Leader Blues

Monday, March 16, 2009

EDITORIAL >> PCSSD board gets a big ‘F’

The biggest obstacle to quality education in Pulaski County is the school board. At least that’s true for the Pulaski County Special School District, which is in complete disarray because of the public and hidden agendas of the various board members. Those include allegiances to the powerful Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers and the competition for scarce resources—particularly money—across the far-flung district.

Many members are vindictive, petty, inconsistent, selfish and worst of all, ill-informed.

Nearly all district facilities are in miserable condition, but in recent years the board has chosen to put its money only in the Maumelle Middle School and the Chenal Elementary School.

Now the board will float an $80 million second-lien bond to build a new super high school in Maumelle, leaving the promised Sylvan Hills Middle School up on blocks. Meanwhile, Jacksonville could be stuck with a large chunk of the bill even if it separates from PCSSD.

Board member Charlie Wood, seldom on the same side of an issue twice, has been fooled. The Sherwood representative seems to think there is money for both his school and the high school. But the only money available is the proceeds from that bond issue, according to chief financial officer Larry O’Brian. The entire bond issue will be required for the Maumelle high school.

In September, Tim Clark ran unopposed to represent Maumelle on the board, replacing Pam Roberts. Four meetings later, he helped impeach sitting board president Mildred Tatum, winning her position by a single vote.

Clark has interpreted that one-vote margin as a mandate and has launched an imperial board presidency that is favorable to the unions and also his Maumelle constituents but not to other schools and zones, particularly those in the Jacksonville area.

Now Clark has run off Superintendent James Sharpe, passing over an experienced deputy superintendent and replacing Sharpe with a man inexperienced in running a school district. Clark recused himself as the board otherwise unanimously approved Pine Forest Elementary principal Robert McGill. McGill, a Maumelle constituent of Clark’s, has taught Clark’s children. He also holds certification as a superintendent through 2013.

Clark denied that the two were personal friends. But Beverly Ruthven has served ably as interim superintendent while Sharpe was in the hospital and has rigorously pursued data-driven academic improvements for the district. She deserves a shot at the superintendent’s job.

McGill has worked for 16 years in the district. We’ve not heard anything bad about him. We wish him good luck, because this district needs real leadership, but that will require standing up to Clark and other board members who hold his fate in their hands.

Sharpe’s departure stands as a warning to superintendents who would cross Clark and company. McGill has said he’d like the job permanently, although PCSSD superintendents better keep their suitcases packed.Sharpe is the third consecutive superintendent the board has bought out in about six years, with a total payout of about $500,000.

Various board members, including Clark, Bill Vasquez, Gwen Williams and Wood have tried to fire Sharpe over the last few months, finally buying out his contract for $185,000 on Wednesday. The final straw may have come when Sharpe refused to pay a $2,753 bill for a party Clark threw at the Maumelle Country Club in celebration of the groundbreaking for the new $80 million high school at Maumelle.

Clark had no board authorization, and when he submitted the bill, Sharpe stood his ground. At Tuesday’s board meeting, Clark announced he had paid that bill himself, and that he had never submitted it to the district to be paid.

The Leader is in possession of a copy of that bill that Tatum received under the Freedom of Information Act from Sharpe. Others familiar with the incident have confirmed that Clark asked to have the district pay the bill.

In his role as defender of the teachers union—and the board and administration have treated the teachers badly in some instances—Clark has sought to run off Jacksonville Boys Middle School Principal Mike Nellums. He’s been joined in that pursuit by the other board members pledged to the union, Vasquez and Gwen Williams.

Nellums has battled and frustrated the union on several fronts and there is no love lost between them.

Clark, who claimed in January that Nellums slandered him to a fellow principal, instructed Sharpe to initiate an investigation. That probe cost the district at least $16,000, not including several days away from their normal duties for Debbie Colie, director of human resources, and Bill Barnes, assistant superintendent for secondary education.

The district’s lawyer, Jay Becquette, charged—and the district on Tuesday night paid—$12,000 or more for that January investigation. Nellums will submit legal bills of at least $4,200 to pay his defenders, Ricky Hicks and Terrance Cain.

This is more proof that the district can ill afford to let Clark act without restraint.

The board unanimously supported a stand-alone Jacksonville school district last year, but on Tuesday Wood and Williams said they are prepared to reintroduce the matter at the next meeting, change their votes and oppose the proposed new district.

Williams said the Jacksonville district proponents solicited her friend to talk to her on their behalf and that really made her angry. Apparently Williams’ ear is reserved for PACT and PASS and no one else.