State Representative Joe Atkins, (D-Inver Grove Heights) is in the hot seat after the Star Tribune reported that all three of his children received college scholarships from the BEST Foundation, a charity arm of the Inver Grove Heights school district where Atkins has been employed as executive director for the last 20 years.
The Star Tribune reports that, “Atkins’ daughter, currently a first-year student at the University of Minnesota, received the $6,000 Praxair Scholarship, sponsored by the industrial gas company and the largest among 124 scholarships awarded by the foundation.” Further the paper discovered that “The Praxair scholarship stipulates that a student should be planning to major in agriculture, biology, civil engineering, chemical engineering, chemistry, environmental engineering or environmental sciences. Atkins’ daughter is at the Carlson School of Business and planning to major in finance or accounting.”
The Pioneer Press reported in December that Atkins received $20,000 in salary in the 2014-2015 fiscal year from the school district. (The Star Tribune reports the salary at $25,000) His health insurance and other benefits were worth an additional $18,000 annually. The foundation reimbursed the school district the entire cost of the benefits. Atkins had been poised to double dip in the public pension pool from the part-time executive director position in addition to his job as state legislator, until the Public Employee Association of Minnesota (PERA) investigated the matter. Earlier this month PERA determined Atkins could no longer contribute to and benefit from the pension plan according to the Minnesota Jobs Coalition, who asked for the investigation.
Atkins is an attorney and is also listed as employee and owner at the firm of Rogosheske-Rogosheske & Atkins according to his economic disclosure form with the Minnesota campaign finance board.
The Star Tribune reported on the conflict of interest involved with holding jobs as both charitable foundation director and state legislator, “Some of the foundation’s donors have business before the Legislature, including before the Commerce Committee, which (Atkins) chaired when the DFL last held the majority in 2014. The Commerce Committee plays an important role in determining the state’s business regulatory policies.”
Atkins told the Star Tribune, “I love doing this job, helping kids go to school,” he said. “I have been bending over backward to keep the politics out of it.”
MPR News looked into the matter back in September, contacting the large companies who were listed as donors to the BEST Foundation, including Delta Airlines, Comcast, Pfizer, AT& T, Flint Hill Resources, Century Link, and Reynolds American. Only one replied to the reporter’s request and since it isn’t illegal for companies to donate to school foundations, no wrongdoing could be determined, despite the unusual arrangement with Atkins serving as executive director. Whether there was any quid pro quo involved with all three of the state rep’s kids getting scholarships is also unknown, although the district told the Star Tribune that the selection process doesn’t reveal students’ identities. They assign numbers to the applicants, rather than using their names, so as not to create bias.
The Inver Grove Heights BEST Foundation administers dozens of scholarships in the community for Simley high school seniors. The net worth of the foundation as of June, 2014 was $1.4 million per their annual report and over $184,000 was handed out in scholarships for the 2014-2015 academic year.
Inver Grove Heights is not a large school district in the state, ranked #52 for enrollment, serving 3,932 students. Alpha News looked at at the 990’s and annual reports of several other metro educational foundations and found the Inver Grove Heights BEST Foundation’s $1,452,581 in assets was significantly higher than that of larger district foundations. Also, most donors to educational scholarship donations were individuals and local companies, rather than large national corporations.
For comparison’s sake, the neighboring district of Eagan, whose community Foundation serves 2,075 students at Eagan High school and other Eagan residents attending Eastview high, will hand out 118 scholarships totaling $127,000 this year and lists assets of $125,210. The Educational Foundation of Bloomington serves a district with 10,382 students enrolled and bestowed $53,500 worth of scholarships in 2015 with listed assets of $305,944. The wealthy west metro Edina school district Education Fund serves 8,570 students and facilitated 28 scholarships totaling $61,900 last year with listed $759.663 in net assets.