This is a school board that just never learns.
When we began looking into why the Shakopee school district had a $4.5 million budget deficit in 2017, we were told it was just a "budgeting error."
When we noticed the district's cash reserve had dropped from $13.4 million in 2012 to $2.5 million in 2016, we were told by former Superintendent Rod Thompson that the fund balance would be $1.7 million by the time school started in 2017-18, and he said it like it was a good thing.
When hundreds of people showed up at a forum to talk about the budget deficit, they were told by school board member Reggie Bowerman it was due to “genuine, honest mistakes" and "nothing unethical, illegal, or fraudulent" but just "a series of errors, human mistakes."
When we discovered Shakopee school administrators, especially Thompson, had traveled extensively as the district's budget shortfall quietly grew, and found Thompson charged the district for a personal trip with his wife to Nashville, we were told it was an unintentional mistake.
When we examined Thompson's purchase card (or P-card) transactions in May 2017 and found over 40 personal purchases, we were told it was an accident and given a convoluted explanation for how it happened.
When we inquired about a 42-inch LG TV that a search warrant indicated was found in Thompson's basement, school district spokeswoman Ashley McCray said it had been returned to the district office. It hadn't.
So forgive us if we no longer put much credence in the prepared statements we're given by the Shakopee school district when a controversy heats up. They are often little more than spin, if not outright false.
But Thompson is now in a federal prison and only three of the seven school board members remain from his tenure. Most everybody agrees it's time to move on.
However, many Shakopee residents are still interested in seeing this report the board commissioned in 2017, as the heat was turning up on Thompson. The so-called NeuVest (named for the company that did it) report was released in August 2017, but it was almost all blacked out, deemed private personnel data. And then it was turned over to the police department as evidence. Off limits to us until the case was closed.
And so, when the Thompson police investigation ended, we asked to see the NeuVest report — at the request of readers. Personally, I doubt there are any smoking guns in it. I think we found almost every smoking gun there was, except those you could only find with a warrant.
But mostly to satisfy those readers, we asked to see it, and it appeared that was going to happen. Scott County Attorney Ron Hocevar told me on May 21 that since the criminal case was over, I could get the report from the Shakopee police.
That same day, I asked Shakopee Police Chief Jeff Tate for it. On May 29, he told me it should be ready the following week. But by June 17, we still hadn't received it. That's when I learned the school district's attorney told the police department he believed it contained private personnel information and the department could not release the full, unredacted report.
The police department's attorney disagreed, arguing it should be released under the state Data Practices Act.
And so rather than write about the NeuVest report on June 21 — the day we'd expected to get it — we wrote about the reason we wouldn't be getting it. About the attorneys' differing opinions and letters being sent back-and-forth about it, behind closed doors.
We thought it was interesting, and the public might like to know. We quoted both attorneys' positions on the issue, as well as Chief Tate.
We did not, however, call McCray or Superintendent Mike Redmond about it. Perhaps we should have, but we did have the school district's apparent position on the issue, as outlined by its attorney.
When the story by Maddie DeBilzan came out on Friday, June 21, we were quickly contacted by McCray, who asked that we "remove" the online story because nobody contacted the district for a comment prior to its release and because she felt the headline was inaccurate.
The headline: "Shakopee school district fights release of NeuVest report."
We did not take the story down, or change the headline. We did, at her request, add to the story a statement from Redmond saying the district was trying to avoid violating data privacy laws, and that the district and city were making a joint request for an opinion on the matter from the Minnesota Department of Administration.
But that was not the end of it.
On the following Monday, McCray sent me an email saying our story "failed to meet appropriate ethical and professional standards of journalism." Among the district's concerns:
- We didn't try to reach the district for comment.
- The use of the word "postpones" in our Facebook post about the story was "false and very misleading" because the district didn't postpone the release or take "formal action of any kind on this particular request."
- The use of the word “fights” in the headline is "misleading and sensational in nature" because the district hasn't sought a legal injunction or planned or threatened legal action.
"How are you going to make this situation right?" she asked at the end of the email.
I acknowledge, we could have sought a comment from the district, although often when the lawyers are arguing, the governmental entity defers to the lawyers. However, it defies common sense to think the school district is not fighting the release of the report.
The county attorney said it could be released. The police chief said it would be released. It was scheduled to be released June 21, until the school district got wind of that. Then, the attorneys' letters started flying.
If not fighting, what word would you use? Objects? Disagrees? Postpones? Delays? Try writing the story without using the word "fight" or "postpone" or "delay." It isn't easy. You have to contort yourself a bit.
McCray seems to think "fights" can only mean a legal fight. Not so, although lawyers are involved.
It still wasn't over.
On Monday, our new reporter, DeBilzan, attended her second-ever Shakopee school board meeting. And it was a doozy.
The superintendent complained about our story, disagreeing with the portrayal that the district is fighting the report's release. School board members complained about the story.
Board member Kristi Peterson said the district should have been contacted for comment.
Some board members (presumably the new ones, who didn't see it in 2017) asked if they could see the NeuVest report — even as the district is trying to keep it from the public.
And so, it feels like this is a school board that hasn't learned many lessons.
It hasn't learned to be transparent.
It hasn't learned not to deflect.
It hasn't learned not to spin.
The district's reaction to this has been a bit mystifying to me. One thing that caught my eye in DeBilzan's story was Peterson's comments. She said she wished staffers would have notified the board about the delay of the NeuVest report's release before it came out in the news.
“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.”
And then she said, “We were absolutely blindsided by this. Ethically, it was not right.”
Who was being unethical in not giving the school district a head's up? The newspaper? Is it our job to let the school district know its attorney disagrees with the city's about whether to release a report? I would assume the school board would know this. Redmond, after all, was CC'd on the letters. He was aware.
Perhaps the reason district officials are mad that we didn't get their comment for the story isn't just that they wanted to add their 2 cents. It seems the school board was not aware of everything going on.
I can see where it would have been nice to get a heads-up that our story was coming, so the board could be notified in advance, rather than read about it in the paper. But that's not our job. Our responsibility is to our readers. The taxpayers. You know, the ones who paid for this $72,000 report in the first place.