Updated at 10:12 a.m. Friday.
Shakopee Public Schools Communications Supervisor Ashley McCray was six months into her job with the Shakopee School District March 16, 2017 when calls came flooding.
Journalists wanted answers regarding the district’s $4.5 million budget shortfall.
She needed then-superintendent Rod Thompson’s help navigating through the budget questions and data requests, according to a now-public report released this week that details the district’s overall health at the time.
Thompson sent an email to McCray and two other district administrators: “FYI — taking rest of day off for a bit of mental health time,” he wrote.
To manage the flurry of public data requests and budget questions, Executive Director of Teaching and Learning Nancy Thul and Executive Director of Administrative Services Scott Hare stepped in to help McCray. At the same time, Hare was managing a personal crisis in which one of his family members was dying, the report said.
Thul said in an interview used to compile the independent report — called a NeuVest report — she had never seen any superintendent refuse to take responsibility and handle a crisis in the manner in which Thompson did.
March 16, 2017 was a day that displayed one facet of district office dysfunction with Rod Thompson, detailed by the school district’s top administrators through interviews used to compile the NeuVest report.
But that day was only one page in a book — just one example of how Thompson’s leadership brought down the very ship he captained, according to some who worked closely with him.
Many of those interviewed commented that there had been a steady erosion of trust and confidence in the superintendent, which predated the budget crisis, the report said. In September 2016, cabinet members held an off-site secret meeting to strategize on how to best approach the school board with their concerns, the report said. Shortly afterward, however, their attentions were diverted to dealing with the budget fallout.
The NeuVest report was released Monday, Sept. 16, following much debate between the school district and the city of Shakopee about whether it should be public. The report, deemed public by a Minnesota Department of Administration ruling, was compiled in 2017 by an independent organization called NeuVest, giving the report its name, when questions began circulating about former Superintendent Rod Thompson that year.
Interviews with 11 district administrators and staff members were included in the report, including an interview with Thompson. Many of those interviewed alleged Thompson was regarded as a “visionary” who didn’t follow through with his big ideas, that he engaged in “locker room talk” in which he made inappropriate comments about women and that Thompson was a bully, often times manipulating administrators and staff members to get his way.
The report was turned over to the Shakopee Police Department in 2017 as evidence when the community began to question personal purchases Thompson made on his district credit card. Interviews were reported and compiled between April 20 and May 30, 2017.
In spring 2019, Thompson was sentenced in state court on swindling and embezzlement charges and in federal court for corruptly soliciting bribes from contractors.
The word “visionary” was found multiple times throughout the report when interviewees were asked to describe Thompson’s leadership style. NeuVest Consultant Linda Chung wrote in the report summary “many view Thompson as a change agent who has taken Shakopee from operating under a small school district mentality to one that’s become bigger, bolder and more progressive.”
Executive Director of Teaching and Learning Nancy Thul said in her interview with NeuVest Thompson had “the big ideas.” But the problem, Thul and other interviewees said, was that Thompson placed an undue burden on administrators to carry through with those big ambitions.
“He promises a lot but doesn’t necessarily deliver the goods,” Thul said in her interview, adding that the implementation and strategic planning had essentially fallen on her shoulders because Thompson wasn’t helping.
Jackson Elementary Principal Doug Schleif, who reported directly to Thompson, said the former superintendent was a visionary who made impulsive decisions “that (had) unintended consequences like overstaffing the equity department and overspending of the school budget.”
Communications Supervisor McCray said in her interview that her relationship with Thompson was “interesting,” adding Thompson had ideas that were “bigger than life” and she sometimes had to bring him down to reality.
President of the Shakopee Education Association Dale Anderson reported Thompson cast a “good vision” for Shakopee schools, which he admitted helped it become competitive with other larger districts. But his testimony was consistent with most of the other interviewees, who said Thompson’s follow-through on his “high standards” was poor.
Later in the interview, Anderson said he felt “very conflicted” about whether Thompson should leave the district or not. He suspected if Thompson left, his “progressive vision” would leave with him and Shakopee would revert back to being a conservative-minded community.
School board ‘had Thompson’s back’
Interviewees were asked about Thompson’s relationship with the Shakopee School Board and most of them alleged his “close” relationship with the board members caused some administrators to hesitate when bringing complaints about the former superintendent to the board.
Dave Orlowsky, now the Shakopee Schools’ assistant superintendent but was the data, assessment and testing administrator at the time of his interview, said members of the cabinet didn’t feel they could safely approach the board with concerns about the superintendent because “the board has (Thompson’s) back.”
Some interviews revealed Thompson would often spend time with board members outside of work. Thompson said of the board members in his interview — as he teared up — “I love those people, every single one.” He mentioned he made the board members honorary godparents to his children as a show of appreciation for supporting him through the “joys and pain” of the adoption process.
In January 2014, the school board approved a three-year contract that provided a $30,000 adoption benefit for Thompson from 2014-2017 instead of a typical salary increase.
Thompson said he would spend time with all the school board members outside of work, but especially spent time with Scott Swanson, Angela Tucker and Matt McKeand.
Tucker and McKeand are still school board members, and their terms expire in December 2020. Reggie Bowerman, another board member from Thompson’s tenure who is still serving, announced earlier this year he will resign in December 2019, citing personal reasons.
Several of those interviewed implied the school board, and to a lesser extent, the cabinet, bear some responsibility in allowing Thompson to run down the district to its (2017) state, the report said. One declared “the district is broken.” Others were hopeful Shakopee Public Schools could bounce back and what they were experiencing was just a “bump in the road.”
Numerous cabinet members said during their interviews that Thompson made inappropriate comments about female district employees.
Thul said in her interview Thompson would sometimes “get fixated on a particular employee.” Sometime in the fall of 2016, Thompson reportedly asked whether two employees were having sex, using an expletive to phrase his question. In his interview, Thompson admits he posed that question to staff and in that fashion because “it was told to me in that way.”
Hare’s testimony detailed a time when Hare, Thompson and several board members — including McKeand and Tucker — were sitting together at Arnie’s Bar when Thompson referred to a new district employee as someone with “big boobs.” When Hare told Thompson not to make comments like that, Thompson covered his mouth with his hand in a teasing manner.
On another occasion, Hare reported Thompson referred to a staff member by the size of her chest when he couldn’t remember her name. Thompson shrugged when Hare said this was inappropriate.
When Thompson was asked about the comments he allegedly made about a district employee’s breasts, he denied the comment. “Absolutely not,” he said. “That would be weird, especially considering she’s new and just coming on board.”
Director of Special Services Julie Menden said in her interview she remembered Thompson jokingly say at a work function, “If anything else, dress like a hussy.” She said she did not remember the context of his comment or who Thompson was speaking to.
McCray said she remembered a time Thompson called one principal a “bitch” when shown a draft branding brochure with the principal’s photo on the cover, and he asked McCray to switch out the photo with someone else. On another occasion, McCray alleged Thompson referred to the communications staff as having a “resting bitch face,” and referred to them as “the girls.”
Most people who worked closely with Thompson referred to him as a “bully” who told them to find a way to “make things work” even if staff members thought they were unreasonable or unattainable. At least two of those interviewed expressed feelings that they had to check their integrity at the door because they were asked to do things that went beyond what they felt was ethical or legal.
Thompson said in his interview that his management style was situational, depending on who the staff is and what makes them tick. Thompson said his strength was in strategic direction and leadership and that he had the ability to “seal the deal” with businesses.
Thul said when she confronted Thompson Nov. 20, 2016 with a list of her concerns related to demeaning comments or unreasonable demands, Thompson became upset and cried, saying he did not recall treating her that way. He also said he considered Thul his best friend apart from his wife.
Hare told his interviewer when he asked Thompson why he wasn’t hired for the Assistant Superintendent position (instead, Bezek — the brother of Thompson’s good friend, was hired), Thompson responded to Hare by saying, “Because you’re a nerd.”
Bezek currently works as the principal of Prior Lake High School.
Thompson also deflected the blame onto Finance Director Mike Burlager when the district received criticism for its budget shortfall. The shortfall, most cabinet and staff members said in their interviews, was mostly a result of Thompson’s reckless spending and lack of leadership. Thompson said in his interview the shortfall was Burlager’s responsibility.
The report shows that, after the news broke about the budget shortfall, Thompson repeatedly declined to meet with Burlager in person, despite Burlager’s repeated attempts to touch base. Burlager said he felt the school board and Thompson were “throwing him under the bus,” when Thompson should have taken more responsibility. Burlager said he remembered when Thompson told him at one point, “Well, my thinking is, if we can lay it on you, a senior person with experience, the community will be more forgiving.”
Burlager was given a script to read on Dec. 12, 2016, when he announced his resignation at a board meeting. While Burlager admitted in his interview he made some mistakes, the resignation script forced Burlager to absorb all the blame for the budget shortfall. Burlager also said he was given a draft retirement agreement to review and sign, which was designed to forfeit benefits he was entitled to such as health insurance, vacation pay and a general prohibition to work for the district again. But Burlager said shortly after receiving the retirement agreement, he was informed it was “going away,” and he never heard about it again.
Private or public?
Earlier this year, the Shakopee Valley News requested an unredacted copy of the NeuVest report from the police department, but it was withheld due to a disagreement about data privacy laws between the police department and the school district.
On May 30, the school district’s attorney, Stephen Knutson, sent a letter to Shakopee Police Chief Jeff Tate saying, “the police department is prohibited from providing the complete unredacted report to the public” because of private data contained in it.
The city sent an opinion request to the Minnesota Department of Administration on Aug. 7, which said in part: “It is the City’s opinion that the NeuVest Report is now public pursuant to this statute. Since the Shakopee Valley News’ data practices request for a copy of the report was made to the City, the City must provide the report. The City and the District disagree with respect to whether or not the NeuVest Report is public when it is in the hands of the City.”
On Sept. 16, the DOA announced the report is public in the hands of the city, which allowed the report to be released.
Redmond said in a statement to the Valley News: “Shakopee Public Schools is appreciative of the work done by the Department of Administration to make a determination on the ability of the Shakopee Police Department to publicly release the NeuVest report. Now that a decision has been made, there is both clarity and closure on this matter, as it has been determined the Shakopee PD may publicly release the report. There is also a high level of transparency following the release of the report by the Shakopee PD, as the Shakopee Valley News has placed the entire report online.”
Shakopee Police Chief Jeff Tate said he’s “glad it’s over,” adding, “hopefully this is another step towards moving forward.”
Corrections and clarifications: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated how long Ashley McCray had been in her position at Shakopee Public Schools before March 16, 2017. She was in her position for six months.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified what kind of a brochure Rod Thompson asked McCray to update. It was a branding brochure.