Monday, June 06, 2011

EDITORIAL >> Bribe plotters should resign

Gwen Williams, a member of the Pulaski County School Board from Jacksonville, filed a lawsuit yesterday claiming that a fellow school board member and a principal had conspired to ruin her reputation with the now-famous video caper of 2010.

We must wait and see if she can prove that she was damaged by the blundering hijinks of the plotters, which according to the prosecuting attorney included Michael Nellums, a principal, and Tim Clark, a Maumelle businessman who is a member of the school board.  But we are convinced that the people most aggrieved by these fatuous and petty men are not Ms. Williams but the children and patrons of the school district who have been mortally embarrassed by the antics of their school leaders. We know of no grounds upon which they might get judicial relief.

When Clark, a bank officer, ran for the school board in 2008, he said he was doing so to raise the image of the school board and the school district. Lord knows they could have used an image makeover even then. But it was soon apparent that he had another singular goal in mind—to end the collective bargaining rights of teachers—and that he would take the schools and the children through any ordeal to achieve it. You may hate unions or love them, but in Arkansas they have little to do with the quality of education or lack of it. Only four or five school districts out of some 250 in Arkansas have collective-bargaining agreements with teachers, and educational achievement there are not close to the bottom.

Gwen Williams was sometimes on the side of the teachers’ bargaining unit and sometimes against it, but she became a target of the Clark faction on the board. In Nellums, who was principal at Jacksonville Middle School Boys then, Clark found an ally in his hatred of unions.

Clark was president last year when the video caper occurred. A video purporting to show someone offering Williams a bribe for her favor on a school contract and her accepting it showed up on Clark’s doorstep before the school elections. He was so shocked! He took it to the school district attorney, who turned it over to the authorities to investigate for criminal wrongdoing. Then it broke into the open. It was bad publicity for Williams, all right, but the thing smelled from the start.

The other shoe fell last month. After a thorough investigation by the sheriff’s and prosecutor’s offices, Prosecuting Attorney Larry Jegley said the video was a farce. A couple of Keystone Kops—a buddy of Nellums and a private detective—arranged a meeting in front of Williams’ house and taped it. She was handed $100.

No bribe was offered and none was accepted, Jegley concluded. In fact, he said, no law was broken by anyone, including Nellums, Clark and their two confederates. It was simply a trap to discredit Williams publicly. What they were guilty of in spades, the prosecutor said, was stupidity. He described them as “ridiculous” and “juvenile.”  Those are not adjectives that ordinarily describe educational leaders.

Jegley said the “entire affair is sad and has been a terrible distraction of law-enforcement resources and of a beleaguered school district that has been struggling to improve.” It was, indeed, all of that.
The new school superintendent at least acted appropriately. He suspended Nellums, who was the principal at a suburban Little Rock school. (He lives in Little Rock and last fall he was elected to the Little Rock School Board. So it is a Little Rock School District problem as well. It has some image repair ahead, too.)

Clark insists that he did nothing wrong, that he was not a part of the plot to discredit Williams but an innocent bystander and that he is considering legal action, too, to clear his own name. But the prosecutor’s evidence was that Clark had talked by phone with the other plotters several times, met with them at least once and that he had put up the money for the caper. Nellums isn’t talking.

There is one remedy that would settle all scores. Clark and Nellums should resign from their respective school board positions and apologize for the embarrassment to everyone, including Williams, but foremost the 40,000 school children in two school districts who are their charges.