MITCHELL, S.D. – Daily Republic staff members here are celebrating an important open records victory after a court earlier this month ordered the Huron (S.D.) School Board to unseal an agreement with an ex-superintendent district officials had kept secret for two years.
The agreement which secretly paid a former superintendent more than $10,000 per month revealed that the ex-school official and the district agreed to part ways before the expiration of his contract, but the district would continue to pay him even after he was gone.
However, district officials kept the public in the dark regarding the details of that agreement for two years, Daily Republic Editor Seth Tupper said.
Even though the agreement did not explain why the superintendent’s employment ended, which is what The Daily Republic sought to know, Tupper hailed the court’s order as a victory for the newspaper and for the public.
Tupper said the newspaper’s position from the outset was that even though the superintendent’s resignation was handled during a school board’s executive session, the document itself was essentially just a superintendent contract and was therefore public, regardless of the discussions about it that occurred during executive session.
“To be clear, the document was an open record from day one,” Tupper wrote in a column about the scenario the day after the School Board made the details of the agreement public during a meeting.
Tupper says this months-long affair began when the paper received an anonymous tip from a reader who had learned of the payments to the former superintendent but knew the district had never revealed why he was receiving them. The Daily Republic started investigating and at first was stonewalled by school district officials. Tupper, not satisfied with their answers, pressed the situation and appealed the rejection to the South Dakota Office of Hearings Examiners, which ruled in the paper’s favor, declaring the document a public record. Finally in late August a court ordered the district to unseal the agreement.
“We looked into this because we thought taxpayers everywhere would want to know — and Huron’s taxpayers deserved to know — why an ex-superintendent would continue to be paid after his employment ended,” Tupper was quoted in a story about the scenario in his own paper. “We still don’t know exactly why (the superintendent’s) employment ended, but at least we know some more about the situation and have proven that contracts like this are open records.”
In his next day column Tupper added: “… (W)e’ve shown one government board that it can’t go behind closed doors, arrange a secret deal, and never answer for it. We exposed the secret deal and held those responsible to account. The account they gave was only partial, but we’ve done everything we could.”
Tupper finished his column with a bold statement that represents the commitment to readers exemplified in many newsrooms: “We raised hell and we’d gladly do it all over again. You, dear readers and taxpayers, deserve nothing less.”
The Daily Republic is owned by Forum Communications Co., a multimedia information company based in Fargo, N.D. FCC owns dozens of newspapers, websites and television and radio stations, and commercial printing plants in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin.