Conflicts of Interest? CAPSTJOE Treasurer Williams and Executive Director Lanning both on school board that contracts with their organization

(The Lion) — Two St. Joseph, Missouri school board members also work for an organization awarded a contract by the school district, one of many possible conflicts of interest within the power of the state attorney general to investigate.

LaTonya Williams and Whitney Lanning are members of the St. Joseph School District (SJSD) Board of Education. Williams, reelected to the school board on Tuesday, is also the board treasurer at Community Action Partnership of Greater St. Joseph (CAPSTJOE), which has employed Lanning as Executive Director since 2016. The two have been vocal supporters of each other’s school board election campaigns.

In 2022, Lanning earned nearly $110,000 at the nonprofit, according to the organization’s public tax filings.

That same year, SJSD approved a contract to allow CAPSTJOE rent-free use of district property to run its Head Start programming. The contract is good through June 30, 2025.

CAPSTJOE is mostly funded by federal grants distributed to agencies throughout the Community Action Network. The St. Joseph nonprofit’s 2022 annual report shows an operating budget of nearly $10 million.

Williams was the school board member who made the motion to approve the contract with Lanning’s organization, a motion that passed unanimously during a June 27, 2022 SJSD board meeting, according to meeting minutes available online. Lanning wasn’t elected to the school board until the following year, but she was one of the signatories of the agreement in her capacity as CAPSTJOE executive director.

Williams’ support for the contract appears to coincide with her becoming a board member at CAPSTJOE, according to archives of the organization’s website.

Archives as late as May 2022 of the “about us” page do not list Williams as a board member, but the August 2022 archive does, suggesting Williams became a CAPSTJOE board member either just before or just after approving the contract with the organization.

The Lion asked Williams by email and phone when exactly she became a board member at CAPSTJOE, as well as whether she has ever abstained from voting on either board in a matter that might be a conflict of interest, but received no reply. The Lion also called CAPSTJOE seeking the same information, but a person who answered declined to comment.

Williams’ relationship with Lanning at CAPSTJOE may explain why Williams, in her capacity as school board president, has been unwilling to publicly condemn Lanning, who is facing charges of harassing a fellow school board member. Video published online shows Lanning following board member Isaura Garcia through the halls of a district building after a board meeting, allegedly shouting profanities and threatening physical harm.

Board member David Foster, who is seen in the video shielding Garcia from Lanning’s threatening advances, and board member Kim Miller condemned Lanning’s actions in statements to the local paper.

Williams, however, had little to say about Lanning’s behavior, according to local KQ2, calling it an “incident.”

“The Board is aware of an incident arising from a disagreement among two board members occurring at the board meeting held on February 26, 2024,” Williams said in a statement.

Williams was also asked about board civility in a recent school board candidate forum, but in her response, she only praised the current board.

“I believe that every member of my board is a leader,” Williams said. “If that were not the case, then we would not have ended up in our positions.”

And when the school board considered a motion from Miller Wednesday to censure Lanning for the alleged harassment, Williams was the only no vote. The motion passed 3-1-1, with Lanning abstaining.

Lanning, whose first court appearance was earlier that day, pleaded not guilty to second-degree harassment, a source present for the hearing told The Lion. The charge is the most serious type of misdemeanor in Missouri, punishable by a fine up to $2,000 and a year in jail.

Lanning was represented by another of her own CAPSTJOE board members, attorney Terri Lowdon, in what may also present a conflict of interest should Lowdon and other CAPSTJOE board members consider firing Lanning, which they have been asked to do by some public officials.

Williams’ title on the CAPSTJOE website was changed from board member to board treasurer at least by January 2023, the same year she became board president of the school district and around the time she began supporting Lanning as a school board candidate. Lanning was elected in April 2023.

The Lion asked Lanning whether her employment as executive director at CAPSTJOE presents any conflicts of interest with her role on the school board, as well as whether she has ever abstained from voting in either role due to a conflict of interest. Lanning declined to comment.

Yet another area of possible conflict between the school district and CAPSTJOE is employment: both entities hire educators and paraprofessionals.

In fact, in a December academic committee meeting at SJSD, Director of Special Programs Dlo DuVall reported on the difficulty the district has in recruiting and retaining these educators, citing pay.

“She explained that when we cannot hire through the school district, then outside sources are brought in to fill that gap,” meeting minutes read. “She went through what paraprofessionals are paid and why it is so hard to attract and retain them. They checked with two other schools, Head Start and Helen Davis, to see what they are paying, and they are paying more than that, so that’s a problem.”

Head Start presumably refers to CAPSTJOE, which runs Head Start programming in the area.

Lanning’s own organization’s code of ethics includes the avoidance of conflicts of interest: “Avoid any interest or activity that is in conflict with the conduct of official duties.”

CAPSTJOE’s by-laws at one time also prohibited employees from holding public office. It was an issue that came up two years ago for Lanning, who was running for mayor in the city of St. Joseph. “No elected public official may be an employee of this corporation,” stated the by-laws, News-Press Now reported at the time.

The rule is an obvious attempt to avoid conflicts of interest.

But Lanning maintained that a policy manual at the organization allows for employees to hold public office “if such office does not interfere with CAPSTJOE employment,” the paper reported, and that the by-laws needed to be updated.

The Lion asked CAPSTJOE and Lanning whether the by-laws have in fact been updated, but both declined to comment or provide a copy of the by-laws.

Kristi Green, vice chair of the Buchanan County Republican Central Committee, told The Lion the potential conflicts of interest warrant an investigation from the Attorney General.

“The relationship between Whitney Lanning and LaTonya Williams with both CAPSTJOE and the St. Joseph School District presents a number of possible conflicts of interest,” she said. “Since they are both unwilling to answer any questions about the matter to ensure the public can retain confidence in them, the AG should investigate immediately.”

Indeed, the Missouri Attorney General’s website declares the AG the “guardian of nonprofits,” promising actively to take “action against abuses in the nonprofit sector.”

“If abuses are found,” the webpage also says, “the Attorney General can prevent a nonprofit from taking certain actions, remove its directors, or even dissolve the nonprofit corporation.”

The webpage then gives a link and a phone number for filing complaints: “If you would like to file a complaint regarding the misuse of charitable assets, or fraud or deception in a charitable solicitationplease click or call 800-392-8222.”

The AG’s office also says nonprofits should avoid any transaction that even appears like a conflict of interest.

“A nonprofit corporation should be above reproach,” a slidedeck from the AG’s office reads. “If any transaction gives even the appearance of a conflict of interest, it should be avoided.”

Like Lanning, Williams also works full time outside of her role on the school board. Williams is executive director of the Bartlett Center, which she describes as “a nonprofit organization that has a childcare, preschool, and youth program, as well as community outreach service.”

Presumably Williams is also competing with the school district and CAPSTJOE to hire educators and paraprofessionals.

Around 75-80% of the Bartlett Center’s funding comes from government grants, according to online tax filings. The center was also recently cited for violations after an unannounced inspection by DESE Office of Childhood.

According to the February 2024 report, Williams’ organization failed to conduct a “sanitation inspection” and “fire safety inspection,” had a staff member without the necessary 12 hours of child-care training, and did not have “an approved director on staff.”

The Lion asked Williams about the report, as well as whether CAPSTJOE provides any funding or services to the Bartlett Center, but she did not respond in time for publication.

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