Pulaski School Board votes to dump lawyer, then fires Superintendent Guess | Arkansas Blog

Pulaski School Board votes to dump lawyer, then fires Superintendent Guess

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JERRY GUESS: His tenure may be coming to an end because of School Board unhappiness over his chosen lawyer. - BENJI HARDY/FILE PHOTO AT STATE BOARD OF EDUCAITON
  • BENJI HARDY/File photo at state Board of Educaiton
  • JERRY GUESS: His tenure may be coming to an end because of School Board unhappiness over his chosen lawyer.

The Pulaski County School Board fired its superintendent tonight after a dispute over the county's legal representation.

Here's how it happened at a special meeting called at 4:30 p.m.: On a 6-1 vote, with only Mike Kemp of Shannon Hills objecting, the Pulaski County School Board voted not to employ Allen Roberts of Camden as the district lawyer.

The board then moved to an executive session with Superintendent Jerry Guess, who'd made an impassioned pitch for the success the district has achieved with Roberts' help. Guess had said earlier in the day that Roberts served at his pleasure, not as a board hire, and if the board decided it didn't want to employ Roberts, he'd have to make a decision himself on whether to stay. He doesn't want to work with another attorney. He wrote the board yesterday to say he detected a loss of confidence and that he and Roberts would depart if that turned out to be true.

After about an hour in special session, the board voted unanimously on a motion by Brian Maune of western Little Rock, seconded by Eli Keller of Maumelle, to terminate Guess.

The Board named Janice Warren as deputy superintendent and will bring back Sam Jones as the district's attorney. Irony — or rear-covering — in Warren's interim appointment. The Board had recently turned down Guess' effort to make her deputy superintendent. Many on the Board thought the black woman, a former Crossett superintendent, was somehow a cutout for Little Rock lawyer, John Walker, a hated man in the district.

Guess worked at will for $215,000 a year. He's been in schools for 41 years. He said he'll be looking for work to continue to support a remaining child in college.

Guess said in a phone interview that he'd told the Board that what the district had achieved in six years was a product of his work with Roberts.

"Unfortunately, being unitary means the district boundaries can be violated," Guess said. He said he'd only been telling the facts in telling Board members that achieving unitary status might bring boundaries into play.

"I told them I cannot accept not getting unitary as soon as possible."

He said he felt he'd been fired for trying to accelerate the process toward unitary status.

The court filing last week only committed the district to achieving unitary status, but it mentioned it might lead to boundaries being re-established.

Guess said this was only a recognition of reality. "School boards don't own school districts. It's the state's responsibility." He said the state has sent a clear signal, which he had opposed, about the possibility of an alteration in boundaries once desegregation was achieved. That was in a 2015 Board resolution.

Guess said he had supporters on the board and didn't resent the unanimous termination vote. He said he viewed it as an expression of unity to "entice" a candidate to take the job.

He said he "truly believed PCSSD is in a great spot and poised to do great work."

He added, "It's been a great six years. We accomplished a lot of things. Every one of those things, Allen Roberts was a critical part of that effort."

Several Board members have said they were unhappy to learn through news accounts last week of the district's participation in a multi-pronged effort to settle two civil rights cases — a new one over facilities involving the Little Rock School District and the Pulaski district's own remaining obligations in the long-running county desegregation case. The motion in court proposed a 60-day period to hurry a removal of Pulaski County from desegregation oversight. The motion mentioned this could put in play a state Board of Education interest in altering boundaries of the Pulaski district, a flash point particularly because state Rep. John Walker, civil rights lawyer for black families in the county, is involved.

Guess insisted earlier today — and again tonight — that he'd spoken to each board member before the motion was filed. He said he had emphasized the value of ending the desegregation lawsuit and said he had explained boundaries could come into play, based on a 2015 state Board of Education resolution. But he also said the district had nothing to fear from changes in boundaries because courts no longer required busing and transfer plans for racial balance. Existing schools should be largely unaffected wherever they fall. There's particular resistance in some quarters (Chenal Valley) to a future solution that combined the Pulaski territory with the Little Rock territory south of the Arkansas River.

Board president Linda Remele credited progress made under Guess, but said the board wanted "to achieve unitary status in the right way."

Kemp made a motion to continue with Roberts and got no second. He argued the district was close to extricating itself from the desegregation case.

Alicia Gillen and Shelby Thomas both complained of decisions made without Board knowledge.

Eli Keller of Maumelle was particularly critical and mentioned the real bee in many bonnets. He said that if John Walker can get unitary status in 60 days with Allen Roberts he could do it with another lawyer. OPINION: Keller is wrong.

Guess said he'd been hired to fix money problems and resolve desegregation and Roberts, a friend from his days as a Camden school leader, had been integral to achievements in both areas. He credited Roberts with coming up with a path that ended recognition of unions as bargaining agents for school teachers and other employees, a popular switch with many of the current board members. He also said the global desegregation settlement of the Pulaski school case, from which Little Rock and North Little Rock are both now removed, was an important step that nobody thought could be achieved.

Guess credited Roberts' help with the plan that allowed the Jacksonville school district to separate and find money for new construction while also working out personnel kinks with a dual seniority system.

Guess argued for accelerating the push for unitary, or desegregated status. He said he believed the district was desegregated, which meant it operated fairly and equitably. He told me earlier today that he was in disbelief that some board members seemed to prefer to stay enmeshed longer in the school case.

"I make no apologies for what we've done," he told the Board today.

I think it safe to say that the workout proposed last Friday is dead. . I'd expect no expedited negotiations to occur on settling the Pulaski case. I expect the Little Rock case to go to trial in September. I still expect, some day, for changes to be made in the shape of the Pulaski County School District, an amalgam of numerous tiny rural school districts created decades ago as a convenience because neither Little Rock nor North Little Rock wanted a part of the sprawling, underfunded then-rural district. It became a white flight haven, particularly when the city of Little Rock allowed western annexed territory to join the city without joining the Little Rock School District. But it has developed its own desegregation problems over the years as the suburban movement has extended beyond Pulaski's boundary. Its persistence in harsh discipline for black students and inequities in hiring and promotion are why it remains in court today, along with facility problems now on the road to being fixed.

With school a month off it's not a good time to change leadership, particularly for a board that has indicated it wants to make incursions on the superintendent's administrative authority.

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