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October 16, 2017 10:26 PM

GEAR UP Scandal Overshadows Secretary's Term In Office

By Angela Kennecke

On Friday, the Governor's office announced that Secretary of Education Melody Schopp would retire at the end of this year.  Schopp was appointed by Governor Daugaard as Secretary of Education in 2011. 

While teacher salaries in the state increased under her tenure, the Department of Education was overshadowed by the GEAR UP Scandal. 

KELOLAND Investigates looks back at what Schopp told us and lawmakers about the Department of Education's role in GEAR UP and why she doesn't feel responsible for the misappropriation of funds that happened under her watch. 

Just before we learned about the connection between the tragedy in Platte and the GEAR UP grant, which the Department of Education farmed out to Mid Central Cooperative, Education Secretary Melody Schopp appeared on Inside KELOLAND to talk about the results of Smarter Balance Assessment Tests in South Dakota. 

"What's important about these results is we are measuring students in a different way with higher order thinking skills," Melody Schopp said on Inside KELOLAND in September of 2015. 

After that appearance on Inside KELOLAND, I tried to question Schopp about pulling the multi-million dollar contract the state had with Mid Central to run the GEAR UP grant. 

Sept. 22, 2015:

Angela Kennecke: You're the head of the Department of Education. And I need some kind of comment in this story-this was all going on.

Schopp: I don't know what the situation is.  I just know right now because there are concerns, they just don't want people--they don't know if it's even tied.

At that point Schopp took off her mic, and left the interview to make a phone call and told us we'd have to direct our questions to the governor's office.  We were not allowed to interview her again about what happened with GEAR UP, until November.  That's when Gov. Dennis Daugaard told us he was standing by his appointee. 

"I have every confidence in Melody Schopp and I think the state is very lucky to have someone like her leading our department of education," Gov. Dennis Daugaard said on November 12, 2015.

During that interview, Kennecke asked Schopp about the multiple roles Scott Westerhuis held in the GEAR UP grant and whether they posed any conflicts. 

Nov. 12, 2015:

Kennecke: So it's not unusual? You wouldn't consider it to be a conflict of interest for him to be their match specialist or budget specialist, or whatever you want to call it, as well as the accountant for Mid Central?

Schopp: You would hope the same person who was overseeing the general finances of that organization--I guess the direct answer to your question is no.  We don't see that as a conflict because he was in charge of the entire budget of Mid Central cooperative.

However, in the months that followed the legislature passed new Conflict of Interest laws in the state.  Conflicts led several members to leave the South Dakota Board of Education, including Stacy Phelps, Kelly Duncan and Julie Mathiesen.

"There is $1.4 million they cannot account for.  But those were not funds that came from the GEAR UP Grant and that is the biggest takeaway; that there was no GEAR UP money stolen," Schopp said on July 24, 2017

In July, Schopp was called to testify before the Government Operations and Audit Committee. She explained the steps her department took to monitor spending on the GEAR UP program.  But she admitted that former Directors of Indian Education had concerns.  First she said she had an email from former Indian Education Director Roger Campbell, but then reneged that statement. 

"I don't have a specific email exchange; there were conversations that went on between the two of us.  And I'd have to find something very specific because I can't remember specifically to the level of detail you're asking about," Schopp said on July 24, 2017. 

However a few weeks later, at the insistence of lawmakers, the state released Campbell's emails to Schopp warning the department in 2012 about problems with the GEAR UP grant that had existed since its start in South Dakota.

When Campbell sent his concerns a second time Schopp replied:

"Roger--We need to stop doing this back and forth.  I don't know where this is going and it seems all this is going to do is further the issues. This was April. It is useless at this point to address the issues again.  Can we simply move forward?"

In an exclusive interview with KELOLAND News, another former Director of Indian Education, LuAnn Werdel says she was forced to resign after repeatedly bringing up problems she saw with how GEAR UP and other grants were administered.  She even arranged a private meeting between Stacy Phelps and Secretary Schopp.  After that meeting Werdel claims Schopp:

"And she grabbed me and gave me a hug and said, 'LuAnn, I'll try to protect you, but you just need to just not worry so much about the grants. You need to focus on larger policy issues'," Werdel said in August of 2017.

Now Schopp says it's time for her to retire to travel and spend more time with her family.  The governor's office tells KELOLAND News it has nothing to do with GEAR UP and that Schopp had been planning to retire for some time. 

Schopp declined an on-camera interview for this story, but told me an email that she considers her greatest legacy as Secretary of Education to be the increase in teacher salaries passed by the legislature.   


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