A potential conflict of interest involving two Missoula public school officials is being investigated by the Missoula County Attorney’s Office, according to Chief Civil Deputy County Attorney Mike Sehestedt.
According to an April city building permit, School Board Trustee Drake Lemm’s company, Drake Lemm Construction, was hired by district Superintendent Jim Clark to build an addition onto his garage. That document is the basis of the county attorney’s investigation, Sehestedt said. Clark declined to comment on the matter, and Lemm did not return the Independent’s calls.
At issue, says Sehestedt, is whether the job constitutes a “substantial financial transaction.” According to conflict of interest rules governing officials elected to the school board, trustees are prohibited from “Engaging in a substantial financial transaction for his/her private business purpose with a person whom he/she inspects or supervises in the course of his/her official duties.” The building permit values the project at just over $4,400.
The school board is responsible for hiring and firing superintendents, as well as evaluating them on an annual basis. In August, following Clark’s performance evaluation, the board approved a 3.5 percent raise, about $4,000, for Clark.
At that meeting, Trustee Theresa Jacobs partially broached the conflict of interest issue before the vote to approve Clark’s raise by inquiring whether any members should recuse themselves due to an investigation. Lemm did not respond to that statement, but did make comments about Clark’s hard work for the district, saying, “Thanks Dr. Clark, I think you’re worth every dime we’re going to give you.” All trustees except Jacobs supported the raise.
Board Chair Jenda Cummings says she thinks the issue is “a private matter between a trustee and the superintendent” and that it isn’t appropriate to address it publicly unless the county attorney finds evidence of wrongdoing.
Elizabeth Kaleva, counsel for Missoula County Public Schools, says neither the district nor the school board has any authority over the issue given the county attorney’s investigation. Once a decision is rendered, she says, “We’ll deal with it when and if it’s an issue.”