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Kirkegaard Signals Continued Influence of Melmer Machine in SD Education

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.

Don Kirkegaard at Dakota Educational Consulting; screen cap, Internet Archive Wayback Machine cached edition, Wayback date 2015.02.06; screen cap 2017.11.13.
Don Kirkegaard at Dakota Educational Consulting; screen cap, Internet Archive Wayback Machine cached edition, Wayback date 2015.02.06; screen cap 2017.11.13.

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.


  1. grudznick 2017-11-13

    Should young Mr. Sutton indeed be elected as the next Governor of the Great State of South Dakota, admittedly a bit of a long shot bet, I put odds of him asking you (addressing Mr. H) to be his first Education Secretary as probably 50/50 at this point. If he did, would you take it?

  2. Roger Cornelius 2017-11-13


    Where can I find how much Kirkegaard profited from GearUp?

    Hopefully, Stace will handle the inquiry into Kirkegaard’s confirmation responsibly and not use his platform for any grandstanding.

    Neal Tapio will be just another republican “yes” man.

  3. grudznick 2017-11-13

    Mr. Tapio will vote no.

  4. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-11-14

    Roger, I have no knowledge of any Kirkegaard involvement in GEAR UP.

    I’m also not convinced Tapio will be a party yes man. He’s not the bombthrower Stace is, and he’s going to get distracted throwing bombs at refugees and Muslims, but he may not be an integral part of the Establishment machine… unless he thinks it will help his US House bid… about which he’s been rather quiet lately.

  5. Michael L. Wyland 2017-11-14

    It’s not clear that Kirkegaard received any payments related to SD GEAR UP. His name appears on the GEAR UP wall in Dakota Hall at USD because, as noted in a written question from GOAC to Melody Schopp in August 2017:

    “26. When did you first become aware that Don Kirkegaard was simultaneously a member of the South Dakota Board of Education and a partner, with former South Dakota Education Secretaries Rick Melmer and Tom Oster, in Dakota Education Consulting, whose clients included Kirkegaard’s former school district of Britton-Hecla, his current school district of Meade, and the South Dakota Department of Education itself?”

    Schopp’s long response is included in the following letter to GOAC:

    In the letter, she answers question 26 (quoted above) in her reply to question 13.

  6. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-11-14

    Thanks for that note, Michael! Kirkegaard was in the room—the board room, the Board of Education meeting room—with key GEAR UP player Phelps and GEAR UP evaluator Duncan, but I can’t think of any document or report that shows Kirkegaard participating GEAR UP action.

  7. Charlie Wheeler 2017-11-14

    I have known Don for several years and would not classify him as one of the good ole boys. I would encourage you to call him and talk to him instead of assuming.

  8. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-11-14

    Dang—If Charlie vouches for him, I need to take a third look. How about this: I’ll look forward to Kirkegaard proving himself with scrupulous management of the Department and the taxpayer dollar… and not routing a bunch of federal grants to his home folks and old consulting pals.

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