Watch who’s watching your school district

03/10/2014 9:57 PM

03/10/2014 9:57 PM

A nasty school board race had people in the Hickman Mills School District riled up last spring.

A few of them phoned me. Things are bad, they said. Come see for yourself.

I attended the April board meeting. My tipsters were right. I have sat through many raucous school board sessions in my day, including some near slugfests when the Kansas City district was at its most dysfunctional. But the meeting that spring night in Hickman Mills beat all.

Board president Breman Anderson, who was re-elected by the new board on a 4-3 vote, tried unsuccessfully to get other board members to censure (or “censor,” as Anderson kept saying) one of his political rivals on the board.

He rudely silenced a citizen who rose to speak during the public comment period. “We’re heard enough from you. Sit down,” he said.

With unintentionally hilarious timing, Anderson next attempted to create a patronage position for a “community outreach” director. Some people thought the district needed to do a better job communicating with patrons, he noted.

Dennis Carpenter, who had just accepted an offer to become the next superintendent, watched from the audience. I figured he’d be taking the midnight train back to Georgia, where he’d last worked.

How on earth, I wondered, did Breman Anderson get to be president of this school board?

The answer is that the wrong people had been paying attention to Hickman Mills.

It’s no secret the local press corps is spread thin. We don’t cover some school districts and local governments as closely as we used to. Also, the Hickman Mills area has lost much of its middle-income base over the past couple of decades, and with it some of its more active citizens.

By last April, the district had slipped to provisional state accreditation because of poor academic performance. And a report released this week by Missouri Auditor Tom Schweich showed an alarming slip in sound business policies and procedures.

Unfortunately, poorly run school districts interest lawyer Clinton Adams, well known for his interference in Kansas City Public Schools. When Anderson was re-elected as board president, Adams was his personal lawyer, and he had represented several district employees.

Schweich’s audit flagged a $2,000 payment to the Urban Summit of Greater Kansas City, a group in which Adams has had a leadership role. Parties affiliated with Freedom Inc., the black political club, received no-bid district contracts.

A mysterious group sent out attack mailings before last spring’s election with false accusations about two candidates. The attacks helped elect two newcomers, Shawn Kirkwood and Byron Townsend. Both backed Anderson’s bid for president.

“Breman reached out,” Kirkwood told me this week. “I learned fairly quickly that he had a personal agenda.”

It took one board meeting, in fact. Kirkwood was disturbed by the bizarre April meeting and the ensuing press accounts. The next month he joined with Eric Lowe, Dan Osman and Bonnaye Mims to oust Anderson as board president and replace him with Lowe.

“I just thought I was a parent coming on the school board,” Kirkwood said. “If I ever run again I guess I’ll check the background of whoever wants to endorse me.”

Things got better quickly after that. Carpenter stayed and took charge of a rattled administration. Lowe provides capable and straightforward board leadership. For the first time in years, Hickman Mills seems to be on an even keel.

Some people worry about the election coming up in April. Ten people, including Anderson, are running for three open seats. It wouldn’t take much to tip the school board’s delicate balance.

But history isn’t likely to repeat itself in Hickman Mills. Because this time, we’ll all be watching.

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