Questions remain about ISD 191 administrator
Lack of disclosure typical in severance agreements like Tania Chance’s, lawyer says
by John Gessner
The separation agreement that pays nearly $255,000 to School District 191’s former human resources director is a financial blockbuster, according to Mark Anfinson, general counsel for the Minnesota Newspaper Association and an expert on the state’s data practices law.
But dollar amount aside, the agreement is typically opaque, the kind of no-harm, no-foul document often used when a local government and an employee it’s at odds with part ways, Anfinson said.
The lack of detail in the agreement has intensified questions over why the district is paying former Organizational Development Director Tania Z. Chance $254,815 to sit out the last 18 months of her two-year contract.
“This happens all the time all over the state,” Anfinson said in an interview this week. “When there’s a dispute of some kind going on, the law creates very powerful incentives for the government agency and the employee to settle this way as opposed to doing anything else.”
Those incentives are avoiding both litigation costs and the airing of dirty laundry, Anfinson said.
The agreement required Chance, who worked for the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage district for 18 months, to resign effective Feb. 1.
According to the agreement, the payment covers Chance’s $136,273 annual salary, sick leave, personal leave, vacation leave, severance pay, insurance benefits and any other compensation due her.
“It’s one of the largest payoffs to an employee under a severance agreement ever” in Minnesota, Anfinson said. “And given the brevity of her employment, it makes it really a head-scratcher.”
The agreement says the district admits to no wrongdoing. No disciplinary action was taken against Chance, the district points out.
The agreement requires the district to provide Chance, 39, with two letters of recommendation – one signed by School Board Chair Ron Hill and one signed by Superintendent Randy Clegg.
Chance also waived her right to make legal claims against the district and agreed to not make statements disparaging the district or implying that it acted improperly.
Most government “personnel data” is presumed to be private under the Minnesota Data Practices Act. (There are a number of exceptions, including salary, status of complaints against an employee and final disposition of employee discipline.)
The law also says that terms of any settlement agreement arising from an employment dispute are public. It further states that specific reasons for the settlement agreement must be stated in the agreement if the payout exceeds $10,000.
But the presumption of privacy for most personnel data creates an exploitable “black hole” in the law, according to Anfinson.
“Any sensible government lawyer will always err on the side of privacy,” Anfinson said. “Because the penalties for wrongfully making information about an employee public are far, far greater than the penalties for refusing to disclose the information that should be public. It’s so out of balance, it’s a no-brainer. When in doubt, you always opt against public access.”
About 10 years ago a South Washington County School District teacher who claimed her private personnel data had been wrongly disclosed won a jury verdict exceeding $500,000, Anfinson noted.
“All the attorneys advising the public bodies know that case, and they know about that level of exposure,” he said. “They’re going to be very cautious and conservative. And you can’t entirely blame them.”
Government lawyers often couch passages of such agreements in terms they intend to portray as the statutorily required reasons for the agreement, according to Anfinson.
In Chance’s case, the document explains that she and the school district “wish to terminate their employment relationship.”
“None of that does anything to tell the public about the nature of the dispute or why a certain amount of money should have been paid,” Anfinson said. “But the law’s ambiguous.”
A legislative fix would be the best way to assure the law provides for full disclosure of such agreements, he said.
John Gessner is at email@example.com.