Henry Sibley principal’s severance payout shows limits of transparency law
Last spring, 192 state lawmakers voted unanimously to require more transparency when money is paid to a public employee who resigns under fire.
But the lawmaker who wrote the legislation now says it didn’t go far enough.
Rep. Pam Myhra, R-Burnsville, said the secrecy surrounding a payout to Henry Sibley High School Principal Robin Percival was exactly what she was trying to prevent.
Last week, it was revealed that officials in the West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan school district agreed to pay Percival $64,590 to quit after a complaint was made against her. School officials say they don’t have to explain the payout beyond saying that they investigated a complaint and took no disciplinary action.
The lack of transparency is not an isolated case in the months since the law was strengthened.
In August, Minneapolis city leaders refused to explain a $70,000 payout to a supervisor, claiming he wasn’t a public official, Myhra said.
Myhra and state Sen. Dan Hall, R-Burnsville, won support for their legislation after community outrage over a payout in the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage school district last year. Officials refused to explain why human resources director Tania Chance was paid more than $254,000 to leave, one of the largest payouts to a school official in recent memory.
“Our intent was that they couldn’t do that,” Hall said. “I thought we were pretty clear.”
Now, Hall and Myhra say they would like to further tighten the transparency rules. They
acknowledge that the legislation has to carefully balance residents’ desire for open government with public employees’ right to privacy.
“We don’t want to hurt anybody,” Hall said.
Mark Spurr, chairman of the West St. Paul school board, says privacy rules prohibit district officials from discussing why Percival was investigated and why they chose to pay her to resign. Percival has not responded to messages seeking comment.
“My default is to be open and to tell it,” Spurr said. “I totally understand the desire to be transparent. We were told by our attorney that we are constrained from talking about it.”
Sara Ruff, the district’s lawyer, said the district has complied with the updated disclosure rules by releasing Percival’s separation agreement that says the reason for the deal is to end her employment and settle all legal claims.
“There are two purposes to this law,” Ruff said of the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act. “One is to make certain data public, and the other is to guard privacy.”
That explanation isn’t good enough for residents such as Tom Clifford of Mendota Heights. He feels district leaders purposely found a way to hide the details of the settlement.
“This just doesn’t pass the smell test,” Clifford said. “It looked to me like there was some very calculated strategic approach to get around the law. That makes me crazy.”
Clifford plans to attend a district work session at 5 p.m. Feb. 19 at the high school to tell school board members how he feels. “I’m going to let them know this just stinks to me,” he said. “I want this superintendent, this school board, every one of them, held accountable.”
Mark Anfinson, an attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association, said disputes like these are not new. Government officials typically opt for secrecy when they can because the alternative, the public airing of complaints against government employees, can be messy and expensive.
“Nobody wants to be in the middle of a public mess,” Anfinson said, adding that it’s often less expensive to settle disputes quietly than to end up in court.
Advocates for administrators and teachers go a step further. They say the current rules not only help avert costly public battles but also allow leaders to protect institutions and their employees.
“That’s the job of a superintendent, to protect the district and all the entities involved,” said Gary Amoroso, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators. “I wouldn’t frame it as not wanting to get sued.”
Tom Dooher, president of the teachers union Education Minnesota, adds that the public may not realize the unintended consequences of more disclosure, particularly when students are involved. Unfettered access to complaints and other personnel issues could quickly tarnish the careers of hard-working teachers and administrators.
“It’s a tradeoff,” said Dooher, who said that even false claims can become a spectacle. “Frankly, we don’t think that sort of unlimited disclosure is worth it.”
But, Anfinson says, without transparency there’s no incentive for governments to fix underlying problems that lead to these payouts in the first place.
“If you keep all these things secret, it is very unlikely corrective measure will be developed,” he said.
Myhra and Hall say citizens also have a right to know how their tax money is being spent. They are looking for Democratic-Farmer-Labor lawmakers to help them tighten the transparency rules, and support may not be hard to find.
State Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, represents much of the West St. Paul school district and voted for the transparency bill last year. He said he hasn’t studied the issue closely or heard complaints from his constituents but generally supports transparency.
“I feel sunshine is the best disinfectant,” said Hansen, noting the need for balance between government transparency and employee privacy.
State Rep. Will Morgan, DFL-Burnsville, was unseated by Myhra in 2010 before redistricting created the seat he won in November. The Burnsville High School science teacher closely watched the outrage over Chance’s payout last year and said he was willing to work with his former political opponent to fix the law.
“If there is a problem that needs fixed, then absolutely we should fix it,” Morgan said. “If Myhra asked me to help, I’d sign on.”
Christopher Magan can be reached at 651-228-5557. Follow him at twitter.com/cmaganPiPress.