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Former president of Little Rock college sues over his firing

Arkansas Baptist violated contract, Jones’ filing says by Eric Besson | July 25, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.
Arkansas Baptist College is shown in this file photo.

Former Arkansas Baptist College President Joseph Jones has filed suit against the Little Rock college over his contentious exit last year, accusing the board of thwarting his resignation and firing him without cause.

Severance pay is at the heart of the breach-of-contract lawsuit filed Monday afternoon, about seven months after his departure.

Jones, who signed a three-year contract in July 2016, maintains he was owed a compensation package, whether it was for his firing without "cause" or his resignation for "good reason."

Arkansas Baptist, a 134-year-old historically black institution, relies on federal Pell grants and student loans to make ends meet. The school has struggled financially for years, periodically missing payrolls and failing to pay vendors on time. Fall enrollment last year, at 575 students, was less than half of its 10-year peak in 2011.

Jones declined to comment on the suit, and his attorney, John Coulter of the McMath Law Firm, was on a flight and couldn't be reached Tuesday afternoon, an assistant said. Neither college trustees Chairman Richard Mays nor the college's attorney, Jerry Malone, responded to emails seeking comment.

According to the complaint, Jones informed former Chairman Kenneth Harris on Dec. 15 that he planned to resign, citing breaches of his employment agreement. Two days later, Harris informed Jones that he was fired.

"The College cited 'failure to be transparent with the Board' as the grounds for his discharge," the suit says. "Harris offered no explanation for the alleged failure to be transparent, nor did he make a compelling argument that the alleged grounds constituted cause... ."

A copy of Jones' contract, included as an exhibit to the lawsuit, says he would be owed half of his base salary if fired without cause or if he resigned for good reason. The contract set his salary at $150,000.

The employment agreement says he can be dismissed for cause if he took action involving "gross misconduct, willful malfeasance or gross negligence" and the behavior had a "materially adverse effect" on Arkansas Baptist.

The contract includes what the lawsuit termed a "safe harbor" -- that "cause" could not be invoked if Jones believed he acted in the best interest of the school.

At the time of Jones' exit, Harris told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that Jones' "lack of transparency" prevented board members from having necessary information to make timely decisions and avoid financial and legal risks.

Fall enrollment has plummeted over the span of several years, from a 10-year peak of 1,193 in 2011 to a low of 575 last fall, according to Arkansas Department of Higher Education data. In fall 2016, Jones' first semester, 843 students were enrolled, the data show.

Conversely, the contract says Jones could cite "good reason" for his resignation if Arkansas Baptist failed to employ him in a position that satisfies the terms of the agreement, which says he was to be "responsible for the overall and day-to-day operations ... subject to the overall direction of the Board of Trustees of the College."

To resign for that reason, Jones had to cite a specific breach and provide 30 days notice. He could resign after 20 days if the school did not remedy the the problem, the contract says.

Trustees during Jones' employment created an emergency management committee that "micromanaged all financial decisions and efforts to recruit students for the College," the lawsuit says.

Harris, who remains on the board but is no longer chairman, declined to comment.

Jones' complaint also accuses campus leaders of not disclosing the college's financial challenges during his contract negotiations and falsifying financial-health scores on reports to its accrediting agency and the federal government.

The lawsuit was assigned to Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza. Jones, who is seeking unspecified compensatory damages, requested a jury trial.

Metro on 07/25/2018

Print Headline: Ex-president sues college over his firing


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