Firing former PB superintendent among top stories


Editor’s note: Problems leading to the firing of the former Pine Bluff School District superintendent is the No. 8 story on The Commercial’s Top 10 list for 2012.

The long-running feud between former Pine Bluff School District superintendent Jerry O. Payne and the Pine Bluff School Board dominated news headlines throughout much of 2012.

The school board voted in January against giving Payne a one year extension to his then three-year contract that was due to expire in June 2014.

“I move that no additional extension of Superintendent Payne’s contract be made,” then-board vice president Donna Barnes said at the meeting. “What is in place remains.”

The friction continued in February.

The board demanded that Payne reimburse the district nearly all of the $10,000 issued to him as part of his employment contract at a special called meeting Feb. 14 and asked that a cashier’s check be presented to the board at the Feb. 21 regular meeting.

Payne provided the cashier’s check to the board “under protest” Feb. 21.

The relationship between Payne and the board reached the breaking point at a Feb. 28 special called meeting in which the superintendent told The Commercial that he was informed during the executive session that his employment contract would be terminated effective June 30.

The board did not take a public vote on the termination at the Feb. 28 meeting.

Payne supplied the Commercial with a copy of a letter of termination dated Feb. 29 and signed by then-board president Herman Horace.

Payne said in an interview after the Feb. 28 board meeting that he had encouraged the board to hold the discussion about his contract in open session and hold a roll-call vote during open session. Payne said they refused.

Local attorney Gene E. McKissic submitted a petition signed by 68 people to the school board April 5 asking for a public forum to discuss board actions regarding Payne.

The petition was a followup to an earlier unsuccessful attempt by McKissic to organize such a meeting.

Spencer Robinson, a local attorney who had represented the school district for 30 years, ended his relationship with the district in mid April, saying in a letter that he believed the direction that the school board was going was not in the best interests of the district or its patrons.

The board hired Benton attorney Luther Sutter to represent the school district at an April 25 called meeting.

The board voted May 15 to ratify its Feb. 28 decision to send a letter to the superintendent giving him 120 days notice that the board was terminating his contract without cause, which Sutter advised was necessary to comply with the public vote requirement.

The board voted to have Sutter prepare a letter on behalf of the body laying out the reasons for cause that would be sent to Payne’s attorney, which he did.

The board hosted the public forum requested by Pine Bluff residents May 23, with a standing room only crowd filling the PBSD administrative office board room.

Members of the audience who signed in were allowed to address questions to the board, very few of which addressed the issue of Payne’s termination.

The school board voted unanimously May 29 to terminate Payne effective immediately at the end of a six hour open hearing in which he was allowed to publicly respond to 26 allegations made against him by the board in a letter dated May 18.

As the evening wore on the exchanges between board members and the superintendent became progressively more animated with details of executive sessions brought into the public arena.

At a May 31 called board meeting the board voted to hire former Little Rock School District superintendent Linda Watson as interim superintendent of the Pine Bluff district effective June 4.

Payne, acting through his attorney, Keith Billingsley, filed a lawsuit against the district Oct. 15 alleging that the school board did not abide by the terms of his contract.

The legal wrangling continued as the year drew to a close, with the case moving from Jefferson County Circuit Court to U.S. District Court and then back to circuit court.

Payne initially alleged violations of his rights under both the Arkansas and U.S. Constitutions but later amended his complaint against the district to remove a federal due process claim and so alleging violations under the Arkansas Constitution and the Arkansas Civil Rights Act of 1993.

Between the Sept. 18 school board election and the Oct. 9 run-off election all five of the total of seven board members whose seats were contested lost their re-election bids, introducing an almost completely new board of directors to the public at the Oct. 16 regular monthly meeting.