Tuesday, October 11, 2011

TOP STORY >> Hopson: Betrayed by state in ouster

Leader executive editor

Charles Hopson, the ousted superintendent of the Pulaski County Special School District, is still bitter about the way he was dismissed when the state took over the failing district in June.

He thought he had a good working relationship with state education commissioner, Tom Kimbrell, who, Hopson says, urged him in 2010 to take the superintendent’s job and assured him a state takeover was unlikely.

Seth Blomeley, a spokesman for Kimbrell, says, “That is false.”

Hopson has filed a $500,000 federal lawsuit against the state and the school district for voiding the last two years of his three-year contract. He was paid $242,000 a year, plus some benefits.


As soon as he was fired and the school board dissolved, Hopson says agents from the state Education Department showed up at his office and humiliated him by telling Hopson “to clear out his desk and to leave immediately,” according to his lawsuit, which also seeks unspecified punitive damages.

A Prescott native, Hopson was hired as PCSSD superintendent in April 2010. He was among four finalists for the post.

Hopson, who has Jacksonville roots, is the son of a minister and school cook for the Pulaski County schools. His mother, Lucy Hopson, lives in Sherwood.

He worked for two years as a special education teacher at then-Northwood Junior High in PCSSD.

Hopson, who lives in Oregon, is in Arkansas visiting relatives. He found time for an interview and visited the King Biscuit Blues Festival last weekend in Helena, where his wife’s family lives.

Defendants in the suit include Gov. Mike Beebe, who approved Hopson’s firing; Jerry Guess, the interim PCSSD superintendent who succeeded Hopson, and Kimbrell.

Hopson, who was previously deputy superintendent in the Portland, Ore., schools, says he didn’t want the PCSSD job at first. He says he relented after the education commissioner told him to come back home.


In an answer to Hopson’s lawsuit, the Education Department denies these allegations. “These claims are false. Defendant Kimbrell provided no such assurances to Hopson,” the state said in its response.

The state says that instead of filing a lawsuit, Hopson should have worked toward improving the district and avoiding a takeover. The state points out that PCSSD “was not identified as in fiscal distress until March 30, 2011; nine months after this alleged conversation occurred.

“During that time, Hopson had the opportunity to not only repair the conditions leading to the fiscal distress determination, but also to learn all of the true (sic) facts of the PCSSD’s fiscal problems existing as of July 2010, and the actions taken in the district (including by Hopson himself) that lead to the fiscal distress identification nine months later and state assumption of control of the district two months after that.”

The state argues Hopson’s contract was voided after the takeover and it can’t be sued anyway because of “sovereign immunity.”


Hopson claims he called Kimbrell after receiving an anonymous call warning Hopson against taking the job because of the rumored takeover.

According to the lawsuit, “Kimbrell gave plaintiff to understand that the department did not have the ability to successfully take over and run the PCSSD…. He stated that the Department of Education was without resources sufficient to undertake the running of the Pulaski County Special School District. Kimbrell explained that (Hopson) should not be concerned to take his job.”

“Based upon the representations of defendant PCSSD and Kimbrell…, he agreed to take the post,” the lawsuit says.

“Kimbrell reassured the plaintiff that he would be safe in taking the position,” the lawsuit alleges, “even though the PCSSD had been identified as a potentially ‘fiscally distressed’ district.”

Hopson recalls receiving “a faxed letter from Kimbrell before signing my contract that the district was being identified for fiscal distress. I also received a call from a former superintendent warning me to think twice before coming because of a possible takeover and the validity of my contract if that occurred.”

“I called the commissioner about the letter and the phone call,” he told us. “I also called Tim Clark, the board president, about my hesitancy to move my family across country with the fiscal-distress designation.


“The commissioner implied in his conversation with me that ADE did not have the resources to take over the district, but would work with me if I still decided to come to help the district. I believed in the promise and potential of the board and district. I did not back out of my commitment to sign the contract, but I did request more safeguards be negotiated into the contract to protect my family.”

Hopson thinks he’s being blamed for decades of failure, even though he had the job for just a year.


“The biggest regret from my year as superintendent was that I genuinely thought my relationship with the commissioner and ADE was established around support and assistance. I directed the cabinet to give them full access to both the good and the ugly within the district so we could work cooperatively with them to right the ship.

“I had gone to a state board meeting only days before the takeover to thank the commissioner and the state board for their partnership with PCSSD. I was exposed June 20th to a commissioner and department I did not recognize. It left me feeling that the entire relationship that year was nothing more than trickery and deception to gain my trust for this moment.

“June 20th was the extreme opposite of the supportive, courteous, and helpful tone I had enjoyed with ADE up to that date when the commissioner came to my office with state troopers like I was a common criminal.”


“Lord knows I tried my best to get the ball rolling to improve conditions in the district, but (the state Education Department) and politics emerged as my biggest hurdles,” he told us.

“They evidently have a better plan, and I wish them the best, but I will not allow them to harm my family by disavowing my contract,” Hopson told us. “I was far from perfect, but I would rather go down in a fight to the end than simply be politically correct and promote the status quo of failure.”

“No family of a superintendent in this state or country —which essentially makes such huge sacrifices so we can do this work — should be subject to the tremendous harm and damage of not having the protection of a contract related to the high risk in this occupation,” Hopson told us.

“I can respect and honor the decision by the commissioner to go in a different direction, but I will not allow anyone to hurt or jeopardize the living standards of my family,” he added.


“The thoughts running through my mind at that time were I left Oregon after 20 years to come back to my native state to be treated like an inmate. Maybe I should have really heeded that call I received from the former PCSSD superintendent warning me of the risk of a takeover and to think twice before signing on the dotted line.

“Despite the feelings of regret about ADE, had I to do it over again, I still would have come for the original board of seven that hired me. The cause was right and there was great opportunity in the challenges for the students of PCSSD.

“I am blessed by having been a part of this 11-month experience as superintendent of PCSSD.”

He knows there’s talk about breaking up the school district. “Whether Jacksonville splits or stays with the district, I just hope the best comes out of this for the students,” Hopson said.

He’s optimistic about his future and thinks he’ll land another superintendent’s job elsewhere. “I was highly recruited for large urban superintendent slots across the country before accepting PCSSD,” he said. “I have reconnected with that network and my name is currently in two large national urban searches.”