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story.lead_photo.caption Rep. Jon Eubanks, R-Paris, is shown in this file photo.

After the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville didn't hire his favored candidate for a job, a state lawmaker secured a legislative panel's delay in considering 20 proposed contracts and construction projects at colleges in the University of Arkansas System.

In recent interviews, state Rep. Jon Eubanks, R-Paris, said he asked the Legislative Council's Review Subcommittee co-chairman, Rep. Jeff Wardlaw, R-Hermitage, to have the committee "hold" onto the proposals during the panel's July 18 meeting because he wanted to express his concerns about the direction of the Arkansas Leadership Academy to UA System Vice President of University Relations Melissa Rust. The academy is on the UA campus in Fayetteville.

Eubanks said he didn't ask Rust to have UA-Fayetteville reverse its recent decision to hire Huntsville Public Schools Superintendent Clint Jones as the academy's director. Eubanks' preferred candidate was Tina Smith, director of policy and special projects at the state Department of Education.

"We'll be watching it to see what comes out of the Leadership Academy now as far as the direction," Eubanks, a former Paris School Board member, said when asked whether Rust satisfied his concerns. "Developing leadership at the building level is critical if we want to move education forward."

The Arkansas Leadership Academy provides professional development services to many public schools and districts throughout the state.

The academy's budget for the fiscal year that started July 1 totals about $2.7 million, including $1.27 million from school district support program contracts and about $1.4 million from the state, said Mark Rushing, UA spokesman. The state Department of Education provides $900,000 a year to the academy and $500,000 for its master principal program, said state Education Commissioner Johnny Key.

The academy's former director, David Cook, served in the post from January 2014 through June of this year, Rushing said.

Cook, a former superintendent, principal and teacher, also served in the state House of Representatives from 2005-11 as a Democrat from Williford. Cook was paid $119,063 a year. Jones' annual salary at the academy is $110,000.

"The one issue I had, it wasn't the individual they hired, but they went back with a school superintendent," Eubanks said in an interview last week.

"I don't want to stereotype everybody in education, especially principals or superintendents, but it seems like we just weren't taking the steps necessarily to develop the leadership that we needed at the building level," Eubanks said.

"This guy they hired may do a bang-up job, may do fine, but it seems like we just keep going back to the same education establishment-type individual, and I don't know if that was the right course," he said.

Former House Speaker Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, said in an interview last week that he also recommended Smith.

"I said, 'Look, the status quo is not going to be sufficient,'" Gillam said. "I was a little surprised maybe at the end of the day that they went with another superintendent, but I wasn't in the room" when UA officials decided to hire Jones. Gillam left office in mid-June to become director of governmental affairs and external relations at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway.

JONES VS. SMITH

Rushing said the preferred qualifications for academy director included experience as a school principal as well as a doctoral degree because the position works closely with school districts, including principals and superintendents, and leads the master principal program, and Jones meets the preferred qualifications.

Jones had been Huntsville Public Schools superintendent since 2014 and earned a doctoral degree in school leadership from Arkansas Tech University, according to his resume. He served as assistant principal for Farmington Public Schools from 2012-14, superintendent in County Line Public Schools in Branch (in Franklin County) from 2011-12 and principal of County Line High School from 2006-10. He also was an assistant high school principal in Houston, Texas, from 2004-06 and a secondary school teacher in Rosenberg, Texas, from 1999-2004. He also has been an adjunct instructor at Harding University and Arkansas Tech University.

His references included Huntsville Board of Education President Kevin Wilson, Northwest Arkansas Education Service Cooperative Director Charles Cudney, and Mark Gotcher, Russellville School District superintendent and former state deputy commissioner of education.

Smith has been director of policy and special projects at the Education Department since July 2016. She earned a master's degree in education at UA, Fayetteville, according to her resume.

She was leadership and curriculum coach at the Arkansas Public School Resource Center from October 2014-June 2016; curriculum administrator of Ozark Public Schools from July 2008-June 2013; Ozark High School counselor from July 2005-June 2008; Ozark Junior High School counselor from July 2002-June 2005; and social studies teacher at Ozark Junior High School from 1992-2002.

Stephen Dittmore, who chaired the position's search committee, said in a written statement: "The search committee was committed to identifying a transformational leader for the academy, one who was best positioned to move the academy forward and embrace new ways of conceptualizing the role of the academy in ensuring the state of Arkansas continued to be a leader in student-focused education.

"Dr. Jones is the first academy director to go directly from a superintendent's position to ALA director," said Dittmore, who is associate dean for outreach and innovation in the UA College of Education and Health Professions. "The committee was confident his experience as a superintendent, principal, and teacher, coupled with his academic background, uniquely qualify him to move the academy into its next decade of service."

Rushing said the search committee included Denise Ariola, director of the UA Office of Innovation for Education; Ed Bengston, associate professor of educational leadership, curriculum and instruction; Janet Penner Williams, associate professor of educational leadership, curriculum and instruction; and Richard Abernathy, executive director of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators.

Thirty-nine people applied for the job, according UA records.

Seven candidates took part in video interviews and three of them were invited for on-campus interviews, Rushing said.

The three were Jones, Smith and Renee Treat, director of leadership development and instructional services for the Region 11 Education Service Center in Texas.

Eubanks said he and Gillam met last year with Cook, and "it just didn't seem like we were getting the results that we could possibly be getting to help develop the leadership at the building level and the principals," he said.

Rushing said there was an informational meeting with lawmakers about the Leadership Academy -- how it operates, what it provides and what it funds.

"My understanding is that the university representatives didn't feel there were any concerns at the end of the meeting," he said. "And, no, the university hasn't received any written concerns that I'm aware of."

LETTERS OF RECOMMENDATION

Last month, Eubanks acknowledged in an interview that he wrote a letter of recommendation for a candidate for the academy director, but at that time he declined to identify the person.

UA-Fayetteville records obtained by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act show that Eubanks wrote a May 8 letter recommending Smith to UA-Fayetteville Chancellor Joseph Steinmetz.

"After taking an in-depth look at [the academy], its practices and potential to create positive change in K-12 education in Arkansas, I believe Ms. Smith is the ideal candidate for this position," said Eubanks.

The academy's "mission to 'develop and support leadership capacity that fosters equity and excellence in education' is very important to Arkansas K-12 education, and, as such, the program needs a determined and skilled leader," Eubanks wrote. "I fully support Ms. Tina Smith, and I would appreciate your favorable consideration of her for the position of director."

Eubanks said Gillam asked him to write a letter for Smith. Gillam said he advised Eubanks to write a letter to Steinmetz if he thought Smith was a good candidate.

UA records show that Key, the education commissioner; Terri Martin, executive vice president of Solution Tree/Marzano Research; and Gillam also wrote letters recommending Smith.

Solution Tree is a Bloomington, Ind.-based company to which the state Department of Education awarded a $4 million contract last year without taking bids. The company works with school staffs on professional development.

Its contract is for $8.5 million in the fiscal year that started July 1, said department spokesman Kimberly Friedman. In addition to an initial group of 11 schools and one district designated in 2017, eight schools and two districts have been selected to serve as working models for the Professional Learning Communities at Work project for this school year.

In his undated letter to the hiring committee for academy director, Key wrote, "I wholeheartedly recommend [Smith]" to be the leadership academy's director.

"Tina has also been the driving force behind the Arkansas PLC project, an initiative funded by the Arkansas General Assembly and implemented through a partnership with Solution Tree.

"I am convinced that Tina's experience in multiple levels of public education, her vision of what education can be in the state of Arkansas, and her determined dedication to student success make her an outstanding choice to be the next leader of the Arkansas Leadership Academy," Key wrote. "She can build on the past successes of the organization and take it to a higher level, making Arkansas Leadership Academy a transformative force in public education."

In an interview, Key said he would be able to work with Jones. Key also said he wants to better coordinate the efforts of the Education Department and the Arkansas Leadership Academy.

UA SYSTEM CONTRACTS

On July 18, 20 proposed contracts and construction projects for five colleges in the UA System were placed on hold without an explanation by the Legislative Council's Review Subcommittee at the request of Wardlaw, according to a recording of the meeting provided by the Bureau of Legislative Research.

Approval came in August. The contracts cleared the Review Subcommittee on Wednesday and the Legislative Council on Friday.

During the council's meeting, Sen. Keith Ingram, D-West Memphis, asked Friday what led to the delay.

Wardlaw said he held the UA System contracts in July for a subcommittee member whose name he didn't mention.

"I understand a courtesy hold, but that's an extraordinary thing for all the UA contracts," Ingram said.

"My school in Helena was desperately in need of repairing air-conditioning units of about three quarter of a million dollars ... and this hold cost them 30 days on getting that repaired," Ingram said, referring to Phillips Community College. The college, in the UA System, sought approval to use operating and reserve funds and private foundation funds for $1.45 million in repair and replacement projects.

"I understand to hold the individual contracts for certain things, but to hold UAMS, to hold Fayetteville, to hold all these different schools, that's a pretty drastic thing to do, and I am just wondering what the reason was that we chose to hold something that I am not sure there was problem with," Ingram said.

UAMS is the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. The 20 proposed contracts and projects also were for the UA Division of Agriculture, University of Arkansas at Little Rock and University of Arkansas at Fort Smith.

In response to Ingram, Wardlaw said he met with the UA System officials and they brought to light "to me some contracts that had to be pushed through for reasons that you stated here and I went back and amended that motion and let those contracts that day. They did not bring up those air conditioners, but did bring up UA-Pine Bluff and those made it through committee that day."

After the subcommittee's meeting July 18, Wardlaw declined to disclose to this newspaper which lawmaker asked him to have the panel hold up the contracts.

But he said he would ask the lawmaker to call the reporter.

The reporter didn't hear anything back, so called House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado. Eubanks called the reporter after hearing from Shepherd. Eubanks said he wasn't trying to hide his role and had intended to call the reporter.

Photo by AP
Arkansas House Speaker Rep. Jeremy Gillam
Photo by Jeff Mitchell
Rep. Jon Eubanks
Photo by Staton Breidenthal
Rep. Jeff Wardlaw
Photo by STEPHEN B. THORNTON
Sen. Keith Ingram

SundayMonday on 08/19/2018

Print Headline: Legislator stalls 20 UA colleges projects

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