Missouri's top watchdog will take closer look at questionable Hickman Mills school contract

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Missouri’s top watchdog will take a closer look at a questionable contract for a Hickman Mills school renovation project, uncovered by a 41 Action News investigation.

A spokesman for State Auditor Tom Schweich said the Hickman Mills project will be reviewed during a follow-up visit to the district next month.

The July 8 investigation scrutinized the process surrounding a multi-million dollar effort to revive a mothballed Ervin Middle School building into an early childhood learning center.

The 41 Action News report discovered a consultant’s company won a $4.2 million contract, even “highly-recommending” the deal, despite working out of the very same office space.

Critics called it a “grotesque conflict of interest,” but district leaders said they were unaware of the close relationship between the business entities. Company owners also denied an unfair advantage with the process.

41 Action News also reported the entire renovation project is already running behind schedule and $2 million over its original $7.5 million budget.

In March, Schweich released a highly-critical audit of the Hickman Mills district, citing thousands of dollars on unnecessary travel and frivolous expenses.

The audit also said the board lacked oversight, held illegal meetings and sometimes failed to seek bids and obtain written contracts.

The issues detailed in the March audit occurred during a previous district administration. Many of the elected board members are also no longer serving in those positions.

Newly-hired Superintendent Dennis Carpenter accepted many of the audit’s findings and had already made many of the recommended changes when it was published.

As part of the oversight process, the auditor’s staff typically returns for a follow-up visit to see how recommendations are being implemented, spokesman Spence Jackson told 41 Action News.

Jackson said the auditor’s staff will specifically look at the alleged conflict of interest from the Ervin renovation project.

The original audit had described a conflict of interest with the firm hired to perform a superintendent search. That firm was involved in contract negotiations, even though its fee was contingent on the starting salary.

As a result, the audit said the firm received a much higher payment than the typical superintendent search process.

Carpenter has not commented on the details of the 41 Action News investigation. Board members have also stayed silent.

The first phase of the Ervin renovation project is expected to be complete by the time students arrive in late August. The remainder of the construction work will be finished while school is in session.

Ryan Kath can be reached at ryan.kath@kshb.com. You can also follow him on Twitter or connect on Facebook.

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