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Both the North Little Rock and Pulaski County Special school districts are starting the 2018-19 school year as defendants in lawsuits over central office administrative changes that were made over the summer break.

Elizabeth "Beth" Shumate has sued the North Little Rock School District in Pulaski County Circuit Court over her end-of-June dismissal as the district's deputy superintendent.

In Pulaski County Special, four current and former employees have sued the district, the school board and Superintendent Charles McNulty in federal court over the elimination of their jobs or cuts in their work hours. The four are Jennifer Beasley, Kiffany Pride, Laura Shirley and Nicole Townsend.

Shumate, represented by attorney Randy Coleman, is seeking either reinstatement as a North Little Rock district employee or payment of what would have been her salary for the 2018-19 school year -- $139,576.98 as well as benefits and legal fees.

A district employee since July 2013, Shumate said in her suit that she notified the district this past spring of her intent to work in the district for the 2018-19 school year.

In the following weeks there was no board vote on her employment, which was consistent with the board's practice dating back to 2010 of not voting at all on her annual employment, the lawsuit said. Shumate also did not receive a contract for the 2018-19 school year, but that was not unexpected as in past years the contract was not delivered until September or October -- well after the July 1 start date of the work year.

Shumate contended in the lawsuit that she had "every justifiable reason to believe that her employment would continue consistent with the prior legal obligations, policy, procedure and practice" of the district for the past five years.

Shumate was "ambushed" at the "eleventh hour" on June 29, the lawsuit said, when Bobby Acklin, the School Board's selection to be interim superintendent for the 2018-19 school year, telephoned her to say she was terminated.

"This termination is improper, without authority and is illegal," the lawsuit said, adding that Acklin was not the legally authorized superintendent at the time, that the board had not conducted any vote authorizing Acklin to act and that Shumate's evaluations had been exemplary.

The lawsuit also argued that Shumate's status as a state-licensed teacher and holder of a contract that obligates her to accept teaching assignments puts her under the protection of the Arkansas Teacher Fair Dismissal Act. That act requires a district to notify a teacher of changes in their employment before May 1 each year. Otherwise the employment is automatically renewed.

Acklin said Monday that he had not yet seen a copy of Shumate's lawsuit.

"I will review it and have my attorney address the matter," he said in an email.

The Pulaski County Special School District employment lawsuit involves instructional management positions in the broader context of the 12,000-student district's 35-year-old federal school desegregation lawsuit. All four of the plaintiffs are black.

The employment lawsuit, prepared by attorneys Rep. John Walker, D-Little Rock and Shawn Childs, includes references to the district's desegregation obligations regarding not only employment but improving the condition of school buildings that serve neighborhoods with higher proportions of black students to equal that of schools in predominantly white neighborhoods.

The lawsuit also ties the employment decisions of this year to the dismissal in July 2017 of then Superintendent Jerry Guess and the district's legal team headed by Allen Roberts of Camden. Janice Warren, an assistant superintendent, was named interim superintendent.

The new case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr., who is the presiding judge in the long-running school desegregation case.

"The Pulaski County Special School District vehemently denies any allegations of wrongdoing or discriminatory action by its Board of Education, superintendent or staff as alleged by the plaintiffs," Deborah Roush, the district's executive director of communications, said about the lawsuit in an email. "Otherwise, the district has no comment on litigation involving former and current employees," Roush added.

The suit says that the district's School Board told Warren in February that it wanted to reduce the district's budget by about $1 million. Warren told the board that the the savings could be accomplished through the retirements and resignations of employees.

However, the suit contends that at about the same time some board members had grown hostile to Warren because of her insistence on compliance with the district's desegregation plan. Board members had assured Warren -- who had more than 10 years of experience as a superintendent in Crossett as well as her work in Pulaski County Special -- that she would be fairly considered for the permanent superintendent's job. Ultimately the board selected Charles McNulty, an assistant superintendent in Waterloo, Iowa.

While Warren recommended the continued employment for 2018-19 of the curriculum instruction team -- the three black plaintiffs and two white people -- the board directed Paul Brewer to make recommendations for terminating staff in consultation with McNulty in Waterloo.

That resulted in cutting the positions of the five academic program administrators Beasley, Pride and Townsend as well as Leta Ray and Brandy Beckman, and cutting the hours of Shirley, the district's gifted and talented education coordinator. The board also cut other positions held by white central office staff members including that of Brewer, the district's executive director of human resources, and the directors of elementary and secondary education, the director of fine arts and the athletic director.

Beasley, Pride and Townsend have not secured new jobs, the 26-page lawsuit said, while others who were affected by the budget cuts have new positions in and outside of the district. Brewer, Ray and JoAnn Koehler, who was director of fine arts, in particular, continue to work for the district -- with changes to their titles and/or responsibilities. Warren also works for the district in an assistant superintendent position.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs argued in the suit that their clients have been deprived of rights provided them by not only state and federal laws but also district policies.

Each of the plaintiffs -- Beasley, Pride, Townsend and Shirley -- are asking for "make whole relief," including back wages, restoration of benefits, and both compensatory and punitive damages.

Metro on 08/14/2018

Print Headline: 2 districts sued over lost jobs, hour cuts

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