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Huron school's secret agreement goes to court

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news Mitchell, 57301

Mitchell South Dakota 120 South Lawler 57301

HURON -- The Huron School District is appealing to circuit court to keep an agreement with an ex-superintendent secret.

In March, a state hearing examiner ordered the district to provide The Daily Republic with a copy of the agreement. The district has since filed a notice that it will appeal the decision to Beadle County Circuit Court.

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The agreement between the district and ex-superintendent Ross Opsal resulted in payments to him totaling nearly $175,000 while the district also paid Opsal's successor, according to public financial information obtained by The Daily Republic. The newspaper seeks to learn the reason for the payments to Opsal, but the agreement will apparently remain sealed throughout the appeal process.

The Daily Republic first requested a copy of the agreement in early 2012 after getting a tip that the district was still paying an ex-superintendent. The district and its lawyer refused to release a copy of the Opsal agreement but did acknowledge payments to Opsal of $10,916.51 per month since his March 2011 resignation.

The payments stopped after 16 months and totaled $174,664, according to the monthly payment information obtained from the district and compiled by The Daily Republic.

At the time of his resignation, Opsal and the district released a public letter from him citing his "personal health issues" as a reason for his departure.

The Daily Republic wrote a story in February 2012 detailing the payments and the district's refusal to speak further about the issue or release a copy of the agreement.

Then, in July, a new state law took effect clarifying that a superintendent contract is a public record. That change was sparked partly by a controversy in Sioux Falls, where the superintendent refused to divulge her contract.

Citing the new law, The Daily Republic made a new request in September for the district's agreement with Opsal, but was once again denied by the district. The newspaper appealed that new denial to the state Office of Hearing Examiners, which is the office assigned by state law to handle open-records disputes. The OHE found that the district's agreement with Opsal is a public record and should be open to inspection, since it was never declared closed or confidential as a result of civil or criminal court proceedings and is not classified as closed by any other law.

Calls to Rodney Freeman, the district's attorney, and Terry Nebelsick, the district's current superintendent, made Wednesday by The Daily Republic were not immediately returned.

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