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Little Rock School Board weighs censure, backs resolution on role of members

by Cynthia Howell | September 2, 2022 at 3:38 a.m.
FILE — Little Rock School District headquarters are shown in this 2019 file photo.

Little Rock School Board members at a special meeting Thursday took the rare step of considering the discipline of one of its members but, instead, recommitted themselves to consistently fulfilling their responsibilities as defined in law and policy.

The board further resolved in an 8-0 vote after a two-hour executive session to develop and revise its policies as needed "to provide greater clarity to behaviors and expectations of board members -- especially in regard to visitation of schools by board members."

Board member Evelyn Callaway made the motion to approve the resolution and Norma Johnson seconded it. Board member Jeff Wood was absent.

The initial purpose of the meeting was to consider censure of board member Vickie Hatter, who was the subject of complaints lodged by Philicia Bell, the principal of Parkview Magnet High School. The allegations made by Bell against Hatter resulted in an investigation by an out-of-state law firm of Hatter's involvement at the high school.

"The resolution is just to revise policy, to make it more clear?" Hatter asked before the vote. "Okay. That's great. As long as we all understand that I did operate by the law and did what I needed to do," she said.

"That's not what this says," Callaway responded about the resolution.

The board's Code of Conduct -- contained in Policy 1.23 -- enables the board president to "entertain discussions of perceived violations of this code, and the Board is empowered to censure officially, in public meetings, members who persistently violate this code."

Thursday's meeting followed the Aug. 22 completion of a report done by Dentons, an international law firm, into the principal's complaints about Hatter -- who in addition to being a School Board member was a parent of a student at the school last year.

Bell accused Hatter of seeking to have her fired from the principal's job, of publicly sharing information from a School Board executive session regarding Bell, of pressuring Bell to enroll two students into Parkview who did not go through the standard enrollment process, failing to follow rules for entering Parkview through its front doors, entering classrooms and teacher work areas without permission, disregarding school rules on bringing lunches to their students, and interfering with Student Council planning the school's annual prom.

"Ms. Hatter has used her authority as an LRSD Board of Education member to gallivant across the Parkview High campus to create division amongst leadership and teaching staff," Bell is quoted as saying in the report.

Hatter, elected in a runoff election in December 2020 to represent the district's Zone 6, countered in part that she visited the school as a parent to ensure her daughter's safety and provide help to staff. She became involved with the prom planning because she didn't think appropriate fundraising had occurred, and that she didn't personally know the two students who were enrolled without auditions but only intended to inform the school that the families had interest in their children attending the school.

Hatter told the investigators that she relayed her concerns about Parkview to then-Superintendent Mike Poore but said that the board also needed to discuss the concerns of campus violence and a toxic work environment. She said an executive session was the proper place to do that.

Commissioned by the School Board, attorneys Rodney G. Moore and Nwando Anwah did the investigation and prepared the findings of fact on behalf of the Dentons firm.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette obtained the final report through an Arkansas Freedom of Information Act request.

The investigation, including its findings of fact, consisted of interviews, review of letters and email exchanges, viewing of school hall video recordings, researching district policies and state laws. Among those interviewed were Bell, Hatter, an assistant principal at the school and at least two other faculty members, the campus security chief, Poore and former Executive Director of Secondary Education Randy Rutherford.

The investigators concluded in their findings that "the weight of the evidence suggests that Hatter publicly announced Parkview" leadership as a topic to be discussed at a May 12 School Board executive session "in order to both embarrass Bell and/or to deliver on promises she made to a small group of teachers at Parkview."

In doing so, Hatter violated Board Policy 1.23 regarding staff and board interactions, and usurped the process of delegating to the superintendent the duty and ability to supervise and manage school principals, the report concluded and added: "she both embarrassed Bell and damaged the image of the Board."

The investigators further found that "Hatter abused her authority when she directed principal Bell to admit two students into the magnet program without following the standard protocol," which includes an application and an audition for the specific program in which the students want to be a part. "There is no evidence that either of these steps was completed by the students," the report states.

Hatter abused her authority by attempting to organize the Parkview High prom, the investigators also reported.

"Board member Hatter used her official LRSD e-mail to correspond with Philander Smith College" about using space on that campus for the event, the investigators found. She didn't indicate she was a parent of a Parkview student in that email but did use a signature line that identified her as a School Board member and past president of the board, "creating the impression that the planning was a sanctioned effort by either the School Board or Parkview."

Hatter as a School Board member violated board policies that call for board members to act as policymakers, monitors and evaluators of educational policies but do not have power individually to make promises that are binding on the board or district, the Dentons attorneys said.

On the other hand, the investigators concluded that Hatter did not violate district policies or state law in visiting the Parkview campus -- using a variety of school door entrances -- to speak with employees, enter classrooms or bring meals to her child.

In conclusion, the investigators said that "the weight of the evidence reflects that Board Member Hatter opposed the hiring of Ms. Philicia Bell and never accepted Ms. Bell as the instructional leader of Parkview. In doing so, Board member Hatter did violence to" board policies 1.7 and 1.23 regarding the superintendent's authority to supervise the district and the role of School Board members.

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