When the trip turned personal, Thompson forgot to reimburse the district for the ticket, Koehn said.

Last week, McCray said Thompson’s card had been cancelled indefinitely, and would not comment further. Then the following day, she said Thompson made the decision to cancel his district credit card.

“The district is cooperating with authorities,” McCray said last week.

A group of citizens started a petition this spring calling for the state auditor to look into the district’s books due to a $5.3 million budget error last year and a projected $4.5 million shortfall this year. The shortfall has since been reduced to $710,000 by making budget cuts and adjustments.

Carrie Ferris of Shakopee, one of the petition organizers, said her group changed focus and began circulating a petition calling for Thompson’s resignation once the police investigation opened. As of Thursday, the petition had 505 signatures. The number of signatures has more than doubled since the police investigation was announced last week.

Buetow said he has heard district employees are fearful of retaliation if they contact police with information about the case, but he said those people are safe from retaliation under Minnesota whistleblower statutes.

Minnesota statute 181.932 states an employer cannot discharge, discipline, threaten or penalize an employee if the employee reports a suspected violation of state or federal law. The statute adds that employers cannot retaliate against employees who are requested by a public body or office to participate in an investigation, either.

“Anyone that has information about anything is encouraged to come forward to the Shakopee PD, whether they’re comfortable giving their name at this time or not,” Buetow said.

Shakopee School Board members Reggie Bowerman, Shawn Hallett and Tony Pass did not respond to requests for comment. Board member Angela Tucker was unavailable for comment. Board member Matt McKeand said he could not comment due to the active status of the investigation. Board member Mary Romansky said in an email that Swanson would act as her spokesperson.

”The district continues to cooperate fully with Shakopee police,” Swanson said. “As is the case with NeuVest, we will refrain from further comment until the investigation has concluded.”