State Agency: School District Shouldn't Have Redacted Chance Severance Agreement
At the district's prompting, the state Department of Administration's Information Policy Analysis Division issued an opinion on whether it was proper to redact portions of the document. The verdict: No.
A state agency has determined that the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District was in error when it redacted portions of a $250,000 severance agreement granted to former Human Resources Director Tania Chance.
This is the latest twist in the controversy that erupted in early March, after it was first reported that Chance had left the district with $254,814 severance payout. District officials would not answer questions about Chance's performance evaluations, nor get into the specific reasons for Chance's hasty departure, which came in the middle of a two-year contract.
Much to the dismay of parents and teachers, the district released a redacted copy of the agreement, though state law mandates that a government entity must explain reasons for a payout agreement if it involves payment of more than $10,000.
ISD 191 argued that this information is protected by the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act — a claim that legal counsel for the Star Tribune took to task.
In the midst of the dustup, the district asked a state agency, the Department of Administration's Information Policy Analysis Division (IPAD), to review the matter. On Monday, the Star Tribune reported that IPAD had an answer: The district should not have redacted the document, according to Spencer Cronk, the commissioner of the Department of Administration.
"The specific reason for the agreement ... are public," Cronk wrote in a non-binding six-page statement. "The redacted portions of section II of the separation agreement ... are public."
The district issued a statement on Monday afternoon, stating that it had redacted the nine lines in "good faith and based on legal advice" believing the material to be private data as per Minnesota law. Officials stressed that the district voluntarily submitted to IPAD's review. They also officially released the unredacted agreement, with perhaps more to come.
"Advisory opinions issued by the Commissioner of Administration are not like court decisions where parties can claim a 'win' or a 'loss.' The commissioner's opinion accepts and rejects some of the positions of both the newspapers and the school district," district officials wrote. "That does not mean either engaged in wrongdoing."
In spite of the district's efforts, several media outlets received leaked copies of the unredacted agreement, which showed that the district was obliged to pay Chance to protect itself from legal liability. In exchange, Chance agreed to drop complaints she had filed with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights and the Minnesota Board of Administrators against Superintendent Randall Clegg. The specific nature of the complaint has not been disclosed.
The incident has already inspired action in St. Paul. Last week, the Minnesota House passed a bill that would strengthen transparency mandates with respect to large payouts to public employees. The bill passed 131-0 in the house, but has been tabled in the senate, according to a report from the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
According to the school district's formal statement, officials at ISD 191 are hopeful that the bill will pass and "provide clarity" into what they consider to be an ambiguous law.
"No school district can afford to release information that is later determined to be private data about an employee — that can cost the school district hundreds of thousands of dollars," the statement said.