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The Hickman Mills school board is in chaos after a failed appointment and a walkout. What now?

A square box lies in the foreground. On one side, it reads "Hickman Mills C-1 Schools." A large brick building with a glass front reads "Administration Center" behind it. There are several cars parked in the parking lot in the foreground.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
The Hickman Mills Board of Education will meet on Monday evening at the district's administrative center for a special meeting to seat new board members.

The Hickman Mills School Board says it's renewing its efforts to work together after contentious meetings amid a decade-long battle to regain accreditation.

The Hickman Mills Board of Education will meet on Monday evening to seat newly elected board members after a contentious meeting last week ended with one director walking out.

The board president had to call repeatedly for order during the meeting as members disagreed over when a newly elected director could be seated, who should be appointed to fill board vacancies and whether board members were following policy.

The turmoil comes amid a nearly decade-long struggle for the Hickman Mills School District to regain full accreditation and ongoing dysfunction on its board of education.

Board directors attempted for a second time to appoint Clifford Ragan III, who failed to win his race for a seat on the board earlier this month, to fill a vacancy. As The Kansas City Star reported, board president Carol Graves tried to appoint Ragan to the seat earlier this month without putting out a public notice.

The move led board member Beth Boerger to walk out.

“You're trying to waive policy again to follow the normal processes to appoint someone to the board,” Boerger said.

The majority of the audience and newly elected member Brandon Wright followed Boerger out. Board members were not seated as planned because the board no longer had a quorum.

Graves told the audience a walkout was unprecedented.

“I'm very concerned about just what happened,” she said “It's never happened in the eight years I've been here.”

The board is calling a special meeting Monday to seat the new members.

The board said in a statement that it will address the vacancy after receiving feedback from community members, families and stakeholders.

The board said it is moving forward after these events with a new plan to demonstrate that it “is unified and dedicated to student success” — including the announcement of co-presidents to lead the board.

“I’m proud to see that the board as a whole and each individual has put aside their individual desires and have agreed on a plan that will allow us to implement the (Comprehensive Strategic Improvement Plan), gain full accreditation, and work towards the future we want,” said Superintendent Yaw Obeng in a statement.

Members of the Hickman Mills School District’s teachers union showed up at last week’s meeting. Jessica Swete, a third grade teacher at Ervin Elementary School and the union's president, said in a statement that the union urges the school board “to follow all policies, procedures, regulations, and Missouri statues (sic) which pertain to public education.”

“It is our expectation that the board of directors finds a way to work together for the betterment of our students,” Swete said.

Division on board “cost the community"

The school board has long faced scrutiny over how it operates and spends its money. Last year, the Star reported the Missouri attorney general’s office was investigating a complaint that school board members were misspending taxpayer money.

A divided school board could have broader ramifications for the district, which was provisionally accredited in 2014. The Missouri Department of Education considers district leadership as a factor when determining if a school district should be accredited.

Board member Byron Townsend said in a candidate town hall that the complaint — which named him — created more division.

“It cost the community with (the state education agency) and it cost the district several thousand dollars to defend it,” Townsend said. “As it turned out, the spending was from the superintendent and all you had to do was actually just look through the paperwork and talk to a few people.”

Townsend followed up with KCUR after publication to clarify that the superintendent has discretionary spending up to $50,000 — and since the amount budgeted was below that threshold, he approved the expense in his role as board president at the time. He said that is allowable in the board’s policies.

When Kansas City Public Schools regained full accreditation in early 2022, the department cited its “consistency of district leadership.” Former Superintendent Mark Bedell was credited with transforming the struggling district in his six years at the helm.

Obeng has led the Hickman Mills School District since June 2020, making him the district’s third superintendent in a five year period. Obeng said the district has been making progress since he started on academic achievement and graduation rates.

However, the state's most recent performance data shows the school district is still falling under the benchmark for full accreditation. The new, more stringent evaluation system saw more than 100 districts rank in the provisionally accredited or unaccredited score range. Hickman Mills scored in the middle of the range for provisional accreditation.

School districts have two school years to pull scores up. The state won’t use these results to change accreditation status until the school year that ends in 2024.

The Hickman Mills School District serves a part of Kansas Citywith high levels of poverty and disinvestment. More than 36% of children living in the school district live under the poverty line, which is about 1.5 times the average rate in Missouri.

Obeng said disinvestment within district boundaries and shifting populations across the Kansas City area have contributed to the school district’s declining enrollment. The school district served 4,758 students this year, a 15% drop from its population five years ago.

The district’s financial picture has improved after it closed two schools and passed a tax levy bond that allowed a significant boost to teacher pay. Obeng told KCUR the district has moved from closing schools into a period of revitalization as it demolishes old buildings it had previously closed and rebuilds them.

“In southern Kansas City, we often feel like we're the third stepchild to Kansas City,” Obeng said. “But we want people to know that some exciting things are happening here, and we're doing things to stimulate the growth in our community and in our students.”

Updated: April 28, 2023 at 11:32 AM CDT
More than ever, education lies at the intersection of equity, housing, funding, and other diverse issues facing Kansas City’s students, families and teachers. As KCUR’s education reporter, I’ll break down the policies driving these issues in schools and report what’s happening in our region's classrooms. You can reach me at jodifortino@kcur.org.
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