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Secret Huron superintendent agreement opened, read aloud

This sealed envelope that held a secret agreement between the Huron School District and former superintendent Ross Opsal was opened Monday by the Huron Board of Education, pursuant to a court order won by The Daily Republic. (Luke Hagen/The Daily Republic)

HURON -- An agreement that remained secret for more than two years and sent thousands of dollars to an ex-superintendent was unsealed and read aloud Monday evening at a Huron Board of Education meeting.

The board voted during the meeting at the Huron Arena's Instructional Planning Center to unseal the five-page agreement, pursuant to a recent court order won by The Daily Republic. The agreement reveals that the board and then-superintendent Ross Opsal agreed in March 2011 to part ways before the expiration of his contract. The board agreed to pay Opsal his base salary plus extra amounts for retirement and health care each month for a period extending up to June 2012.

According to the terms of the agreement, the total amount of payments to Opsal could have been nearly $175,000 (the amount actually paid was not immediately available Monday night). Meanwhile, the district had hired and was paying a new superintendent.

The agreement did not explain why Opsal's employment ended, which is what The Daily Republic sought to know. The two current members of the Huron Board of Education who were members when the agreement was reached declined to say anything further Monday night about Opsal's departure from the district.

"Mr. Opsal's decision to resign from the Huron School District was a matter that was dealt with in executive session of which I'm not at liberty to comment on," said board chairman John Halbkat, who has 12 years of service on the board. "From that executive session is where this agreement came from."

An "executive session" occurs when a government body votes to conduct a private, closed-door meeting. Executive sessions are allowed for limited purposes spelled out in state law, including some contractual matters. The Daily Republic asserted during the dispute over the agreement that the document itself was essentially just a superintendent contract and was therefore public, regardless of the discussions about it that occurred during executive session.

Opsal cited "personal health issues" in a public letter released by the school district at the time of his March 2011 resignation. He was hired June 28, 2010, and had a three-year contract.

The Daily Republic, acting on a tip from a reader who saw payment amounts to Opsal listed in newspaper legal announcements after his departure, sought a copy of the agreement for a news story published in 2012. The district denied the request, and the denial sparked a fight over the document that finally ended Monday.

Third Circuit Judge Jon Erickson ruled Aug. 28 that the secret agreement must be provided to The Daily Republic. The ruling affirmed an earlier decision in favor of the newspaper issued in March by the state Office of Hearing Examiners.

All five Huron Board of Education members voted Monday to have the document opened and read aloud after the school district's lawyer, Rodney Freeman, recommended it in a report to the board.

By approving the unsealing of the document, the board surrendered its final possible appeal, which would have been at the state Supreme Court level.

Tim VanBerkum, a board member who's served for the past five years, read aloud the five-page document that was signed by Opsal and board chairman Halbkat in 2011.

The document said Opsal agreed "to legitimately and actively seek employment as a school administrator and agrees to demonstrate to District on a monthly basis, his efforts at securing school administrator employment." If Opsal would have found employment as a school administrator elsewhere, it would have reduced or eliminated the payments from the Huron School District. If he found employment at a salary less than $110,000 per year, the district would have continued to pay Opsal the difference between his new employer's salary and $110,000, but not beyond June 30, 2012. VanBerkum said after the meeting in an interview with The Daily Republic that Opsal was never hired as a school administrator elsewhere and was paid through the length of the agreement. He did not immediately know the total amount of the payments.

In order to assist with Opsal's search for a new job, the school district agreed that Halbkat would be "designated as spokesman for the recommendations for District and that Halbkat is hereby authorized by the parties, to give a 'neutral' recommendation."

VanBerkum opened the discussion at Monday's meeting by asking attorney Freeman if the school board had "done our job to vigorously defend" the sealed status of the agreement.

The document stated it was closed and confidential and that the district would defend its closed nature.

"Specifically," the agreement states, "it is understood and agreed by District and Opsal and Opsal's spouse, that the contents of this document shall be considered confidential and shall not be disclosed to any third person or entity by either District or Opsal except with the prior written approval of the other party or upon the Order of a Court of competent jurisdiction, which Order shall be disputed with all vigor by the party who may be sued to compel its disclosure."

Freeman said he's been in contact with Opsal's attorney, Scott Swier. He added that Opsal was aware the document would be read Monday night.

Before the document was opened, current Superintendent Terry Nebelsick showed that the document's seal had not been broken. It was signed across the taped seal by Huron Business Manager Kelly Christopherson and Halbkat, dated March 9, 2011.

VanBerkum and Halbkat are the only members of the five-person board who were serving when the document was signed.

"March 4, 2011, until now has been a difficult journey for those who served and were serving on the Huron school board," Halbkat read in a prepared statement during the meeting. "Each decision made during the transition of leadership was done with the focus for what was best for our patrons in the Huron School District while trying to be fair to the former superintendent. We hope the document shows the district was able to save the taxpayers an additional year of a three-year contract. We move forward with the focus and opportunities to serve our patrons and lead our students."

Garret Bischoff, David Wheeler and Sherman Gose are the three members who were not serving on the board when the agreement was reached. After the document was read and Halbkat and VanBerkum each gave statements, no other board members spoke.

During an interview after the meeting, Bischoff said he's happy with the current administration and "that's what I have to worry about."

"What happened in the past is the past," Bischoff said. "I'm ready to move forward and keep the district in moving to the positive."

Tuesday was the first time since the judge's August ruling that the Huron Board of Education met. Current Superintendent Nebelsick said the district was waiting to get a final, signed agreement by Judge Erickson and both lawyers in the case before releasing the agreement.

The Daily Republic first sought a copy of the agreement in early 2012 after receiving an anonymous tip about the situation.

The district and its lawyer refused to provide a copy of the agreement or say why the payments to Opsal were issued, but did acknowledge monthly payments to him 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 about $175,000, though that number has not been confirmed by the district.

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 2012, 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 2012 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. That office ruled in favor of The Daily Republic in March of this year and found the agreement should be open to public inspection.

Shortly thereafter, the district appealed to circuit court, which ended in the Aug. 28 ruling in favor of the newspaper.

"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," said Daily Republic Editor Seth Tupper, the plaintiff in the lawsuit over the agreement. "We still don't know exactly why Opsal's employment ended, but at least we know some more about the situation and have proven that contracts like this are open records."