Thursday, April 25, 2013

Hickman Mills School Board Embroiled in Controversy

By Paul Thompson

Already mired in a desperate struggle for statewide accreditation, the Hickman Mills C-1 Board of Education slipped further into chaos during a bizarre, specially organized Board of Education meeting last Thursday, April 18.
Board president Breman Anderson engineered the firing of district general counsel Chris Gahagan during the closed portion of the meeting, before bringing a number of controversial votes to the board in open session in a move that seemed to undermine the power of the incoming superintendent Dr. Dennis Carpenter, who was in attendance to view the entire ordeal.
The actions marked a defiant display by Anderson, who board members Eric Lowe and Dan Osman accused of committing several violations of the Sunshine Law during the wild and emotional open session.

Despite those objections, the board voted 4-3 to pass an item to hire Husch Blackwell as the district’s new interim legal counsel in what Osman and Lowe deemed to be a clear sign of premeditated designs to remove Gahagan. Darrell Curls, Byron Townsend, Shawn Kirkwood, and Breman Anderson voted in favor of the decision, while Bonnaye Mims, Eric Lowe, and Dan Osman were opposed.
The open agenda item regarding the interim appointment of Husch Blackwell was listed before the board had even scheduled a closed agenda item about the subject of general counsel. In Osman’s eyes, that indicates that a violation almost assuredly took place.

“To put it on the open agenda basically declares that, number one, you know that the agenda item is going to be to remove our attorney, and that it is going to be approved,” explained Osman of his concerns. “You already know the vote ahead of time will be to remove our attorney, thus necessitating a need for a new general counsel search. The only way that can occur, is if there has been previous discussion on that item.”
Under the Sunshine Law, private meetings of two or more board members outside of open or closed sessions are deemed impermissible. But Lowe and Osman felt that a private conversation of that nature would have been necessary in order to know there would be a need to find new general counsel at the open meeting. At one point during the tense exchange, Osman asked Anderson point blank if there had been prior discussion before adding the general counsel item to the closed agenda at the 11th hour, although Anderson declined to respond to the question.

According to the attorney general of Missouri’s website, the board or members of it can be fined up to $5,000 and any decisions that violate the Sunshine Law can be voided if county courts determine the board or its members purposely violated Sunshine Law.
Lowe maintained his own concerns about how the decision was railroaded through the board, despite members having very little information about the new firm. According to Lowe, the board never discussed what fees the district would pay Husch Blackwell, what matters the firm would represent the district on, or why they were chosen as interim legal counsel over any other firm in the city. Lowe also noted that contracts that may exceed $5,000 are required to go through an RFP (Request for Proposal) process, which had not taken place at the time of the meeting.

“I don’t think it’s proper, I think what’s going on is in violation of the Sunshine Law, and it just shows that this board, that members on this board, continue to not be here to serve the children of this district,” lamented Lowe during the meeting. “They are here for their own personal gain, and personal reasons, and it’s deplorable.”
There were other items brought before the board that failed to pass: a tight 3-3 tie on a vote to censure board member Bonnaye Mims for conduct unbecoming of a board member, and an item to create a new community outreach administration position that didn’t even make it to a formal vote.

Mims was accused by Anderson of hiring the district’s general counsel, Gahagan, for personal use while she was president of the board. He claimed that it was improper of Mims to sign bills and checks to Gahagan while also utilizing him for personal business.

“We don’t know if the attorney was paid, we don’t what took place,” said Anderson. “But we do know that Ms. Mims voted frequently to approve the bills of the said attorney, and did not disclose contact or the contractual relationship, or whatever it is, to the board.”
For her part, Mims never denied the claims, although she was defiant about the acceptability of her actions, and insisted she would do everything in her power to fight any punishment for hiring private legal counsel.

“I take this very serious, and I do intend to have legal counsel representing me,” said Mims. “So I’m trying to find out at this point and juncture, do I bring it back here or do I take it into a courtroom? Where would you like me to go with it?”
Lowe also questioned the sincerity of Anderson’s claims against Mims, stating the he knew of no Board of Education policy restricting access to paid private counsel. Furthermore, Lowe questioned whether Anderson hadn’t committed similar acts during his own time as board president.

“Considering you’ve retained people as legal counsel who sue this district on a regular basis and vote on those settlements regarding said counsel,” Lowe questioned Anderson, “are you going to censure yourself tonight?”
Anderson declined to acknowledge Lowe’s question about censuring himself, even after Lowe repeated himself later in the discussion.

When the item came to vote, Darrell Curls, Byron Townsend, and Breman Anderson voted to censure Mims. Shawn Kirkwood, Eric Lowe, and Dan Osman voted against censuring Mims. When Anderson came to Mims during the voting, he took apparent pleasure in informing her that she wouldn’t be allowed to vote on the issue.
“Ms. Mims?” asked Anderson as the voting order reached the former board president. “Oh yeah, that’s right, you can’t vote on yourself. I’m sorry. Mr. Lowe?”

When the vote ultimately reached a tie, it was tabled for a later session, and Mims narrowly avoided being censured by her colleagues.
The last discussion of the evening regarded the potential creation, at the behest of board president Anderson, of a new Community Outreach administrative position. The discussion about the position proceeded against the advice of incoming superintendent Carpenter. At one point during the open session, Carpenter raised his hand to make an audience comment and stated that the board’s interest in creating a community outreach position was “concerning” to him.

“I will tell you that it is perplexing to me to see the Board of Education recommend employment for a position,” Carpenter said to the board. “I’ve never seen that before, and I’ve never seen that be best practice. And it is somewhat concerning to me as your incoming superintendent.”
Although a motion was made regarding the possible community outreach position by board member Byron Townsend, it wasn’t seconded and never made it to vote. Instead, board member Darrell Curls suggested conferring more with Carpenter before bringing the issue to vote at a later date. Townsend withdrew his motion, and the issue was tabled until a future meeting.

At one point during discussion, Osman turned and asked a direct question of acting superintendent Barbara Tate. Osman questioned whether the creation of a new administrative position concentrating on community outreach was a recommendation that originated from her administration. While the email notifying the board of the inclusion of the community outreach agenda item did come from Tate, she stated that its inclusion came at the behest of Anderson.
“Let me just speak to this piece. As all of you know, all of you got an email from me, yesterday I believe,” began Tate in a diplomatic tone. “Mr. Anderson requested the agenda to be changed for this evening. I sent that email to you, okay? So that’s how the items are there. So that is not a piece that I put on the agenda, no.”

Anderson displayed a stony resilience to pointed inquiries throughout the open meeting, ignoring direct questions and pushing for quick votes on the various agenda items. Anderson interrupted meeting attendee Teresa Edens during her audience comments, and implored her to sit down despite the objections of board members.
Edens had begun criticizing Anderson during her comment.

“I just find it very amusing the way you ask for comments, and people ask questions, and then they’re totally ignored,” Edens started, before being interrupted by Anderson.

“Thank you for coming out,” replied a terse Anderson. “You do not attack the board, you know better than that. Have a seat.”
After that fiery exchange with Edens, Anderson later discussed the need for the board “to look at how we interact with the community” during his introduction to the agenda item labeled simply as ‘Community Outreach’.

Mims couldn’t help herself from speaking up as she pointed out the irony in Anderson’s words.

“Isn’t that the community?” wondered an incredulous Mims, gesturing to the recently shouted-down Edens.
Lowe said after the meeting that he found Anderson’s treatment of Edens, as well as of the rest of the Board of Education, to be offensive in nature.

“I felt offended in the way I was addressed by the president on numerous occasions, and I also felt offended by the way the members of the community were treated,” said Lowe. “We serve them, and we serve their children. If we’re not respecting them, we’re not respecting their children.”

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