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Board takes two closed-session votes, Ricker tells Call in 'amended response'

After informing the Call in a fax that no closed-session votes were taken April 27 by the Mehlville Board of Education, Superintendent Tim Ricker faxed an "amended response'' to the Call May 3 stating two votes, in fact, had been taken.

This is not the first time Ricker has been in error about votes taken by the board in closed session. The superintendent previously faxed incorrect information to the Call regarding a vote taken by board members during a Dec. 15 closed session.

On March 9, Ricker verbally informed the Call that no votes had been taken by the board in a closed session earlier that evening. On March 10, Ricker sent a fax to the newspaper stating, "I was mistaken in our conversation last night at the conclusion of the Board of Education meeting.''

In fact, Ricker wrote, a vote had been taken March 9 by the board in closed session.

Regarding the April 27 closed session, after informing the Call that no closed-session votes were taken, Ricker on May 3 faxed an "amended response'' to the Call reporting that board members unanimously voted to extend the contracts of various department directors for the 2004-2005 school year. One of those directors was Patrick Wallace, the district's school/community relations director.

Karl Frank Jr., an unsuccessful candidate in April's school board elections, alleged during a recent board meeting that Wallace had campaigned on the behalf of incumbent Rita Diekemper and Tom Correnti, both of whom were elected.

Frank further asserted that Correnti and Diekemper should avoid participating in any votes involving Wallace's employment with the district, contending that doing so could be perceived as a conflict of interest.

Under the state's Open Meetings and Open Records law, also called the Sunshine Law, governmental bodies are required to take roll-call votes during closed sessions on the following:

• Legal actions or settlement agreements.

• Real estate purchases, sale of property or leases.

• Hiring, firing or disciplining of employees.

Under the Sunshine Law, votes on personnel matters must be made available within 72 hours of a closed session.

This newspaper sent a letter requesting such information to Ricker at 4:30 p.m. preceding the board's evening April 27 closed session.

Ricker's written response to this newspaper, dated April 28, indicated that "no roll-call votes were taken" April 27. However, Ricker sent a different response on the afternoon of May 3 that states votes regarding the employment of classified and certified directors and assistant directors were taken — extending those contracts for the 2004-2005 school year.

"Please find below an amended response to your April 28, 2004, request for information," Ricker stated in a letter faxed to the Call at 2:55 p.m. May 3.

The fax stated that a motion made by board member Bill Schornheuser and seconded by Secretary Marea Kluth-Hoppe to extend the contracts of four reorganized certified director positions for the 2004-2005 school year was unanimously approved.

Those directors are: Joni Wilson, director of communication arts, social studies and foreign language; Aurelia Hartenberger, director of fine arts, practical arts and health/physical education; Ed Willis, director of activities; and Mike Salsman, director of community education.

Ricker reported in his fax that the board voted unanimously to extend the contracts of the following classified directors and assistant directors for the 2004-2005 school year:

• Rob Ackerman, assistant director of custodians.

• Brent Bell, director of accounting.

• Suzanne Hallemann, director of health services.

• Keith Henry, director of transportation.

• Steven Lee, director of information technology services.

• Richard Platz, director of facilities and custodians.

• Cynthia Reese, director of school food/nutrition services

• Patrick Wallace, director of school/community relations.

• Diane Wedel, assistant director of transportation.

Board member Mike Heins' motion to extend the contracts was seconded by Vice President Matthew Chellis.

Contacted by the Call, Ricker declined to comment, referring all inquiries to Wallace.

Both Diekemper and Correnti declined to comment when contacted by the Call.

Wallace told the Call he was not aware that board members had approved a one-year extension for his contract until contacted by this newspaper.

Asked if he believed Correnti's and Diekemper's participation in the vote to extend his contract posed a conflict of interest, Wallace told the Call, "First and foremost, it has never been established ... That was an accusation that was made ... I have never publicly said if I did or did not campaign for either of those candidates.

"Do I think it's improper? No. I think the Board of Education makes the decisions they make based on what is best for the school district. Absolutely not, I don't see any conflict of interest with Rita or Tom voting on whether I should or should not be employed by the Mehlville School District."

Regarding accusations previously made concerning his ethics, "I would point you to one of the board policies, DCB," Wallace said. "I think that will explain a lot to you about what is right and what is not right."

Policy DCB states, "The Board of Education recognizes that employees of the district have the same fundamental civic responsibilities and privileges as other citizens. Among these are campaigning for elective public office and holding an elective or appointed public office."

Frank contended in an April 13 board meeting that since Wallace is the district's public relations officer and editor of the Mehlville Messenger — a quarterly publication distributed and funded by the school district — that "working the polls constitutes a conflict of interest on his part."

Frank then referred to the National School Public Relations Association's code of ethics, which states, "The education public relations professional shall be aware of personal influence, avoid unauthorized use of organizational facilities, resources or professional services for personal gain or for promotion of the candidacy of aspirants to elected offices, forego derogatory acts or utterances against other professionals."

Board member Bill Schornheuser told the Call he did not believe Correnti's or Diekemper's participation in the vote or Wallace's actions were a conflict of interest.

"I don't believe it is a conflict of interest," Schornheuser said. "I think myself and Patrick and everybody still has their own rights ... From my viewpoint, if Patrick stood there and introduced himself as a director of the district ... and things like that, I would see that as a conflict of interest. It is my understanding that Patrick basically handed out information. It's true people may have known who he is. Everyone has rights to do that ... As long as he was not wearing his name tag or trying to pass himself off as doing something for the district, I don't think it's a conflict."

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