Leader Blues

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

TOP STORY >> Nellums keeps job after long hearing

Leader senior staff writer

After a five-week paid suspension, principal Mike Nellums is back at work at Mills High School this morning, despite the efforts of the teachers’ union and the three Pulaski County Special School District board members who almost unfailingly promote the union’s agenda.

Following an eight-and-a-half-hour personnel hearing, the board rejected by a 4-to-3 vote Superintendent Rob McGill’s recommendation to fire Nellums.

Voting to fire the controversial principal were board president Tim Clark, vice president Bill Vasquez and treasurer Gwen Williams.

Williams made the motion to fire and Vasquez seconded it.

At least Clark and Williams received union money and support—$600 for Williams—during their election bids.

The swing vote Monday night was new board member Sandra Sawyer. In her first official board action since her election Sept. 8, Sawyer, an unknown quantity, voted against the firing. Board member Charlie Wood often votes with Clark, Vasquez and Williams, but is not in the union camp.

Joining Sawyer and Wood in voting to keep Nellums on were Mildred Tatum and Danny Gilliland.

“Nellums will resume his duties at Mills beginning (Wednesday),” McGill said. “We’re looking forward to moving Mills forward.

We’re looking to the future and the next chapter of the school’s success.”

Nellums, who has been the object of at least three separate investigations—he calls them inquisitions—since January, was suspended with pay Aug. 21, the day after he had district security escort Sandra Roy from his office. Roy is executive director of the Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers and the Pulaski Association of Support Staff.

As many as 45 Nellums supporters—mostly teachers and administrators—gathered for the hearing.

The district was represented by its attorneys Jay Bequette and Keith Billingsley.

Nellums’ lead counsel, Ricky Hicks, was joined by former state Rep. Will Bond of the McMath Law Firm and by civil rights attorney John Walker.

Because it was a personnel hearing held behind closed doors, little hard information was available. It appears that the board heard testimony from witnesses alleging that Nellums had slandered Clark and Williams and also that he later acted unprofessionally by telling a Leader reporter that the union and some board members were conducting a vendetta against him.

Contacted Tuesday morning, Nellums said he was happy to be getting back to work. He would not discuss the specifics of the closed hearing.

Nellums said there continued to be “concerns with the way things are handled and administrators need to address some issues with the board concerning policy.”

He would not elaborate.

Clark ordered an investigation of Nellums in January that cost the district more than $12,000 in attorney fees paid to Bequette and Billingsley. But Clark declined to recuse himself from the Monday night hearing into Nellums contract.

According to Clark, Nellums told a second principal that Clark had paid board member Williams for her vote to impeach then-president Mildred Tatum and elect Clark to the position.

Tatum was impeached and Clark was elected.

Nellums said at the time that 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, who was the principal at the Jacksonville Boys Middle School, and Kimala Forrest, principal of the Girls Middle School, angered some on the board by fighting to keep the gender-based schools open and by speaking out at board meetings and in the press.

That was in May.

Forrest said at the time that she thought combining the two schools into a single coeducational school was “part of a vendetta against Nellums.”

Nellums was subsequently transferred to Mills and Forrest to Northwood Middle School.

Nellums received a certified letter June 22 saying his comments “may be considered offensive or personal in nature. If it is proven that the comments made by you were conduct unbecoming as an administrator, it could lead to disciplinary action up to termination,” the letter warned.

“I’m not going to let them have a free reign to continue to attack administrators simply because they have a different opinion or they feel that something written in the paper is threatening to them or detrimental,” Nellums said at the time.

Nellums has long been at odds with the district’s powerful teachers’ union, opposing a union-dominated, site-based decision-making council at Jacksonville Boys Middle School.