I wanted to talk positively about Meade superintendent Don Kirkegaard’s appointment as Melody Schopp’s replacement at the Department of Education. But various buzzing bees reminded me that Kirkegaard is just another node in the good-old-boy network that got the whole GEAR UP/Mid-Central scandal rolling during the Rounds Administration.
As Bob Mercer wrote last year after the 2016 Legislature made a show of passing some new, weak ethics rules, Kirkegaard made money working with former education secretaries and fellow supers Rick Melmer and Tom Oster:
Don Kirkegaard… is superintendent of the Meade school district at Sturgis. He is president for the state Board of Education. And he moonlighted a few times finding candidates for superintendent searches in other districts.
His photograph was one of four on the Internet site for Dakota Education Consulting LLC. Recently, Kirkegaard had it removed. He stopped working for them.
Tom Oster of Volga and Rick Melmer of Sioux Falls organized Dakota Education Consulting on March 13, 2013. They used Avon lawyer Scott Swier, who also advises Mid Central Education Cooperative at Platte.
Melmer and Oster were South Dakota’s two previous state secretaries of education under former governor, and now U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds.
Kirkegaard cleared his consulting work with state Education Secretary Melody Schopp and the state Department of Education’s lawyer.
Schopp worked in positions of increasing responsibility for Melmer and Oster in the department. Gov. Dennis Daugaard appointed her to replace Oster in 2011 [Bob Mercer, “Conflicts Can Run Deep in South Dakota,” Rapid City Journal, 2016.04.24].
I’ve reported on the opportunities Dakota Educational Consulting provided former superintendent John Pedersen and then-active superintendent Tom Oster opportunities to cash in on the connections they made on the public dime. In 2015, Oster convinced his own Sioux Valley School District to hire his consulting firm to advise them on hiring his own replacement.
Oster and Melmer formed their consulting firm in 2013. Cached editions of the firm’s website list Kirkegaard as part of the firm in 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016, during his tenure as Meade’s superintendent. Dakota Educational Consulting lists Britton-Hecla, Kirkegaard’s previous superintending gig, as one of its happy executive search clients.
Dakota Educational Consulting includes among its anonymous client testimonials praise for the “great contacts” and “inside knowledge” that “Rick and Tom” bring to their clients for a comfy fee. Another way to read such testimonials is that Melmer and Oster have been able to expand and cement the influence of their good-old-boys club by using their contacts and inside knowledge to place candidates they prefer in executive positions in dozens of South Dakota school districts.
And Don Kirkegaard, our likely next Secretary of Education, is part of that club.
I insert likely only because the Secretary of Education faces confirmation by the South Dakota Senate. Confirmation by the Republican supermajority is almost a foregone conclusion. However, Rep. Elizabeth May found Kirkegaard’s connection to the Melmer-Oster machine worth mentioning in a constituent update about her defeated conflict-of-interest legislation last February. Rep. May noticed Kirkegaard’s connections on the infamous USD GEAR UP map. May isn’t in the Senate, but her fellow Republican GEAR UP gong-banger Stace Nelson is. So is Republican Senator Neal Tapio. Maybe, just maybe, Nelson and Tapio will find a way to sneak onto Senate Education and ask Kirkegaard some questions about his conflicts of interest.
But blockage of the Kirkegaard nomination seems a longshot. Anyone expecting an overhaul of staff and practices at our beleaguered and crony-captured Department of Education will have to wait for 2019 and the Sutton Administration.