A week ago, the Davenport School Board closed on the sale of Lincoln School to a non-profit affiliated with Third Missionary Baptist Church.
The sale, for $30,000, has ignited a controversy, not least because a local developer, Dan Dolan, offered 10 times that for a project that included veterans housing.
We have been on record opposing the sale. We don't believe money is the only factor to consider in situations like these. But we also believe the gap between the two offers, even with the conditions attached to Dolan's plan, was too much for a public body that has financial problems.
Still, the sale has been completed and we hope the Davenport church is successful. This part of the city could certainly use the services that the non-profit, Together Making a Better Community, has in mind.
At the same time, we believe this episode leaves a trail of questionable behavior by some Davenport School Board members, as demonstrated by the recordings from the closed session meetings, which were released last week.
For several weeks, we have waited for release of the tapes. There was a lot we didn’t know about the discussions leading up to the sale, including the role played by Linda Hayes, a secretary at the church who also is vice-chair of the school board.
Hayes told us recently that she consulted lawyers on the matter and did nothing wrong.
We disagree. Hayes didn’t vote on the sale, but she did take part in the discussion behind closed doors. As we listened to several of the recordings, we did not find her to be pounding the table, pushing the board toward her employer. At one point, she seemed to be sympathetic to a competitor. But there was a moment, in April, when she questioned why other offers, including from her employer, weren't on the table. Later, it was. And, at a meeting in June, when board members debated the offers, Hayes made comments favorable to the church's approach.
As we know, the sale to the church was approved.
The vote was 4-2-1, with Hayes abstaining. But abstaining from the vote wasn't enough. It was bad judgment to even take part in the discussions.
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Public officials ought to go to great lengths to assure their constituents they are acting only in the public’s best interests. That means, even at a whiff of doubt, they should walk out of the room.
A conflict of interest isn’t always easy to discern. There’s no manual that lists every potential conflict with handy "allowable" and "not allowable" columns.
In the newspaper business, there’s an old saying: "When in doubt, leave it out." We think that sentiment applies here as well.
Of course, the recordings revealed other bewildering behavior, too. Board President Ralph Johanson piped up at one meeting, saying he had been thinking about buying the building himself. Johanson, who did not seek re-election this year, never made a formal offer, but as we listened to the recording he seemed serious about his interest. He did acknowledge making such an offer would create a conflict — but we wonder why he ever entertained the idea in the first place.
It probably should go without saying, but in the future if other board members are thinking in this direction — well, don’t.
The recordings were released just days before Tuesday's election, and the two directors on the ballot who voted for the sale, Hayes and Dan Gosa, were both re-elected. However, we would note that two newcomers, Karen Kline-Jerome and Kent Paustian, also were elected and with notably higher vote totals. It’s always hard to tell what drives election results, but we have no doubt the Lincoln issue had an impact.
The disposition of an old school building might not rise to the top of the agenda of things that should concern the school board. Fixing the district’s financial situation, restoring trust in the special education program, dealing with declining enrollment, ensuring a safe environment for kids and staff – and as always, pursuing higher student achievement – are surely bigger concerns.
However, retaining the confidence of the public is a big deal, too. We hope that as school board members have heard from the public about the Lincoln sale, they will reflect on this experience.
It doesn’t take much to lose the public's confidence. And, once it’s lost, it’s hard to recover.