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Indian Ed Director Sounded GEAR UP Alarm in Jan. 2011, Next Day Apologized & Expressed “Utmost Confidence” in Guericke and Phelps

Remember back in March 2016 when KELO-TV reported that the South Dakota Department of Education had received warnings about misuse of federal GEAR UP grant money back in 2011 and earlier? The then-anonymous sources weren’t kidding, but a warning received by DOE in early 2011 was almost immediately doused by the warner’s apology and apparent reversal.

The response Education Secretary Melody Schopp submitted today to the Government Operations and Audit Committee includes this e-mail from LuAnn Werdel, then-director of the state Office of Indian Education, to the then-new Secretary of Education Melody Schopp on January 10, 2011:

LuAnn Werdel to Melody Schopp et al., 2011.01.11.
LuAnn Werdel to Melody Schopp et al., 2011.01.11.

Seemingly key passages from Werdel to Schopp:

  1. “I have told you over and over what Stacy Phelps and Mid Centrail is [sic] doing with the GEAR UP grant and the College Access grant.”
  2. “Mark pulled me outside of the meeting and said he could not even believe what he was hearing in regards to the data and how mismanaged this grant has been due to Midcentral management.”
  3. “You told me last week not to worry so much about the grants and to focus on larger policy issues….”

Secretary Schopp waited a day to respond:

Schopp to Werdel 2011.01.11.
Schopp to Werdel 2011.01.11.

According to the documents included in Schopp’s August 22, 2017, GOAC submission, Werdel submitted that resignation e-mail at 1:49 p.m. that same day.

If the e-mail trail stopped here, we’d say, “Holy cow! There we go: Werdel warned Schopp of GEAR UP misconduct at Mid-Central in early 2011 and multiple times prior to that, and Schopp ignored it!”

But today Schopp shows us four e-mails Werdel sent right after that resignation. Three are emotional apologies to Schopp and others included on Werdel’s January 10 e-mail. Werdel expresses regret for embarrassing the Secretary, deems her January 10 comments “inappropriate,” and says she should have expressed any concerns in private.

More important, however, is a fourth, less emotional e-mail, in which Werdel expresses confidence in Stacy Phelps and Mid-Central’s then-exec Dan Guericke:

Werdel to Shaughnessy, 2011.01.11
Werdel to Shaughnessy, 2011.01.11

Key passage undermining Werdel’s January 10 statements:

…I can assure you that the program in in good hands. Mr. Dan Guericke, CEO of MidCentral Education, authorized representative of Wakan Glu, has a very experienced staff in regards to Indian Education. His program manager is Mr. Stacy Phelps, who sits on President Obama’s Advisory Council on Indian Education. I would not leave this program in anyone’s hands if I didn’t have the utmost confidence in their ability to run the program. They have a history of providing quality programs in SD [LuAnn Werdel, e-mail to Lana Shaughnessy, 2011.01.11].

Werdel’s warning on January 10, 2011, suggests that she had frequently warned Schopp of misconduct by Phelps and Mid-Central. However, Werdel’s comments specific to Phelps and Mid-Central the next day seem to undermine her warning.


  1. OldSarg 2017-08-22 22:43

    More Obama people misusing the people’s money? How shocking. . .

  2. Curt 2017-08-22 23:05

    ‘OldSarg’ – Hillary was right – you people are deplorable.

  3. jerry 2017-08-22 23:18

    She was a whistle blower that was not listened to. She was outed and knew that in order to get a recommendation for another job, she would have to recant her statement. Someone should suggest she seek legal advise on a recourse to clear her name. Looks like they put some pressure on her to make that resignation an act of contrition for her future employment that she signs with a hopeful :)

  4. grudznick 2017-08-22 23:46

    It is unfortunate that many good teachers, some of the best on the SILT scale, will take a pay spanking because of the behavior of some of these bad, bad teachers. But the spanking will have to happen.

  5. grudznick 2017-08-23 00:04

    Mr. Nelson, if you have any juice left in your debunked blustery bunkery, do not threaten disabled old men in a chair with a thrashing from a monster but instead you must drag this Werdell lady to the stand and let the people who really know how to question a witness put forth the questions. Are you scared, sir? Are you part of this notorious meandering? Will you submit all your finances to a forensic audit so your accounts can be rectified? Do you deny the fact that your blustering belies your involvement in this matter?

  6. Mr. Sol 2017-08-23 06:22

    I think Jerry is spot on with his comment. I also think that the State of South Dakota has known about all of this for many, many years.

  7. Jenny 2017-08-23 06:48

    Proof that Schopp knew something wasn’t right about Mid Central way back in 2011.

  8. Jenny 2017-08-23 06:51

    This should disgust South Dakotans (but it won’t).

  9. Loren 2017-08-23 09:26

    Sarg, you forgot to blame Obama for the eclipse. Any more enlightening observations?

  10. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-08-23 09:42

    This is not an Obama issue. This is a South Dakota issue. Leave your talk-radio templates at the door.

  11. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-08-23 09:52

    Jenny, your comment about “proof” is the headline I wanted. But when I read the full e-mail stream, I couldn’t write that headline. By themselves, the January 10 and January 11 Werdel e-mails do not constitute proof that the state had reliable, actionable evidence that “something wasn’t right about Mid-Central way back in 2011.”

    Even if I go to Jerry’s speculation—and boy, I want to, Jerry, because it makes some sense—I couldn’t take it to court. Suppose Werdel were on the stand. We present the January 10 e-mail as evidence of misconduct at Mid-Central. The defense presents the January 11 e-mail to contradict that evidence, to show Werdel expressed “utmost confidence” in MCEC and Phelps to run a program dear to her. Jerry may redirect and get Werdel to testify that she lied about her “utmost confidence” in Phelps and MCEC to protect her future income opportunities, but that only invites the defense to jump up and down about Werdel as a completely unreliable witness who will change her story 180° from day to day depending on what’s in her self-interest.

    Note also that elsewhere in her responses (see #11), Schopp singles out Werdel as having a conflict of interest in her connection with the Wakan Gli grant while making no mention of Rick Melmer or Keith Moore. Schopp also tries (#34) to spin Werdel’s January 10 e-mail (which came right after Schopp asked Werdel to resign) as a simple lashing out relating to issues with Wakan Gli data and ignoring what Werdel says more broadly about daily operations and budgets for GEAR UP and College Access. Schopp apparently senses the weakness of Werdel’s e-mails as evidence and uses her responses here to hang Werdel out in the wind.

  12. Joe Voigt 2017-08-23 12:55

    This is like something big, without it being something big?

    The following emails put doubt into the original email, however the questions I have;

    Was any formal complaint filed, she named Mid-Central and Stacey Phelps by name: Generally if you are just upset you use bland broad terms not by name of a group and person who later get caught up in all of it.

    And was there more cover-up was it hinted to apologize or no letter of recomendation would come from them? Those type of things. I doubt I’d put her on the stand but I’d damn sure follow up with questions.

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