Columns » Max Brantley

The Pulaski school caper

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I wrote briefly last week about the Keystone Kops caper in which Pulaski County School Board member Tim Clark and a district principal, Michael Nellums of Mills High, collaborated on setting up a video sting of Gwen Williams, another School Board member.

Williams was a key vote last fall in a simmering controversy over the teachers union. Clark and Nellums shared an anti-union objective. People with whom Clark and Nellums dealt clumsily put together a video of Williams taking an envelope with perhaps $100, supposedly to influence a favor on a sidewalk contract at a school in her zone. The video and a bogus letter about it were sent to the School Board.

As the instigators no doubt hoped, the video was turned over to authorities. Investigators did a thorough job. They uncovered, not a crime by Williams, but what Prosecutor Larry Jegley described as a "juvenile" plot to discredit Williams.

Clark insists he had only been responding to what he thought was a legitimate complaint about Williams. Nellums has dummied up (and lawyered up), but his allies insist "everybody knows" Williams was prone to such suasion. Nellums' allies also offer a number of other straw men, several racial in context.

• The prosecutor just wants to put the black man – Nellums – down. Forget that, in doing so, the prosecutor exonerated a black woman and tabbed a white man as the financier of the plot. If Williams' critics are so sure she's dirty, why didn't they just complain to authorities, rather than cooking up a scheme complete with a handwritten script, clandestine meetings, dozens of phone calls and a wad of cash stuck in a Ritz cracker box?

• Williams is a poor woman, a discount store clerk, whose grasp isn't sufficient for school board service. Let voters be the judge of that.

• Williams went along with an unconscionable decision (pushed by Clark, by the way) to pour Pulaski school construction money into neighborhoods of white privilege, such as Maumelle, while forsaking black neighborhoods like College Station. This again, is no justification for a black principal's schoolboy antics.

• The prosecutor was tougher on Michael Nellums than on police in recent shooting investigations. I don't buy it, but those cases aren't on trial. The issue here is inexplicably stupid actions by people who lead school districts. (Nellums is also a member of the Little Rock School Board.)

Prosecutor Jegley says he looked for every possible way to allege a crime. Had the instigators gone directly to authorities – rather than planting a bogus claim with the School Board – they could have faced a false report charge. Nothing else, Jegley said, "met the threshold for bringing the justice machinery to bear."

Mockery fits the offense. I like a reader's photoshopping of pictures of Nellums and Clark into a picture of the cinematic heroes of the movie "Dumb and Dumber." But stupid as those movie characters were, they had good hearts. There was nothing good-hearted about the scheme aimed at Gwen Williams.

Nellums' record, by the way, is littered with trouble – disputes with a co-worker; allegations of tricks by the man he beat for Little Rock School Board; funny business in the recent Little Rock School Board superintendent search.

Williams' attorney has said she'll sue. Good. Meanwhile, the Pulaski School Board should make permanent Nellums' suspension as a school principal. He and Clark also should resign from their school board seats, but that would require more grace than they've demonstrated so far.

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