Leader Blues

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

TOP STORY > >Sharpe, others barely hold on to PCSSD jobs

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

Displaced Clinton and Crystal Hill Elementary School students should be back in their regular classrooms after Christmas and with the same superintendent.

The school board of the Pulaski County Special School District authorized $390,000 worth of immediate repairs on the structural trusses of the roofs of those schools.

The two schools were closed in November on Superintendent James Sharpe’s order because of roof safety concerns raised by a regularly scheduled inspection. Clinton students are attending school at North Little Rock First Assembly of God, Crystal Hill students in portable buildings at Maumelle Middle School.

By a single vote Monday night, Sharpe survived a teacher’s union effort to have him fired immediately. The union felt he left students in unsafe buildings for too long after the roof problems were found by engineers.

SHARPE CHASTENED

Still employed but chastened, Sharpe declined to say after the meeting whether or not he felt vindicated by the vote.

Sharpe first heard of the problem Oct. 13, but didn’t move students out of the buildings until Nov. 7 (Crystal Hill) and Nov. 14 (Clinton), according to an independent investigation.

In the interim, the administrators had local architects and structural engineers review the original report by Wiss, Janey, Elstner Associates.

The problem concerned wooden roof trusses buckled, cracked and bowed by liquid fire retardant.

The Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers and three board members sympathetic to the union have tried to fire him at two previous meetings, saying he moved too slowly.

The union executive board held a unanimous vote of “no confidence” in Sharpe last month.

BOARD POWER LIMITS

Those three school board members, Gwen Williams, Bill Vasquez and Tim Clark, also wanted to consider firing three other administrators in connection with the engineering report on trusses, but board president Mildred Tatum was adamant that the school board only had the authority to hire and fire the superintendent.

The other administrators in question were chief financial officer Larry O’Briant, director of plant planning Jerry Holder and James Warren, executive director of support services.

Emerging from executive session 90 minutes later, Clark said, “Madam president, I move to terminate Superintendent James Sharpe’s employment from the Pulaski County Special School District effective immediately for just cause and I’d like a roll call vote.”

Williams seconded the motion.

Clark, Vasquesz and Williams generally vote as a block and each voted to terminate Sharpe. Shana Chaplin, Danny Gilliland and Charlie Wood generally vote together, usually in opposition to union wishes. That made Tatum the swing vote Monday night.

MOTION FAILS

“The motion fails,” Tatum said. Those on the north side of the room — administrators and supporters stood, applauded and celebrated.

Tatum said of the union members who sat on the south side of the meeting room, “They left and they were mad at me.”

Tatum said later that it was “heated” during the executive session. “I stuck to my guns,” she said. Tatum said Sharpe acted in a responsible and timely fashion “as soon as he got notice” of the roof situation at the two schools.

Sharpe hired Dave Floyd, retired director of the Arkansas Division of Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation, to investigate the timeline regarding the roof and notification.

WJE has inspected the trusses every few years since the problem was first discovered in 1998. In the 2008 report, WJE wrote that it could not “certify that the roof structures are safe for snow or wind loads until repairs are made and bridging between trusses installed.”

TIMELINE ESTABLISHED

Floyd’s investigation showed that WJE engineers’ 2008 report first arrived at the district Sept. 29, received by Holder.

Oct. 6 — Holder requests additional copies.

Oct. 7 — Holder receives those copies

Oct. 8 -— Holder forwards copies to Warren and O’Briant.

Oct. 13 — O’Briant discusses report with Sharpe—first indication that Sharpe knew of problem.

Oct. 13 — They decided to ask structural engineers for Witsell Evans Rasco architects to review report.

Oct. 15 — WER and Crafton Tull Sparks engineers begin report review.

Oct. 29 — CTS reports to WER architects. WER requests meeting with PCSSD.

Nov. 6 — WER meets with PCSSD

Nov. 7 — PCSSD administrators meet. Sharpe closes Crystal Hill Elementary.

Nov. 14 — Sharp closes Clinton Elementary.

REPLACEMENT COSTS

The board unanimously voted to proceed with repair of the two roofs immediately, with roof replacements slated to occur in stages over the next three summers.

The immediate cost of the repairs is $390,000 — $220,000 for Crystal Hill and $170,000 for Clinton.

The roof replacements are estimated to cost about $8 million, but the board agreed with the construction, engineering and architectural professionals to postpone that until the summers, while they figure out how to pay for them.

Replacement work will begin at Crystal Hill in summer 2009 and be completed summer 2010, while replacement of the Clinton roof will begin in summer 2010 and be completed summer 2011.

O’Briant said the repairs and replacement would postpone at least some of the other facilities improvements already on the district’s 10-year master plan.