By Paul Thompson
Last week, an investigative report published in The Pitch linked some audit revelations to Kansas City political group Freedom, Inc., an organization committed to elevating African-American candidates to political office. The article alleged that the organization wielded unusual influence over the C-1 Board of Education, and highlighted examples during the tenure of former board president Breman Anderson, Jr. On Monday, March 3, the history and vision of Freedom, Inc. could be found online at their website, freedominckc.org. By the morning of Tuesday, March 4, the site was shut down, leaving behind only a message that the domain name had expired.
For his part, Anderson has downplayed both his involvement with the organization and its influence on board activities.
"That’s up to speculation. There are a multitude of political organizations that are involved in the district," said Anderson of Freedom, Inc.’s influence over the Hickman Mills district. "I haven’t even paid any dues to that organization this year. That is just one of about seven or eight organizations that I am affiliated with."
Fellow board member Darrell Curls, whose father was a founding member of Freedom, Inc., was up front about his affiliation with the political group. But he told the Advocate that he didn’t feel the group exerted undue influence over the district.
"To my knowledge, I don’t think they have that much influence," said Curls. "There are members of the board that are members. I’m a member. My last name has been synonymous with Freedom, Inc. ever since it was organized."
Nonetheless, Freedom, Inc. connected lawyer Clinton Adams offered his assessment of the audit and the state of the Hickman Mills district when reached for comment late last week.
"Academic achievement in the Hickman Mills school district declined continuously for the past 12 years under the leadership of Marge Williams and Bonnaye Mims," said Adams. "As I recall the district even lost its full accreditation, and children have suffered from an inferior education."
Anderson and Curls offered a similar timeline for the worst infractions within the district.
"There was a time where board members were kept out of the loop," said Anderson. "It took about 11 or 12 years of decline to get to where we are."
"Under previous administrations, there were some things that were not shared to the board," added Curls. "I just don’t think that the previous administration was as totally upfront and honest with us as they could have been."
Board members contend that the issues in the district exacerbated once Anderson took over the board presidency in 2012. At issue was Anderson’s penchant for recommending no-bid contracts to Freedom-affiliated businesses, mismanagement of district resources, the difficulty other board members had in obtaining district records, and Anderson's close relationship with Clinton Adams, among other questions.
Anderson and Adams attempted to ensure a majority on the C-1 Board of Education with the 2013 election, and Anderson offered to endorse candidate Debbie Aiman if she would agree to support his endeavors as board president, sight unseen.
"I was on the board for three years, and you know that I will not support anything sight unseen," said Aiman in explaining a conversation between her, Anderson, and Adams. After Aiman refused, she never heard from Anderson and Adams again about the election. "They said, ‘We’ll meet with our group, and we’ll get back to you.’ They never got back with me."
Although she suspected as much, Aiman noted that Anderson and Adams never said outright that they were operating on behalf of Freedom, Inc. During that election cycle, Freedom, Inc. supported eventual winners Shawn Kirkwood and Byron Townsend. Meanwhile, an anonymous attack mailer sent out in the days before the election blasted Aiman and fellow candidate George Flesher. Both Kirkwood and Townsend told the Advocate at the time that they had no involvement with the mailer.
Board member (and former board president) Bonnaye Mims is so concerned about Anderson, and his relationship to Clinton Adams, that she offered a public apology for her own past affiliation with them.
"He’s behind the scenes, so his hands aren’t getting dirty," said Mims of Adams. "He’s letting Breman carry his water, but he hasn’t been able to execute what Clinton wanted."
"I am so sorry. When he first came to me and was running for school board, I thought he was sincere," Mims said of Anderson. "That’s why I helped him get elected. I’m so sorry that Breman even was brought to me."
Some board members also questioned Anderson’s actions surrounding the no-bid hiring of Gallagher Benefit Services to conduct the district’s 2012 national superintendent search. Multiple board members told the Advocate that they voted to pay a $30,000 flat rate to Gallagher in exchange for conducting the superintendent search. That fee was later altered to be contingent on the incoming superintendent’s salary. Ultimately, the district paid $36,490 to Gallagher, or roughly 20% of the new superintendent’s salary.
The $30,000 fee had already seemed high to some board members, especially when the Missouri School Boards Association (MSBA) could have done the search for roughly half the rate. But further issues emerged from there. The job listings were not as prevalent as anticipated, and the search yielded less than a dozen candidates.
"Almost none of the candidates we saw had any superintendent experience," said board member Eric Lowe. "I did question whether we had a legitimate crop of people."
At the time, Lowe considered holding up the interview process in order to get more candidates. But he decided to proceed with the interview, and was pleasantly surprised with one candidate: new Hickman Mills C-1 Superintendent Dr. Dennis Carpenter.
Carpenter has ultimately proved to be very popular among the community and the board, despite the questions that surrounded the search process. The successful outcome has allowed Anderson to stand behind the process that led Carpenter to the district.
"With regards to what took place during my tenure, I accept full responsibility," said Anderson. "Yes, we hired a search firm. I was comfortable with the search and the outcome."
Clinton Adams has also stepped forward publicly with support for Superintendent Carpenter.
"It’s important the entire community supports the new superintendent, Dr. Dennis Carpenter, in his effort to regain accreditation, so our students don’t continue to suffer," he said.
On April 8, three spots will up for election on the Hickman Mills School Board. Ten candidates filed for the election, including incumbents Dan Osman, Bonnaye Mims, and Breman Anderson, Jr. The South Kansas City Alliance will hold a public forum for all ten candidates on March 10 at the Baptiste Educational Center, from 6:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.