Questions raised over lease handed to school board member

EXCELSIOR SPRINGS, Mo. - The 41 Action News Investigators uncover the Excelsior Springs School District handed a lease worth more than $90,000 to a company owned by one of its own school board members. It's also not the first time the Excelsior Springs School District has been embroiled in conflict of interest allegations.

The Excelsior Springs School board wants to use an empty store front at 1000 North Jesse James Road to house an alternative program for troubled high school students. The district aimed to open the program by January 2014.

The building is part-owned by Excelsior Springs School Board Member Matt Hartwig.

He and his brothers own Triple H Leasing, LLC. The company submitted a proposal to the board to lease the building to the district for three years for $32,000 per year.

Matt Hartwig's signature is the first of two signatures on the proposal; the other signature is of relative Scott Hartwig.

During its October 14th meeting, the school board approved starting the alternative program. It also approved accepting Triple H Leasing's offer. The district received one other proposal which was $1,000 a month more expensive. The district did not publicize the need for a lease nor did it put the lease out for a public bid.

The move alarmed some community members like Ken Fousek.

"What bidding procedure are you using to lease the building?" Fousek asked. "It seems there was a little bit of self-interest with a member of the school board being one of the bidders."

The 41 Action News Investigators made open records requests and started asking the district questions about the deal on November 5th.  The next day, on November 6th, Hartwig submitted an email to District Superintendent Dr. Lacy which stated:

It has come to my attention, but members of the community that there could be a perception of conflict of interest in the District leasing a building I have one-third ownership in to house the Tiger Path project. While I am aware or (sic) the Board Policies that allow such a transaction to take place, and that you followed all of those policies in obtaining our proposal. I think it would be best if I removed our building from consideration. I apologize for any inconvenience this may cause the project and hope you will be able to locate another suitable site.

The 41 Action News investigators made repeated attempts to interview Hartwig and Dr. Lacy about the deal. Lacy told us by email, "There will be no on camera interview. You are not a mediator."

So, reporter Melissa Yeager attended the school board meeting to ask questions on behalf of taxpayers to find out more about how their money is being spent.

During public comment, Yeager read aloud the section of Missouri State law pertaining to board members doing business with their respective political entities.

Missouri state law statute 105.458 section 2 states that no member:

Sell, rent or lease any property to the political subdivision or any agency of the political subdivision for consideration in excess of five hundred dollars per transaction or five thousand dollars per annum, or in the case of a school board five thousand dollars per annum, unless the transaction is made pursuant to an award on a contract let or a sale made after public notice and in the case of property other than real property, competitive bidding, provided that the bid or offer accepted is the lowest received;

Despite repeatedly seeing board members and Dr. Lacy whispering to the side, no one on the board answered questions about why they approved such a measure and whether they plan to change board policies to better reflect Missouri state law.

However, Hartwig's relative Scott did speak up.

"They didn't have to, contrary to what the lady mentioned….they followed policy. They didn't have to have a competitive bid," Scott Hartwig argued.

Hartwig re-submitted the deal to the board on behalf of Triple H Leasing, LLC. He told the board he hoped they would still consider the property as a spot for the Tiger Path facility.

"We (the Hartwig family members who own Triple H) all agree we would like to retract that letter and basically have consideration for the property that was proposed and approved last month," Scott Hartwig said referring to the email his brother Matt sent rescinding the deal.

The only discussion of the item came from whispers between Dr. Lacy and board president Tray Harkins that were not audible to the public.

Harkins then moved to table Hartwig's email rescinding the proposal.

The board voted 4 to 1 in favor of tabling the measure and by doing so, move forward with the lease.

It's not the first time the Excelsior Springs School District has been embroiled in allegations of conflict of interest.

Fousek and Excelsior Springs resident Rick Moore raised questions last year about whether a contract for Astroturf at the district's Miracle Field benefited the son of a staff member.

The Excelsior Springs school district hired an attorney to conduct an investigation.

The district disclosed in January 2013 that it had spent more than 35 thousand dollars on that investigation. The district claimed in a press release it cleared employees of the district from any wrongdoing.

After reviewing a copy of the investigation, the 41 Action News investigators were not permitted to ask any follow up questions about the methodology of the investigation.

You can read a copy of the report here: http://bit.ly/1bvMF8A

Meanwhile, the staff member at the center of Fousek and Moore's allegations filed a civil lawsuit against the two. 

Fousek told 41 Action News he continues to be frustrated with the lack of transparency by the district about how they use taxpayer money.

"It doesn't have to be an adversarial relationship that you need a lawyer, that you need a researcher and you need a detective and you have to do your own research on the internet to find some simple answers," said Fousek regarding his struggle to get answers from the district.

By email, Dr. Lacy quote two Excelsior Springs School Board Policies which he said allowed him to select a property without going through the bidding process.

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