Leader Blues

Monday, February 09, 2009

TOP STORY>>Principal lashes out at accusers

Leader senior staff writer

The president of the Pulaski County Special School District Board has accused an outspoken principal of slandering him and has instigated an investigation, which the principal calls “an inquisition.”

Board president Tim Clark, Super-intendent James Sharpe, district administrators and the district’s lawyer are investigating the charge that Jacksonville Boys Middle School Principal Mike Nellums told a second principal that Clark had paid board member Gwen Williams for her vote impeaching then-president Mildred Tatum and electing Clark to the position.

Clark alleged that Nellums made the slanderous comment at a Jan. 14 meeting of principals.

Nellums says the alleged slander never occurred, that the board president doesn’t have the authority to authorize an investigation and that even if Nellums had made the comment, it would have been protected speech under the Constitution.

It’s difficult to libel or slander public figures, who are said to be in the limelight.
Those investigating the incident — Deborah Coley, Bill Barnes and Jay Bequette — interviewed several principals and at least two teachers.

Coley is assistant superintendent for human resources.

Barnes is director of secondary education and Bequette is the district’s lawyer.

Clark and Coley said they couldn’t discuss a personnel matter and Sharpe didn’t return a call.

Neither of the two teachers — both PACT members — who reported Nellums’ alleged slander to the union was at the principals’ meeting, but according to Nellums, they reported to PACT leaders who forwarded the hearsay comments to Clark.

Nellums said the investigation is prompted by his longstanding enmity with the union.

PACT has been supportive of and supported by three of the seven sitting board members — Clark, Williams and Bill Vasquez.

A message left on the PACT answering machine was not returned.

Clark signed his Jan. 19 letter to Sharpe requesting the investigation, “Tim Clark, president, PCSSD School Board.”

“It was reported to me that Mr. Nellums made slanderous/defamatory statements about me and fellow Board Member Gwen Williams to other PCSSD administrators who attended a meeting of PCSSD principals…”

Clark called his letter a formal complaint and asked for an investigation including interviews of all PCSSD administrators who attended the meeting.

In a Jan. 29 letter to Barnes and Coley, Nellums said the statement attributed to him was incorrect.

“I am the most credible source, and I simply did not say anything about a paid-for activity to (Principal) Karne Sullards or anyone else.”

Sullards is the principal to whom Nellums allegedly made the statements to which Clark objects.

Nellums asserted that Sullards first told administrators that it hadn’t happened.

“At the behest of Mr. Clark,” Nellums said, “she was browbeaten by Mr. Bequette because her first statement, which exonerated me, simply did not satisfy Mr. Clark’s need to punish and intimidate me.”

Sullard finally submitted a third letter in which she said she really didn’t remember what was said, if anything.

Nellums wants Clark to reimburse the district for several thousand dollars worth of time that Coley, Barnes and the other principals interviewed spent improperly on the investigation and also for Bequette’s time, which Nellums says is billed at $200 an hour.