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Huron's secretive school contract ordered public

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news Mitchell, 57301

Mitchell South Dakota 120 South Lawler 57301

HURON -- A secret agreement that directed nearly $175,000 to an ex-superintendent should be open to public inspection, a state examiner ruled Friday.

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The order from the state Office of Hearing Examiners says the Huron School District must release a copy of the settlement agreement between it and former superintendent Ross Opsal to The Daily Republic.

The settlement agreement resulted in the district making monthly payments to Opsal after his March 2011 resignation, according to public information previously obtained by the newspaper. The Daily Republic's initial request for a copy of the agreement was made more than a year ago.

Dave Bordewyk, who as general manager of the South Dakota Newspaper Association is a frequent lobbyist on behalf of government transparency, called Friday's decision a victory for the public.

"We are glad to see the hearing examiner's decision affirmed that this settlement agreement is a public record," Bordewyk said. "It's not right that it took so long to get a decision. Nevertheless, we think the decision reinforces the public's expectations to know how their taxpayer dollars are being spent, regardless of the situation."

What's unknown, and what The Daily Republic seeks to learn from the agreement, is why the school paid the money to Opsal. At the time of his resignation, Opsal and the school district released a public letter from him citing his "personal health issues" as a reason for his departure, but with no further specifics.

Despite Friday's order, The Daily Republic still has not seen the agreement, because the newspaper was not able to reach the Huron School District's current superintendent or lawyer immediately.

The order says a copy of the agreement "shall be made available" to The Daily Republic, but it also says the school district may appeal to circuit court. If the district appeals the order, the Opsal agreement would remain sealed during the appeal process.

The Daily Republic first sought a copy of the agreement in early 2012 after receiving a tip that the Huron School District was still paying an ex-superintendent, even as the district paid its new superintendent. The district and its lawyer refused to provide a copy of the agreement, but did acknowledge payments to ex-superintendent Opsal of $10,916.51 per month since his March 2011 resignation.

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

The newspaper 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 for the Huron agreement in September and was once again denied by the district and its lawyer. The newspaper appealed that new denial to the state Office of Hearing Examiners, which is the office charged with settling open-records disputes in South Dakota.

In its decision released Friday, the Office of Hearing Examiners said the district's settlement agreement with Opsal is open to public inspection.

All public records are open to inspection unless the law expressly says otherwise, the decision says.

It also notes that the Huron settlement agreement was never declared closed or confidential as a result of civil or criminal court proceedings.

"There was no litigation filed in this matter," the decision says. "The district admits this agreement was formulated after 'threatened litigation' only."

Rodney Freeman, the district's attorney, could not be reached Friday for comment. A person answering the phone at his office said he was out all week. There was no school Friday in Huron because of the Good Friday holiday, and The Daily Republic was not able to reach current superintendent Terry Nebelsick.

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