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School Board looks at Opsahl decision

Posted: Wednesday, Apr 24th, 2013

HURON — With the school board election and the bond election behind them, the Huron School Board dug into some tough issues Monday during their meeting in the Instructional Planning Center of Huron Arena.

The district announced the results of the election; made a public statement about the sealed document concerning former Superintendent Ross Opsal’s resignation; decided to wait before granting a request for an extension on the deadline for the Madison addition; and approved a resolution to issue general obligation bonds in the amount of $21,165,000 to complete additions to Madison, Buchanan and Washington elementary schools.

Business Manager Kelly Christopherson handled the canvass of the April 16 election which certified both the approval of the district’s $21M bond proposal and the election of Sherman Gose and Garret Bischoff to fill the seats of Nicole Yost and Michele Bennett.

Both new board members will be sworn in at the July board meeting.

Meanwhile, Yost and Bennett were both on hand Monday to continue their work, including a decision on the Opsal agreement.

The district’s attorney, Rodney Freeman, started the discussion.

“As everyone is aware, the confidential agreement with former superintendent Ross Opsal requires that the same remains confidential and if that confidentiality is challenged, as it has been by the Mitchell Daily Republic, we are required, the party being challenged to release it, is required to defend that with vigor,” said Freeman. “And we cannot release it until a court of competent jurisdiction says we have to override the agreement and in fact release it.”

He said that in his opinion the decision of the S.D. Office of the Hearing Examiner is “not a court of competent jurisdiction.”

He said it is an equivalent of an administrative law judge and thus the district is required to appeal the decision to the circuit court.

He said the timeframe for the appeal must occur in his judgment by Friday, April 26.

However, he did bring up the possibility that the appeal could be withdrawn if both the district and Opsal agreed to do it.

“I have been in touch with Mr. Opsal’s attorney ever since the decision of the hearing office was first rendered,” said Freeman. “I have expressed to him that we did not, we being the school district, did not necessarily wish to appeal that to a circuit court, that we would accept the decision of the hearing officer.”

Freeman said that the district’s opinion was expressed to Opsal and his attorney again today in an email; however, a conversation at 4 p.m. today with the attorney revealed that he has still not heard from Mr. Opsal as to whether it will be waived.”

Freeman then said he was looking for some guidance from the board since the situation will likely be dealt with before the next board meeting.

That guidance came directly from Board Member David Wheeler, who suggested the following resolution:

It read, “That the School Board directs its attorney to take the following actions:

1) To appeal to Circuit Court the Office of Hearing Examiner’s Order regarding the open records request from the Mitchell Daily Republic.

2) To use his best efforts to obtain a new agreement from Mr. Opsal to release to the public the agreement that is the subject of the order, and

3) If such agreement is obtained, to immediately dismiss the appeal and release the prior agreement to the public.

Freeman said he believes it’s the district’s duty because of the agreement to fight its release unless Opsal agrees to release it.

The motion by Wheeler was supported unanimously by the board.

“I wanted to make sure that we are clear what we are doing today,” said Wheeler about the motion. “That our desire is to release the agreement. If we could, we would. We are not able to right now.

“I believe this is the best way to make clear our intentions and yet not violate our contractual obligations.”

The board then addressed the issue concerning an extension of the construction deadline for the Madison addition that is under way.

The architects, Koch Hazard and Tellinghuisen, Inc. have both sent letters asking for an extension of the deadline due to the storms that have rolled through the area over the past two weeks.

Christopherson cautioned about accepting the extension.

He said he was concerned about the precedent it might set.

“I talked to the architects about having a bonus ($10,000) on Aug. 2, I thought I was very clear that Aug. 2 would never move,” said Christopherson. “Now here we are moving it already two days and they said that is the industry standard and practice and that is how they wrote all the bidding documents.”

He said even beyond that there has been a third request to move it now for a third day and that is not even considering the snow that fell on Monday.

“My recommendation to the board is not approve this request tonight, and wait and see what happens over the next few months of construction and make sure the general contractor works every day between now and then as the weather allows,” said Christopherson. “Later this summer, take a look at the whole picture and see what kind of effort we’ve had from the general contractor especially on the days when there is good weather and they are not working, whether we would ask for days back and we’ll see how it all plays out.”

The topic almost died for lack of a motion to approve until board member John Halbkat made the motion just so that they could discuss it.

Wheeler asked if it was in the board’s rights to not approve the motion.

Bennett questioned if granted now how many more days may have to be granted during the summer.

“I just think we can’t do that,” said Bennett. “I would be willing to look at this as things got closer, if they are within two days of getting the bonus.”

Yost added that this is South Dakota and that they should expect South Dakota weather.

“I don’t feel comfortable starting this now,” Yost said.

The biggest bone of contention for Christopherson is not really the penalty but the bonus.

“If we have a rainy stretch, and maybe it rains for 40 days, are we really going to pay them a bonus if we can’t occupy the building until September or October.”

Halbkat had a slightly different view.

“I haven’t disagreed with Mr. Christopherson on too may things over the last 12 years, and I am not disagreeing with him tonight,” said Halbkat.

But he did point out that Koch Hazard has a long history with the district and they have been a good partner and they honor their obligations.

“I believe the statement by Koch Hazard that this is an industry standard is probably accurate,” said Halbkat.

He said he is comfortable with a “wait and see” but cautioned that there are bigger projects on the horizon.

“We are about ready to sit down with the architect on April 30 to start a huge project. Way bigger than this addition on Madison and so we have a long relationship with Koch Hazard in our future and we may have a longer relationship with Tellinguisen. He has done a couple of different projects for us in the district,” said Halbkat. “So I would just caution us to give those things some consideration.”

The motion failed to pass on a “yea-nay” vote.

For the complete article see the 04-23-2013 issue.

Click here to purchase an electronic version of the 04-23-2013 paper.

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