Steve Brandt, Minneapolis Star Tribune, August 18, 2005
Minneapolis school officials have ordered an inquiry into claims that Superintendent Thandiwe Peebles misused her office by assigning school employees to do personal chores and her college work.
School Board Chairman Joseph Erickson said he asked outside attorney Dennis O’Brien to check the allegations in two detailed letters sent anonymously to school board members last month. “We feel like it’s important and worth investigating,” he said.
The Star Tribune also received copies of the letters. Employees and former employees interviewed by the newspaper corroborated some of the details, plus similar allegations. They described an office in which employees working for Peebles routinely used office computers to pay Peebles’ bills.
They said employees helped Peebles prepare work for the school finance course she completed this spring at the University of Minnesota so she could gain her state superintendent’s license. They said they also handled other personal chores for her, including making grooming and kennel arrangements for Peebles’ Kerry blue terrier, Askari.
Peebles said Wednesday she’s confident that once the investigation concludes, the allegations will be found to lack merit. She said the ongoing investigation prohibits her from commenting on specifics of the allegations, made in letters dated July 7 and 21.
Ex-employee Elaine Kopischke-Trejo and others still on the payroll, who asked not to be named, said staffers were assigned to perform a variety of chores for Peebles’ school finance course. Two employees allegedly collaborated on translating Peebles’ research into a flip chart for a class presentation, using district materials on district time.
They also said they did time-consuming research for a class assignment that involved making financial comparisons between two school districts. “I personally pulled stuff off the Internet. I did research for her,” said Kopischke-Trejo, a longtime district employee who had retired, then came back to work in Peebles’ office until her contract wasn’t renewed this summer. She said duties also involved downloading large amounts of data that came to Peebles for her class. “We printed off reams. I bet we printed off 20 notebooks of stuff,” she said.
Another employee said that some of the information was so lengthy that printing it exceeded the capacity of normal computer printers and tied up a desk computer for most of the day. Budgets have become so tight that schools routinely ask parents to donate reams of copier paper.
One letter asserts that a half-dozen employees assisted Peebles with class work. The other alleges that Peebles’ former executive assistant, Felecia Cooper, spent the “vast majority” of her time handling Peebles’ finances and doing dog errands. Cooper was paid $81,500 annually before she was shifted to a lower-paying job. “Right now, I’m not at liberty to give you a comment,” she said this week.