Tuesday, July 13, 2010

EDITORIAL >>Two sides should talk

Charles Hopson, the new superintendent for the Pulaski County Special School District, has been on the job just a couple of weeks, and it seems as if every day he’s faced a new crisis, thanks to a clueless school board and incompetent predecessors who made PCSSD one of the worst in the state.

A judge’s ruling Monday reaffirming an earlier decision that the board acted improperly when it withdrew its recognition of the Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers — purely out of spite, but at great expense to the taxpayers because of protracted litigation — is just the latest crisis that Hopson has had to deal with just two weeks into the job.

But he’s a conciliator who could bring peace to the troubled district, which has not had a real leader since Superintendent Bobby Lester’s glory days. Last week, barely into his new job, Hopson convinced the board to settle two discrimination suits brought by two staff members — one black, the other white — at a cost of nearly $300,000. As Hopson said, it was better to settle now than to have a drawn-out fight in the courts, which could have cost the district a lot more.

Hopson said he wants the district and board to chart a new course in personnel relations.

“My intent as superintendent is to make sure we don’t have these kinds of actions in the future,” Hopson said. “We need to be proactive and treat people in a way so that these kinds of actions are minimized.”

The board voted to pay $200,000 to Donna Humphries, who recently retired from her job as counselor at Sherwood Elementary School. Humphries, who is white, filed a lawsuit alleging she had been a victim of reverse discrimination and breach of contract.
The board voted to pay Mike Nellums $50,000 and up to $25,000 for attorney’s fees for a mindless investigation of his performance while principal of Jacksonville Boys Middle School, followed by former Superintendent Rob McGill’s recommendation that he be fired. The district will also pay Nellums’ taxes on the $50,000.

As for Judge Fox reaffirming his earlier decision that the school board acted in bad faith when it decertified the union, Hopson seems to think another settlement is in order. Appealing the decision over and over would not benefit the students or staff, although the school board will probably keep trying.

Before Hopson was hired, the school board retained a New York attorney named Lyle Zuckerman, who specializes in representing management in labor disputes — as if we didn’t have enough such lawyers in our neck of the woods. He says he’s thinking about appealing the judge’s decision.

So we have here a New York lawyer who’s studying an Arkansas judge’s ruling about the Pulaski County school district that can’t teach local students or maintain its rundown campuses. But Zuckerman, whose office is down the street from the David Letterman Show, weighed in after Fox’s ruling this way: “I am analyzing the court’s decision, which will take a bit more time. At this point, I am respectful of the judge’s decision but disappointed with the result. However, I am pleased that the court upheld the District’s right to separate from the union and form a personnel policies committee at any time during the year. The court kept the union agreement in effect only because of a technical timing issue. The board has not made a decision whether to appeal, but I believe that the appellate court should have an opportunity to review it, including that it was PACT and certain teachers that caused the technical timing snafu.”

How much did it cost Arkansas taxpayers to get the mid-town Manhattan lawyer to compose this gem? Wouldn’t it make sense to fire the lawyers and make peace with PACT?

Superintendent Hopson, who has shown adult leadership early into his new administration, could ask the board to get rid of the high-priced lawyers and negotiate with the teachers in good faith. Failing that, the state Education Department should take over the troubled district and call for new school elections.