Leader Blues

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

TOP STORY >> District’s legal fees at $12,000

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

Its lawyer billed the Pulaski County Special School District in January approximately $12,000 in legal fees to investigate whether or not Jacksonville Boys Middle School principal Mike Nellums had slandered school board president Tim Clark earlier this year, and if so, what action the board could take.

Clark asked Superintendent James Sharpe to convene an investigation, including whether dismissal or other disciplinary action could be brought against Nellums.

There has been no public statement by district officials on the status of the investigation, but both Nellums and someone familiar with the investigation have said he’s been exonerated.

Nellums, who hired Ricky Hicks as his attorney, said Tuesday that his defense—which he will submit for reimbursement to the school district—is likely to run at least $2,000.

Jay Bequette of Bequette and Billingsley submitted a January bill of $17,480 to the district for personnel matters. Nellums, who obtained a copy under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act, says he identified $12,600—maybe more—in charges related to Bequette’s investigation of whether or not Nellums did make the statement, and if he did, whether or not it was protected speech under the Constitution, under the teacher fair dismissal act and several other determinations.

The investigation was into whether or not Nellums told a second principal that Clark had paid board member Gwen Williams for her vote impeaching Mildred Tatum, who was then board president, and electing Clark to the position.

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.

Nellums said the investigation is prompted by his longstanding enmity with PACT. PACT has been supportive of and supported by three of the seven sitting board members—Clark, Williams, Bill Vasquez and since September, former board president Charlie Wood has voted regularly with those three.

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) Karen Sullards or anyone else,” Nellums wrote.

Clark has cost the district about $20,000, said Tatum recently, reacting to an accusation that Bequette had billed the district $14,000 and that Clark wanted the district to pay nearly $3,000 for a Maumelle Country Club reception prior to a ground breaking for the new high school.

Bequette’s bill for the investigation seems closer to $12,000 and the bill for the country club reception was about $2,700.

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 precipitate an investigation and that even if he had made the comment, it would have been protected speech under the Constitution.

Nellums called the investigation “an inquisition.”

It’s very 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 the assistant superintendent for human resources, Barnes is director of secondary education and Bequette is the district’s lawyer.

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

Clark said the legal fees might be higher than he thought appropriate.

Among the larger billed items was $700 to research employee free speech and First Amendment rights, another $700 to research the First Amendment rights of principals, $400 to meet with a district investigator and potential witness against Nellums, $680 to research board member voting rights, $400 to meet with Nellums and several other three-figure charges.

After negative publicity, Clark paid the country club bill himself.