MO school board member part of anonymous group to defeat taxation in own district

By | March 9, 2024

An investigation by the Missouri Ethics Commission found that a member of the Bolivar school board was part of an opaque group that actively campaigned to oppose a tax levy increase that the Bolivar district was seeking.

Board member Brad Wommack, re-elected in April 2023 after serving on the board years earlier, did not publicly disclose his role in the group known as the Concerned Citizens of Bolivar and Polk County.

The group has not registered as a campaign finance committee in Missouri and has not reported how much it raised, or from whom, or how the money was spent, the MEC said.

Wommack’s involvement was not known to the district and his fellow board members until the MEC released his findings on February 26.

In November, the Bolivar District asked voters for permission to become part of the official Ozarks Technical Community College service area, a move that would have increased residents’ property taxes — 20 cents per $100 of assessed assessment — in exchange for significantly lower tuition fees.

Gov. Mike Parson, who has a farm in Polk County, supported expanding residents’ access to the education and training offered by OTC, saying it aligns with workforce development, which is his top priority been.

In the days before the election, the group Concerned Citizens sent postcards to voters and paid for a newspaper advertisement. The group pushed for a “no” vote and made statements, some of which were false or speculative in nature.

The only name publicly associated with the group was Janet Arnold, who was listed as treasurer in the newspaper advertisement but not on the postcard.

After voters rejected the proposal, two members of the Bolivar school board – President Paula Hubbert and Vice President Kyle Lancaster – filed complaints about the Concerned Citizens group with the MEC as private citizens. The complaints mentioned Arnold.

Paula HubbertPaula Hubbert

Paula Hubbert

“As chairman of the Board of Education, I filed my MEC complaint because I believe my role is to defend and protect the interests of the Bolivar School District,” Hubbert told the News-Leader.

“Never in my wildest dreams would I have ever imagined that a fellow member of the Bolivar Board of Education would have secretly funded a campaign based on blatant inaccuracy and lies that conflicted with an effort designed to benefit our students and help the community.”

In the report, the MEC described the Concerned Citizens group that “meets every month to discuss issues and encourage people to call state senators and representatives if they agree or disagree with their actions.”

The MEC investigation found that 20 people contributed a total of about $3,000 to build opposition to the tax bill. The only names mentioned in the report were Wommack and Arnold.

“There was a group of like-minded individuals including retired teachers, elderly people, some retired business people who felt the same way I did and felt that we should come together and put something out to the public that could provide them with a benefit … different point of view than what they hear,” Wommack, 70, owner of the Wommack Monument Company, said in a Friday interview with the News-Leader.

The MEC investigation revealed that Arnold was not actually the treasurer. For that reason, the MEC said the complaint against her had been withdrawn.

“The investigation revealed that Brad Wommack, a member of CCBPC, collected the contributions for the advertisement in the Bolivar Herald-Free Press dated November 1, 2023,” the MEC wrote in its report.

Brad WommackBrad Wommack

Brad Wommack

The MEC found that “Arnold contributed $100 and agreed to her name being used in the advertisement because the newspaper required the name of a treasurer.”

According to the MEC report, Wommack ordered and paid for the postcards. In total, he collected and paid $3,035 for the printed materials to oppose the tax levy.

The MEC concluded that, based on Wommack’s activities, he should have been the one to file the paperwork to form the campaign finance committee and the required disclosure reports.

The report said: “Wommack also collected cash contributions and incurred out-of-pocket expenses in excess of statutory reimbursements, and made incorrect ‘paid’ disclosures about the materials.”

After the report was released, Hubbert and Lancaster each filed a complaint with the MEC against Wommack.

“I wasn’t aware that we were violating anything,” Wommack said Friday. “We were merely exercising our First Amendment rights.”

More: Bolivar’s school leader wants to apologize to voters — and promise the ban won’t happen again

The News Leader asked Wommack why Arnold was listed as treasurer.

“When we went to the newspaper to put a notice there about our concerns, the newspaper told us they had to have a treasurer. Well, we’re not a group that collects dues, have a treasurer, but they said, ‘We have to have someone’s name,” Wommack recalls. “One of the ladies who participated, Janet Arnold, said, ‘Okay, put me in as treasurer.’ That’s how it happened.”

Arnold is one of three candidates vying for two open seats in the April 2 board election.

‘Put together a list of concerns’

Wommack said the group was running out of time. He said there was a short window to get information out to voters before the election.

“All me and everyone else did was get together and make a list of the concerns we all had,” he said.

Asked why the group had not submitted paperwork to the MEC, Wommack said: “If we had done that and taken the time to do that, we would never have gotten it (the advertisement) in the paper. It was in the 11th hour, There’s no way any of this could have happened.”

He added: “I’m sorry some people didn’t get their way. My apologies. But I’m just one voter. Apparently there were 1,400 others who felt the same way I did.”

Wommack said part of his frustration with the ballot measure stemmed from the last meeting with OTC officials in the fall. There was a presentation and then a call for a vote on whether or not the request should be placed on the ballot.

The Bolivar School District placed a tax levy proposal on the November 2023 ballot, but it was rejected.The Bolivar School District placed a tax levy proposal on the November 2023 ballot, but it was rejected.

The Bolivar School District placed a tax levy proposal on the November 2023 ballot, but it was rejected.

At that point, Wommack said – and Hubbert confirmed – that he wanted to “ask our guests to leave” so the board could go into private or executive session. Wommack said he told the board he had questions that had not yet been answered.

Hubbert refused to close the meeting and insisted that the discussion take place in the public portion of the meeting. Wommack said, “The chairman of the board didn’t want it…she went ahead and put it up for a vote.”

A majority of the council voted to place the question on the ballot. Wommack voted against this move.

Asked about his main concern, Wommack said the district asked for the tax levy, but the funding it generated — estimated at $400,000 a year — would go to OTC.

The college concentrates its services and provides education in the district to residents of the school districts that make up the taxing district, including Ash Grove, Branson, Clever, Everton, Fordland, Hollister, Logan-Rogersville, Marshfield, Nixa, Ozark, Pleasant Hope, Republic, Springfield, Strafford, Walnut Grove and Willard.

“I don’t remember…at some point in the history of Bolivar R-1 we made a proposal to increase the tax levy where we would collect the money and simply hand it over to another entity, which in this case a college would be.” he said. “That’s money that goes to the children.”

“Why We Have Election Laws”

Lancaster, one of two incumbents not running for re-election in April, said the newspaper ad and postcards were not accurate.

The group Concerned Citizens, for example, urged voters to oppose the ballot measure, claiming, among other things, that the levy was a “wealth redistribution” that “takes money” from Bolivar students and workers and transfers it ​​to OTC, which offers programs that benefit “relatively few” high school students and residents.

The way the OTC tax district is structured, the application to join – and the associated tax levy – must be proposed by a school district and approved by voters.

According to OTC, 1,503 students from Polk County – 787 from Bolivar – had enrolled in college in the five years before the election. the previous year there were 218.

The group speculated that “rents would likely be increased and businesses could adjust prices to reflect higher costs” as a result of the higher taxes.

The group Concerned Citizens also claimed there was no “sunset clause” on the tax, meaning it would remain in effect if passed.

That statement as misleading. Half of the proposed levy, or 10 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, would remain in effect, but the sunset cycle on the remaining 10 cents per $100 of assessed valuation required voter approval every twenty years.

More: Bolivar’s next superintendent will be part of the Springfield Public Schools leadership team

Lancaster and Hubbert said there is no way to know for sure what impact the group had on the outcome of the election.

“The measure was defeated largely due to a negative and inaccurate campaign organized by an individual who did not want his name or the names of 18 to 20 donors to his cause known to our community,” Hubbert said.

“The actions of this group are the embodiment of why we have election laws governing campaign finance disclosure.”

This article originally appeared on Springfield News-Leader: A Missouri school board member tries to defeat tax levy in his own district

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