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District reveals Opsal agreement

Posted: Wednesday, Sep 11th, 2013

HURON — As promised, with the official order to release the Claims and Settlement Agreement concerning the resignation of former Superintendent Ross Opsal signed and in hand, the Huron School Board voted to release and have read the five-page agreement Monday night during its regularly scheduled meeting at Huron Arena.

When School Board President Tim Van Berkum asked the district’s legal counsel, Rodney Freeman, if this now ends the district’s responsibility for defending the agreement, Freeman responded, “Yes, and we now have a order from a court of competent jurisdiction, not just the Office of Hearing Examiner.”

Board member David Wheeler then asked if the district ever heard from Opsal’s attorney about releasing the document early like the district had hoped.

“No. His attorney has been very courteous and every time that I have written him he’s responded that he has nothing to communicate from Mr. Opsal,” said Freeman.

Superintendent Terry Nebelsick then asked Freeman if reading the agreement aloud is standard procedure, and Freeman agreed.

Van Berkum then went through the five-page agreement.

The agreement’s biggest revelation, which was signed on March, 4, 2011, was that the district made the agreement with the taxpayers in mind, settling with Opsal instead of taking legal action.

In all, the two parties agreed to a dozen items as part of the agreement.

The first item was that Opsal would resign as of agreement date.

By doing the district in the second item agreed to pay the remainder of his $110,000 salary for the 2010-2011 year and $6,600 in equivalent retirement benefits. They also agreed to pay Opsal the same amount for the 2011-2012 school year.

In the third item, the district also agreed to pay Opsal $1,199.84 for hospitalization or major medical insurance for 14 months.

The payments were to be made on the 20th of each month and that is what led the Plainsman to investigate the payments, when a citizen pointed out the payment in the check statements of the district.

What the district then would not have to pay is the third year of the contract or an additional $116,600.

And in addition it could have cost the district less than that if Opsal could have found gainful employment by another district.

As per item four of the agreement, Opsal agreed to demonstrate on a monthly basis to legitimately and actively seek employment as a school administrator.

Should Opsal have been hired, during this period the payments of salary and insurance would have ceased or been reduced.

The reason for not ceasing in total would have to do with the new salary’s figures. If Opsal were to make less than the district’s contract, the difference would be paid to him through June 30, 2012.

This item also had a provision that should Opsal turn down a job from a district in either South Dakota or Iowa, the payments would have ceased.

The final part of this item was that the board chairman at that time, John Halbkat, was designated as a spokesman for the district and per the agreement was to give a “neutral” recommendation for districts that requested a recommendation about Opsal.

The fifth item of the agreement simply stated that once all the obligations were met by both parties, the contract would then become null and void.

The sixth item of the agreement dealt specifically with the confidential nature of the agreement and that applied to the district, Opsal and his wife.

Any violation of the provision would leave that party liable for all consequential damages.

The seventh item stated that neither Opsal nor his heirs have any claims.

The eighth item states that any offer prior to this agreement is superseded by this agreement. It also stated that both parties were advised by their council as to the language and terms of the contract and neither party was coerced into signing it.

The ninth item of the agreement concerned the chance of any new information coming to light concerning the agreement and that both parties agree there will be no legal recourse as far as the agreement is concerned.

The 10th item said that the agreement shall be construed as whole, according to fair meaning and intent and not strictly for or against any party.

The 11th item just states that the agreement will be enforced pursuant to the laws of the State of South Dakota.

The 12th item stated that should something in the agreement be found illegal, only that part would be removed, not the agreement in its entirety.

That would likely have been the case should the open record designation had come while the payments were still being made.

It is likely that had the district made the agreement public, Opsal would still have received the money owed to him.

The only two members of the board that were party to this agreement are Halbkat and current board president Tim Van Berkum.

Halbkat read a statement shortly after Van Berkum finished reading the five-page agreement.

“March 4, 2011, until now has been a difficult journey, for the lay people who served or were serving on the Huron School Board. Each decision made during the transition of leadership was done with the focus of what was best for all involved in the Huron School District while trying to remain 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 and move forward with a focus on the challenges and opportunities to serve our patrons and lead our students.

“Our counsel advised us based on long-standing practices in South Dakota the best strategy was to avoid litigation, honor signed agreements and work to come to a mutually agreeable resolution.

“We hope that our patrons would agree that respecting the sealed agreement rather than paying an additional year of salary was prudent judgement.

“We are grateful for the patience and support of the Huron School District patrons who are focused on: helping us support the staff that teach children from more than 10 different countries; solve the challenge of reconfigured learning centers; pass English as a second language legislation; finance and construct new and refurbished elementary schools; and allow for general fund opt-outs as we get closer and closer to a balanced budget.

“We hope to finally put this issue behind us, and look forward to continuing to work with our local patrons to meet the needs of our students,” said Halbkat.

Van Berkum also made a short comment about the process that took 920 days to complete.

“It was kind of a long and painful process that we went through,” said Van Berkum. “We needed to move as quickly as possible to put new leadership in place, and look out for the best interest of the taxpayers. Saving that additional year of salary in my opinion was a good move.”

On any other night the fact that the board voted to reduce their opt-out amount from $600,000 to just $375,000 would have been the biggest news of the night.

However, more on that and other actions taken will be in a followup story on Wednesday.

For the complete article see the 09-10-2013 issue.

Click here to purchase an electronic version of the 09-10-2013 paper.

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