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Math school leader says role of board still under discussion

by Steve Goff | May 30, 2023 at 3:58 a.m.

Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts Director Corey Alderdice says discussions regarding the reevaluation of the board of visitors' role may extend into next year.

Questions as to its specific parameters arose at the May 8 quarterly meeting, during which an at times tense exchange occurred between Alderdice and board Chair Tim Barnes after Barnes noted he had been approached by employees who did not feel comfortable going through the proper grievance channels for fear of retaliation.

Prior to joining the University of Arkansas System in 2004, the school operated with its own board of trustees that served as its governing body. Act 1305 of 2003 transferred oversight to the University of Arkansas board of trustees, as a seven-member board of visitors was formed.

Alderdice says the roles changed fairly significantly.

According to state education code, 6-42-304, the board of visitors is to assist in securing financial support; to advise the school administrator along with the U of A president and board of trustees regarding the educational, service and financial needs of the school; to accept and to execute specific assignments made by the UA president and board of trustees; to keep informed on those matters necessary to promote the educational aims of the school for the benefit of the students; to study the reports and issues placed before the board of trustees and to promote in diverse ways the growth and development in excellence of the school and the U of A in general.

Regarding the next meeting, both appointed and ex officio members were sent a poll to assess their availability during the first two weeks of June, following the May 8 meeting.

"I do think that the work will carry over into the next year," Alderdice said. "But recent meetings have certainly highlighted that it's important for both staff and the board to be constantly mindful of our roles and how best we assist each other to ensure ASMSA's success. I think that after this initial meeting, there certainly will be an opportunity to look at those six key areas, but I do think that also gives some insight on how, starting with the next year of meetings in the fall, we can tailor those quarterly meetings to give the board the information and resources they need to be full-throated advocates for ASMSA."

He noted that even the best of boards, whether associated with schools or not, sometimes grapple with the difference between governance and management. While the UA System and board of trustees provide governance and accountability, the math, science and art school's campus leadership team -- made up of the director and senior staff -- is responsible for management and the day-to-day operations of the school.

The board of visitors, Alderdice said, falls in between those spaces and is intended to act as advisers and advocates.

"For us, our goal is to highlight to them great things that our students and staff are doing so that they can share that information with folks across the state," he said. "Second, we talk about our needs and challenges as an institution so that they can also advocate with the Legislature and the state agencies. And third, we bring forward projects and initiatives for feedback from this group so that we can take their varied experience and insights and make informed decisions in the interest of the campus community."

As members of the board come from different parts of the state, he said he believes one of the keys to the board finding its greatest success is prioritizing in-person meetings and maintaining a presence at various campus events throughout the year. While other two-year and four-year campuses within the UA System have a specific service region, ASMSA has a statewide footprint, with at least one member from each of the four congressional districts.

When asked how employees can feel confident in going through the proper channels, Alderdice said that for the usual workplace challenges and natural conflicts that arise in any place of work the board should direct employees to human resources.

"Nia Rieves, who is the director of human resources and campus culture, has 20 years of experience in the field, and her role is to serve as the chief advocate for employees on campus. One thing to note is that particular position was elevated this year to a director level, a senior-level position, to convey to the campus that she is empowered to act in the interest of employees and has the full agency to respond to their concerns," he said.

Alderdice said that position should demonstrate it has the ability to act on behalf of employees.

"In those processes, Ms. Rieves advises employees of their rights; she can facilitate mediation to address conflict and guide employees through those formal dispute resolution channels," he said. "But most of all, she has an obligation to employees for respect of their privacy in those discussions."

He noted 95% of the conversations she has with employees involve an informal process. Alderdice said he believes there is some confusion as to informal complaints and grievances. In the context of the school's employee handbook, he said grievance refers to a formal complaint brought forward by an employee to human resources that is investigated by both HR and the appropriate supervisor. In the case of a grievance against the director, it would be investigated by the UA System.

He said Barnes' claims of employee fear of retaliation in bringing concerns forward are unsubstantiated.

"To be clear, neither I nor our campus leadership team or the U of A System take allegations of retaliation lightly," he said. "Like I said before, misunderstanding and misinformation certainly have the potential to breed conflict, but to date there has been no instance or evidence of retaliation during my tenure at the school, and there's no reason, I think, for staff to worry about that happening in the future. Not only are there a variety of federal, state and University of Arkansas System protections in place, but it is completely antithetical to my personal and professional values."

Alderdice, who joined the school in 2012, said he hopes to continue to bring stability to his position and to invest in the school's long-term success.

"For many of my predecessors in that role, this was the final step in their journey as educators and the culmination of their careers. In fact, my tenure as director has been almost double the longest previously-serving educators in that role. So I'm very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to grow personally, as well as professionally, and I have every desire to continue to lead that ongoing growth and evolution of this special institution," he said.

Barnes did not respond after repeated attempts for comment.

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