It shouldn’t take a court ruling to get the rightful, qualified winner installed on a school board.
And voters should be fully aware if a candidate hasn’t paid his or her property taxes for years — before the election, not after. This is the mess that has been dragging down the Hickman Mills School District for months.
A court ruling Oct. 14 put the next steps in motion. On Thursday, Evelyn Hildebrand will be sworn in to take her seat on the board. It’s a seat that she won by eight votes in last April’s election. School board president Shawn C. Kirkwood resigned Wednesday, effective immediately. Kirkwood lost in April. But the district swore him in anyway when the question of Hildebrand’s unpaid personal property taxes was considered.
“I didn’t want to drag this thing out anymore,” Kirkwood said Wednesday. “I wanted to go out with integrity.”
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In his short resignation letter, he also points out what should be painfully obvious: “A board, in a well-functioning organization, should not be the news, yet they should be the backbone that supports the work that will eventually produce the news.”
A bit of perspective to frame this situation. Hickman Mills, in south Kansas City, is provisionally accredited. It is also soon to be the beneficiary of heightened cash flow and attention through the Cerner Corp.’s new $4.45 billion Innovation Campus. The last thing the district needs right now is an acrimonious board, swirling questions and community angst about who deserves a position on the school board.
Yet one of the questions that Judge James Kanatzar’s ruling left open-ended is whose job it was to advise the school district that a candidate hadn’t paid taxes. Hildebrand asked for a judgment on the question of her candidacy in June. Hildebrand received 1,827 votes, Kirkwood got 1,819 and Byron Townsend received the most, 2,330. The top two vote-getters were to join the board.
Kanatzar ordered the board secretary to issue Hildebrand a certificate for the election’s outcome for the board position. It will be the first issue taken up in Thursday’s session. But he also ruled against Hildebrand’s other request, to nullify Kirkwood’s oath that he took in April, when he was sworn in along with Townsend. Kirkwood resigned instead of challenging.
Citing a Missouri statute, Kanatzar said the law does not require the person entitled to a certification of election to be qualified to hold such office prior to being issued a certificate of election. Hildebrand said she has now paid the taxes, more than $5,000 for a 2001 Toyota Camry that she no longer owns.
According to Kanatzar’s ruling, the Department of Revenue sent Hildebrand a letter dated Feb. 5, noting that she had not filed an affidavit required for her filing for the board seat. It also noted that because she was delinquent on personal property taxes, failing to remit in full could possibly result in her disqualification from the current or future election cycle. A second letter was sent dated March 10, notifying her that she remained delinquent. The Kansas City Board of Election Commissioners also received copies of both letters.
The ruling also notes that copies of the letters were not sent to the Jackson County Board of Election Commissioners, nor the Hickman Mills district.
A complaint about Hildebrand’s unpaid taxes was filed by a member of the community. And it appears that the Department of Revenue failed to let the school district know. The school district’s attorney, Chris Gahagan, said Hickman Mills could have addressed the issue of Hildebrand’s eligibility prior to the election, including whether her name should have remained on the ballot had they known.
Hildebrand will now also have a vote in filling an open seat of the board. Dan Osman resigned the seat in September. Osman had moved into Kansas but wanted to remain on the board. The south Kansas City community rightfully backlashed at the suggestion, prompting his resignation.
This legal squabble only takes the focus away from serving the children of Hickman Mills. That’s the shame here. It’s behind-the-scenes jostling that takes time and attention away from forming a cohesive board with its sole focus being the quality of education that children receive. And the children of Hickman Mills need and deserve the loyalty of a strong board.