Friday, April 19, 2024

Maneuver by Triton School District calls into question state data practice violations

A sequence of events over the past several months is raising some important questions about how one area school district is communicating with the public when it comes to critical information about the operations of the district.

The district in question is Triton Public Schools serving the residents of Dodge Center, Claremont and West Concord. The Dodge County Independent has unveiled a pattern of potential ethical and transparency issues involving Triton and how it operates when it comes to legal notices required by state statute to be published in a legal newspaper. We are left with questions in which state data practice laws are possibly being violated. To our surprise, school officials seem insistent on not doing anything about them.

Legal newspapers are officially designated publications in which citizens and governmental units advertise notices as required by law.

For the past several years, the DCI has been the legal newspaper for county government, various cities, townships and school districts for Dodge County. This newspaper became the last active weekly newspaper serving Dodge County in January 2019 when the Star Herald in Dodge Center closed its doors at the end of 2018.

In July 2023, the Triton School Board voted to make the Dodge Center Messenger, a monthly publication that is sent out free through the U.S. Postal Service, the legal newspaper for the district. The key word in that sentence is monthly.

The DCI, on the other hand, is a weekly publication that has been a legal newspaper for years and meets all the statutory requirements regarding legal publication of governmental notices. In the spirit of full disclosure, the DCI, along with other legal newspapers, charges for those notices to be published.

We argue that the Messenger does not qualify as a legal newspaper by Minnesota State Statute 331A.02, which outlines many provisions of what makes a newspaper legal for the purposes of publishing official notices. Most importantly, the Messenger is only printed and mailed out once a month. Subdivision 1 (B) of the statute states, “If not a daily, the newspaper may be published and distributed at least twice a month with respect to the publishing of government public notices.”

The Messenger is circulated to several area communities on the western side of Dodge County, but only once a month in each of those cities. Thus, we believe it does not meet the statute requirement. Posting online versions of legal notices are required to go on the newspaper’s website; however, such postings cannot substitute for the printed version.

In addition, we argue that the Messenger does not meet 331A.02 Subdivision 1 (H), which states: “Have complied with all the foregoing conditions of this subdivision for at least one year immediately preceding the date of the notice publication.”

While the Messenger is listed as a “legal newspaper” by the Minnesota Secretary of State on its website, this is suspect and needs to be explored further. Specifically, Statute 331A.02, Subdivision 1 (J) states: “…Acceptance of a filing does not constitute a guarantee by the state that any other qualification has been met.” In plain English, the Secretary of State has no oversight over the issue and does not investigate. They merely issue legal status based on an application fee that is paid by the participating newspaper and self-reporting by the publisher certifying it has met the statute requirements.

In the case of the Messenger, we maintain it has never been a legal newspaper and has no right to portray itself as such to the Secretary of State. This is another entire issue that we won’t dig into at this time, but state law states that misrepresentation of the Secretary of State filing can result in perjury charges against the publisher.

What’s particularly frustrating and troublesome for us is that even though we have raised these issues to Superintendent Craig Schlichting, he stands by the district’s decision and maintains the Messenger is a legal newspaper. As his defense, Schlichting points out the Secretary of State website lists the Messenger as a legal newspaper.

Again, we point back to the fact that the Messenger cannot be a legal newspaper because it’s published only once a month.

The next course of action for the DCI is to seek an advisory ruling from the Minnesota Department of Administration, which may issue non-binding advisory opinions on issues raised related to data practices or the Open Meeting Law. The concerns outlined in this editorial constitute data practices.

Why should you care about this?

School board members and district leaders are elected or appointed to positions where transparency needs to be of utmost consideration and importance. Your tax dollars are being spent by district officials who are potentially skirting data practice laws. The natural question quickly becomes: “What else are they hiding?” We hope nothing, but we don’t really know, especially when legal notices are not being published correctly.

Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their government and/or school districts are doing. Furthermore, transparency is the government entity’s obligation to share information with citizens that is needed to make informed decisions and hold officials accountable for conduct of the people’s business.

Taxpayers should not expect anything less. And we don’t either.

 

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Dodge County Independent

Dodge County Independent
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