Columns » Max Brantley

They win, they lose

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A group of Little Rock School District parents filed a class action lawsuit last week to stop the School Board from buying out Superintendent Roy Brooks’ contract for $500,000 or so.

The suit claims it’s an illegal exaction of tax dollars to pay Brooks what amounts to severance pay.

I don’t think much of the argument. First, it would make similar employment contracts all over Arkansas meaningless. But I’m also not persuaded by the legal argument that severance pay isn’t allowed because it’s not among those things spelled out in law as requirements in a superintendent’s contract. Nor is a car. Or bonuses. If the plaintiffs win, will these taxpayer protectors then sue to prevent payment of these other illegal exactions? I don’t think so.

The law provides for many legal expenditures by implication. I think you could easily argue that efficient operation of the school district requires the removal of a superintendent who has demonstrated an inability to work with the board majority. Not to mention a disdain, as exhibited in the merit pay disaster, for the Freedom of Information Act, employment contracts and public school board votes on controversial policy.

The plaintiffs’ lawsuit is dishonest when it says it’s about money, not Brooks. Baloney. This is a delaying action to keep Brooks in office until the next school election, when the parents hope to unseat one of the board members who want Brooks gone.

Delay is a legitimate tactic. But the suit is still a loser for anything but buying time toward an election..

If they are able to prevent a buyout, that only means the process to fire Brooks will crank up again. There will be an ugly hearing, with plenty of lawyering before, during and after, that will be far more expensive than the $2,500 a day paid the hearing officer. The hearing officer might or might not find the evidence for Brooks’ firing persuasive. I’ve seen persuasive evidence that Brooks has engaged in cronyism, disrespected board members and played fast at the edges of the law. That’s ample reason for a four-member majority to fire a superintendent who never worked well with them.

I think there’s good reason to expect a vote to fire Brooks at the end of the hearing process (again unless an election changes board dynamics). Then, presumably, he would sue over an unjust firing. This would take months to resolve, surely until the end of his current contract. He might even win. If so, he could be paid damages and attorney fees greater than the cost of the current contract buyout proposal. But that’s all he can win. He won’t get his job back.

The options, then, are these: 1) Pay severance now and pray for a peacemaker and cessation of hostilities. 2) Sue now and pay and pay and pay, in money, divisiveness and continued turmoil.

If the suit isn’t about money, the School Board need only say, fine. Roy Brooks is unemployed come the end of August under the termination clause he inserted in his contract. We want to pay him, you parents don’t. Let’s put the money in the court registry and let the judge decide.

There’s a democratic process to correct what the plaintiffs in this suit think is wrong in the Little Rock School District. The solution isn’t either legal tricks or obstructionism. It’s the vote. They are slow learners.

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