Leader Blues

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

TOP STORY >> School board on defensive

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

With the threat of legislative intervention to allow recall elections of school board members, the head of the Arkansas School Boards Association last week took the Pulaski County Special School District board to task for casting all school boards in a bad light and placing all in jeopardy.

“I read and hear about your board meetings and am amazed by how a board, which is supposed to make policy and stay out of the way of the district’s day-to-day operations, continues to carelessly disregard the concerns of the patrons of the district whose taxes allow it to operate,” wrote Dan Farley, the association’s executive director. (See editorial, p. 8A.)

“This is a letter without precedent. In my 30 years with the (association) I have never felt compelled to speak out about the behavior of a school board,” Farley said.

“Such behavior was the reason we were left in the recent legislative session to battle a school-board recall bill. It wasn’t clear why the bill was even introduced,” said Farley. “You, my friends, were the reason for it. And it isn’t going to go away.”

State Rep. Mark Perry (D-Jacksonville) proposed a bill in the session just ended that would allow recall elections for school board members on the grounds of “misconduct in office, incompetence, failure to perform prescribed duties or public dissatisfaction.”

Perry’s bill wasn’t enacted, but Farley says it could be reintroduced in January 2010 and Perry says it will be re-introduced not later than the 2011 session.

Perry said his bill was introduced with Pulaski County in mind.

Perry said he visited with the school board association, and “they weren’t in favor of it.”

Farley wrote that because of the PCSSD board, he’d have to make the other 244 boards in the state understand that their members, too, could be “victims of a law that will allow quick and easy recall.”

He said he’s fielded calls and emails from around the state from people asking the association to crack down on PCSSD board. “There is simply nothing we can do,” he wrote. “Your board, like all the others, is governed by policies adopted by you. The assumption is that, at the very least, the board ought to be bound by its own policies.”

“It has been obvious for months that you have internal issues and we have offered on more than one occasion to try to help you work out your problems,” wrote Farley. “Clearly you don’t want help. Even more clearly, you don’t seem to be able to function in a constructive manner.”

Farley’s harsh criticism continued, “Until such a time as each of you comes to the realization that you are powerless outside those times where you are constituted in an official meeting, you will continue to spiral out of control — losing the confidence of the patrons of your school district…and promoting your own personal agendas and power plays.”

When he got the letter, “I thought, Yes, finally someone who understands our plight,” said board member Danny Gililland, who represents parts of Jacksonville and north Pulaski. “Then realized it was a reflection on me too. I’m hopeful that it will bring all the issues to the forefront to deal with this — that we’ll get something positive out of it. I’m embarrassed they had to go that route.”

“I don’t think there’s a board member that didn’t think there was a problem,” he said.

Gililland said he has scheduled an appointment with Farley for next week “to see if he can give us any insight.”

Gililland said board president Tim Clark seems too involved in the day-to-day operations. “I’m not defending him, but it’s happened to others in the past, maybe not this extreme.”

While most board members interviewed generally agreed with Farley’s assessment, Charlie Wood, who represents Sherwood, said, “I think he’s wrong—I don’t mean every detail is wrong. But it was inappropriate and I was disappointed.”

“I think that his letter to us was almost devoid of specifics. If our board has done something wrong—you can’t solve a problem with broad generalities. We’ve had a lot of unfavorable press. People in Jacksonville don’t agree with me. People in Sherwood don’t agree with people in Jacksonville.

“We’ve invited state to come audit us. If there are things inappropriate, they need to tell us. I don’t see us staking out territories. Argument isn’t bad. But you can’t slap us on the hand with generalities.”

“Everybody is on the hot seat right now, and it shows,” said Bill Vasquez, the other board member representing Jacksonville. “It’s a whole place full of stuff — tensions are kind of high.”

“There’s lots on the table right now, and we don’t have a read good handle,” he added.

As for the notion that interim Superintendent Rob McGill allows Clark, his benefactor, to be involved in the day-to-day operations of the district, Vasquez said that previous school board presidents also spent a lot of time with the superintendents on their shift.

But Vasquez, the board’s treasurer, said board officers “don’t have authority others (board members) don’t have.”

“I was very impressed with the letter,” said Mildred Tatum, a board member for more than 20 years. There’s too many things wrong in our district,” she said. “We’re always going in to executive session.”

She said Clark takes authority he doesn’t have and consults only with Vasquez, Gwen Williams and Charlie Wood — the others in his usual voting block.