On her first day as Secretary of Education, Melody Schopp asked the director of the Office of Indian Education, LuAnn Werdel, to resign. Werdel unloaded with statements questioning the integrity of those managing the GEAR UP and College Access grants, then backed off from her criticisms the next day. The e-mails made public by the Government Operations and Audit Committee as part of Secretary Schopp’s written response to committee questions thus wakens the case for blaming Secretary Schopp for not acting on the concerns expressed by Werdel in January 2011.
The timeline for serious concerns about misconduct at Mid-Central thus defaults back to 2012, which Schopp has previously admitted is when her department began tracking “incompetence” in Mid-Central’s financial record-keeping and offering the cooperative “technical support.”
It apparently took the person Schopp chose to replace Werdel, Roger Campbell, to draw Schopp’s attention to GEAR UP:
I hired Mr. Campbell in March 2011. The GEAR UP contract with mid Central was signed in March 2012, and GEAR UP became one of the Mr. Campbell’s responsibilities. Mr. Campbell first expressed concerns in spring 2012, one of which was that the business manager was also CFO for AIII.
At the July 24, 2017, GOAC meeting, I referred to the fact that SD DOE staff had concerns going back to 2012, and I described the increased monitoring activities regarding GEAR UP in response to those concerns [Education Secretary Melody Schopp to GOAC, 2017.08.22, Response #38, pp. 5–6].
Schopp refers with a surprising lack of detail to a heated meeting involving her, Campbell, other DOE staff, and principals at Mid-Central:
I specifically recall one in-person meeting with Mr. Guericke, Mr. Westerhuis, Mr. Phelps, myself and SD DOE staff, including Mr. Campbell, which was very heated and included what I considered to be personal attacks on both sides. This back and forth was not only unproductive, but also odd, because Mr. Phelps had suggested Mr. Campbell as a potential candidate for the Indian Education Director position. I likewise felt this was negatively impacting the grant’s purpose [Schopp, 2017.08.22, p. 6].
Schopp doesn’t put a time on this alarming meeting, but it must have taken place before March 10, 2013, the effective date of Campbell’s resignation from the OIE given in the resignation included in Schopp’s GOAC response. More importantly, Schopp gives no details about who said what. She vaguely mentions emotion and personal attacks but says nothing specific about what facts or policy matters might have provoked such outbursts. She explicitly ties nothing from that undated meeting to her otherwise meticulously timelined account of remedial actions her department began taking to check Mid-Central’s deficiencies in 2012 and 2013.
Instead, in the next breath, she turns to Campbell’s resignation, says he did good work, and suggests Campbell saw no illegal activity at Mid-Central, so why should she?
I believe Mr. Campbell had the department’s interests in mind, and his suggestions led to increased oversight and accountability for Mid Central. I have attached a copy of Mr. Campbell’s resignation letter, which does not reference any purported illegal activity [Schopp, 2017.08.22, p. 6].
Notice that even as she talks him up, Schopp sets Campbell up as a possible firewall/fall guy between her and Mid-Central misconduct. Campbell was recommended for the job by Stacy Phelps, one of the GEAR UP principals now under indictment. GEAR UP was Mr. Campbell’s responsibility. When Campbell gave up that responsibility two years later, Campbell didn’t mention any illegal activity. If Pierre needs a back-up fall guy beyond Phelps, Guericke, and Hubers, Campbell may be the next in line.
Of course, Campbell’s resignation letter is far from a detailed exit-interview document detailing all that of the institutional knowledge he feels he must pass on to his successor. After stating his intent to leave and addressing pay and leave details, he writes the following general epistle of gratitude and hope:
It has been my privilege and honor to serve the department as the Director of the Office of Indian Education. I am grateful to have had this opportunity to help improve the educational outcomes of tribal students across the state. I feel that the department has a good foundation with the inclusion of department-wide strategies to address the achievement gap that exists between native and non-native students. It is my hope that the Department of Education will maintain this direction that identifies proven educational delivery that is data driven as well as inclusive of all entities, both public and tribal.
Again I thank you for this opportunity and I wish the department and its hard working staff all the best as they move forward with your initiatives [Roger Campbell, letter to Melody Schopp, 2013.02.28, included in Schopp to GOAC, Appendix H, 2017.08.22].
If Schopp can cite this single letter as evidence that she never heard anything about illegal activities at Mid-Central, we could cite this fuzzy prose as a subtle signal that DOE was all talk (“good foundation”) and no action (“opportunity to help improve” is not the same as “improve”) and that it needs a reminder of the principles it should be following (“data driven” and “inclusive of all entities, both public and tribal”).
And notice that last pronoun: “your initiatives.” GEAR UP, other Indian education programs—they belong to you, Melody. At least that’s another way we could fit Campbell’s letter into the context of what we know and what we’re trying to learn about GEAR UP and Mid-Central.
But let’s not speculate and over-interpolate our suspicions. Let’s get the facts straight from the horse’s mouth. Given what Schopp presents above, the next person GOAC invites to speak should be Roger Campbell. He has denied past press requests for comment, but the evidence and statements we have now appear to make him the most reliable witness we can ask about who knew what when about GEAR UP and Mid-Central. GOAC should now call Roger Campbell forward to answer the following questions:
- When did you first develop concerns about Mid-Central’s management of GEAR UP?
- What were those concerns?
- When did you share those concerns with other Department of Education staff?
- When did you share those concerns with Secretary Schopp?
- How did Secretary Schopp respond to your concerns about GEAR UP?
- Do you recall the “heated” meeting that Secretary Schopp describes involving herself, you, other DOE staff, and GEAR UP principals?
- If so, when and where did that “heated” meeting take place?
- Who was present for that “heated” meeting?
- Which if any of your concerns about GEAR UP were raised at that “heated” meeting?
- Who said what at that “heated” meeting?
- What if any specific statements at that meeting would you characterize as “heated”?
- What if anything do you feel prompted those “heated” statements?
- Did you share Secretary Schopp’s stated opinion that the “heated” meeting was “unproductive” and “odd”?
- Did the statements of Phelps, Guericke, and Westerhuis at this “heated” meeting heighten your concerns about the management of GEAR UP?
- What if any new opinions or actions did that “heated” meeting prompt you to adopt with respect to GEAR UP?
- While we’re at it, how did your wife Corrie Ann Campbell end up working as a facilitator for Mid-Central?