Leader Blues

Friday, August 28, 2009

TOP STORY >> Nellums criticism draws ire

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

A week has passed since principal Mike Nellums had security eject chief teachers’ union representative Sandra Roy from his Mills High School office and he filed a report with the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office, and now the local NAACP is siding with Nellums.

Every day is something new. On Aug. 21, interim Pulaski County Special School District Superintendent Rob McGill suspended Nellums with pay, pending investigation of the incident. Nellums, former principal of Jacksonville Boys Middle School, already was under investigation for telling The Leader that the district was “conducting a vendetta” against him.

Then, on Aug. 26, board member Mildred Tatum wrote a letter to the board and to the state Education Department demanding an investigation of McGill’s suspension of Nellums.

The following day, board president Tim Clark called a special meeting, went into executive session and he and some other board members told Tatum her letters were inappropriate and put the district in a bad light.

Tatum, whose district includes Mills High School, has a history of supporting Nellums. She said she was particularly miffed that McGill suspended Nellums without telling or consulting her, as the district representative.

Friday afternoon, the Jacksonville branch of the NAACP notified the district that it had launched its own investigation into Nellums’ suspension.

Tatum said that her telephone had been ringing off the hook since Friday with teachers and parents upset that Nellums had been suspended and wanting information. Nellums, reached at home, said he could not comment on the matter on the advice of his attorneys.

This is the latest skirmish in the struggle between Nellums and the powerful Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers.

PACT has been busy recruiting union-friendly candidates to run for the board and in the past two years, Gwen Williams has been joined by dependably union supporters Clark and Bill Vasquez.

It appears that they also have recruited Sandra Sawyer, who is running unopposed in the Robinson area, which should give the union a bullet-proof majority, with four of the seven board members in their corner.

In the discussion of Tatum Thursday night, the board met in a questionable executive session which Clark defended by noting that the state FOI allows executive session to hire, fire, discipline or promote a public official and that Tatum as a school board member is such an official.

The board, however, lacks authority to hire, fire, promote or discipline fellow members.

Paul Blume, counsel for the Arkansas School Board Association, said an executive meeting for that purpose was appropriate.
As is the board’s habit, McGill also attended the executive session. Blume stopped short of calling his attendance illegal, but said he would have advised against it.

Following the hour-long executive session, Clark said only that the board had discussed Tatum’s letter and that no one would be commenting.

INCIDENT REPORT

When deputy Daphne McCoy responded to the call to Mills High School at 2:34 p.m. Aug. 20, Nellums reported that he was meeting with teacher Candy Riggan in connection with an incident the preceding day.

Nellums said he handed Riggan some paperwork to read and that Roy, her union representative, grabbed it out her hand and said, “I’ll read this.”

Nellums told the deputy that he grabbed it back and told Roy it was Riggan’s. He said Roy became upset and said she would file a grievance on him.

When Roy asked for a copy of the paperwork, he said he would check with the administration first.

“Nellums stated that Roy continued to be rude, so he asked her to leave school property. Nellums said that he then called school security officers to escort Roy off of the school property.”

NAACP INVESTIGATES

The Jacksonville branch of the NAACP on Thursday sent a letter to McGill on Friday complaining that Nellums is being harassed because he is black, according to branch president Ivory Tillman.

Tillman said the district had to fire Nellums, starting with an attempt by Jacksonville Bill Vasquez about two years ago.

Since then, investigations have been launched into Nellums at the request of Vasquez, Bill Clark and now McGill.

“We wrote Mr. McGill concerning the investigation ongoing,” said Tillman. “He is the one doing the investigation, but it should be done by (Nellums’) immediate supervisor. “

“We don’t see anything substantial enough to suspend him,” said Rizelle Aaron, the Jacksonville branch chairman of legal redress. “It’s not fair to him,” he said. “He’s been with the district for 24 years.”

Aaron said Tillman had authorized him to investigate to see if Nellums was the object of racial discrimination.
“We offered the district the opportunity to contact us,” Aaron said. “We want to be open.”

TATUM’S LETTER

In her letter to McGill, Tatum told him she would ask the board to investigate his conduct in the matter.

She wrote, “To suspend a principal at a school in my or any zone and not notify the board member from that zone is a gross neglect of duty as defined by board policy.

“As one of your immediate supervisors, you should have taken the courtesy to inform me that you had taken the action,” Tatum continued.

Tatum said that teachers and parents have expressed concern that “you have a personal vendetta against Mr. Nellums.”

She directed McGill to provide a copy of the board’s permission authorizing the investigation of Nellums.

She charged that contrary to district policy, McGill was conducting the investigation himself—a violation of school board policy.

Nellums’ immediate supervisor, Bill Barnes, deputy superintendent for secondary education, should have investigated, she said.

Tatum wrote that she was forwarding a copy of the letter to the state Department of Education, and that if McGill didn’t respond to her questions by Friday evening, she would consider it insubordination and possible grounds for dismissal.

She did not forward the letter, but wrote a summary of it to Diana Julian, acting commissioner of the state Education Department.