Updated 1:36 p.m. Thursday
The Shakopee school district has released a long-awaited, 364-page workplace investigation report, however, about 95 percent of it was redacted, or blacked out.
In April, the Shakopee School Board hired St. Paul company NeuVest to do an independent investigation of the district’s “organizational health” after a $4.5 million budget shortfall was disclosed to the public the month prior, unleashing public backlash and igniting the rumor mill.
The company hires attorneys to do investigations, training and coaching, at an hourly rate of $275. At the time NeuVest was hired, School Board Chairman Scott Swanson said he had no idea how much the investigation would cost. Turns out, it cost $56,734.
The report was issued by NeuVest on June 19, but the Valley News didn’t get a redacted version of it until Monday, in response to an open records request. The Shakopee Police Department — which is investigating former Superintendent Rod Thompson’s personal use of a district credit card — received the full, un-redacted NeuVest report weeks ago.
But almost everything in the public report is obscured by heavy black marks.
District spokeswoman Crystal McNally said according to the district’s lawyers, the NeuVest report contains a number of former and current district employees and information about them is classified under state law.
“Identifying data on employees often includes more than just the individual’s name and, when the individual’s name is tied to private data, the name is also private,” McNally said via email. “In light of the circumstances and the request, it was necessary to redact a large amount of data.”
The only employee whose name wasn’t redacted was the former superintendent, Thompson, who resigned in July amid the police investigation. The school district said that’s because there’s an exception in the law when a superintendent resigns while a complaint or charge is pending, and Thompson resigned while “the charge related to his purchase-card use was pending.”
A statement posted Tuesday on the district’s website says, “The School Board understands and appreciates the public’s desire for transparency. However, the School District can only provide information within the constraints of the law. Thus, it is the law, and not an attempt on the part of the School District to withhold information, that has governed the response to the data request.”
Phil Stumpe, a parent, member of Concerned Citizens of Shakopee and one of many Shakopee citizens who has closely monitored the budget shortfall and resulting fallout, said the amount of information redacted from the report “has the appearance of a continued pattern of non-transparency.” He questions the need for the report, given that Thompson resigned, the police and FBI are investigating and the information was already available to the school board.
“The $275 per hour on a 364 page report could have been used in a more useful manner if the school board had asked more questions instead of blindly accepting or approving recommendations, stopped socializing with the superintendent and held the superintendent accountable with checks and balances,” he said, referring to employee advice in the report.
In what was left of the report, there was considerable discussion about Thompson’s actions. The NeuVest investigator discovered nine first-class airline tickets and numerous fee upgrades to comfort or exit-row seats. Thompson told the investigator due to his large size, he had gotten the OK from the board chairman (who was not named) to “travel comfortably,” saying the chairman told him the district would incur the costs because “we’re not going to cram our CEO into economy seats.”
Several employees interviewed by investigators said Thompson intentionally used the district’s credit card for personal use, including alcohol purchases eight times and a personal trip to Nashville with his wife (as previously reported by the Valley News) in violation of district policies.
“In addition, they claim Thompson failed to submit itemized receipts in a timely manner, a delay of over six months in some cases, which made it difficult to keep track of his purchases,” the report said.
One person said they didn’t believe Thompson set out to defraud the district, but was careless with his card, setting in motion a “cumbersome task of reconciling a long list of expenses for an extended period of time.”
Thompson admitted to mistakenly using the P-card for personal expenses, “mainly due to the automatic billing system through Amazon,” the report said. He said all his personal Amazon purchases during the 2015-2016 school year were mistakenly charged to the district, but he said he reimbursed the district $3,500 for alcoholic beverages and Amazon purchases.
One employee said Thompson reimbursed the district in August 2016 “but not without having to go through the cumbersome task over several days of reconciling a long list of expenses for an extended period of time.”
The employee felt Thompson’s actions weren’t fraud or deception, but sloppiness, saying “Thompson was just sloppy in how he used his card and even sloppier in turning in timely, detailed receipts for both personal and business expenses as required by the procedure manual.”
Another person reported seeing Thompson his purchase, or P-card, for personal expenses, like alcohol, at an equity conference and not adequately itemizing receipts for reimbursement to the district.
Another employee said Thompson was guarded with information about his P-card, and acknowledged the number of personal purchases he made was “on the high side” and that it worried him to the point where he was reluctant to share the information with others “because it’s just another thing to hold against him.”
Another employee said they could no longer defend Thompson after accepting his explanations for why so many personal items were charged to the district, saying “there’s a consciousness” with which Thompson used the card.
Yet another said Thompson “moved extremely fast and spent a lot of money” without being sensitive to the community’s concerns.
Most of the suggestions employees gave the school board, via NeuVest, centered around being more transparent and visible and seeking input from more than just the superintendent. Other suggestions included:
Stop socializing with (former) superintendent to avoid the appearance of impropriety.
Ask more questions of the administration instead of blindly accepting and approving recommendations.
Spend more time in the buildings with teachers, even substitute teaching perhaps.
One employee said he doubts a referendum would pass now, saying the district may have “passed the point of no return.” Another employee doubted the community would pass future referendums, saying “Shakopee is a pretty unforgiving community.” And that was before it was recently discovered $2 million meant for the voter-approved high school expansion was erroneously used to help shore up the budget this year.