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VOL. 127 | NO. 247 | Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Conflict Charge Roils Busy School Board Meeting

By Bill Dries

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One countywide school board member called Tuesday, Dec. 18, for the resignation of another board member over an alleged conflict of interest.

School board member Martavius Jones offered a resolution calling on board member David Pickler to resign over money put aside by school districts under the Tennessee School Boards Association to cover the liability of OPEB amounts – other post-employment benefits.

Board members voted down an effort to add the resolution to the agenda for a vote by the full board and several board members warned that even reading the resolution with its allegations could leave the board or at least Jones open to a defamation civil lawsuit by Pickler.

School board attorney Dorsey Hopson warned Jones of that possibility before Jones read his resolution.

According to Jones resolution, the allegation involves $12 million in OPEB money. Jones is alleging Pickler and/or his financial services firm made $75,000 in commissions & fees on the investments in the first year and $30,000 ongoing.

Jones did not comment on the allegation beyond reading the resolution aloud.

The school board approved sending the allegation to a three-member ethics committee appointed by board chairman Billy Orgel. He named board member Teresa Jones to be chairwoman of the panel that also includes board members David Reaves and Oscar Love.

Like Pickler, Martavius Jones works in the financial services and planning industry. So does board member Chris Caldwell who said the allegation’s “damage is done already.”

“I wouldn’t do this to my worst enemy,” he added.

“These are serious charges,” said board member Sarah Lewis. “If they are true, we need to know it.”

Board member Mike Wissman said he had been contacted by FBI agents in the last six to eight weeks. According to him, the agents described it as a “witch hunt.” Wissman believed the FBI inquiry was probably prompted by a complaint from Martavius Jones to the federal agency.

Wissman said the transactions in question were vetted through the TSBA as well as board attorneys.

“I think everybody’s been aware of this except for you,” he said to Jones.

Pickler did not comment during the board debate.

The bombshell resolution came at the start of a busy school board meeting in which the board gave preliminary approval to seven more merger recommendations in the areas of career and technical education, fine arts programs and schools security.

Of those seven recommendations, the fine arts recommendation would mean hiring 61 new teachers in the area at a cost of $3.8 million more to the merged district.

Board approval at this stage is not final. It means that the board will later weigh the items they have greenlighted as they put together a budget for the first year of the schools merger which begins in August 2013.

The board did not get to seven more recommendations on teacher and employee benefits that include not subsidizing Medigap insurance for classified employees and a “low cost high deductible” health insurance plan.

Orgel said he will call a special board meeting shortly after the new year to deal with those recommendations.

Meanwhile, the board approved a $23,000 contract to hire PROACT Search, of Wilmette, Ill., as the firm that will manage the board’s search for a merger superintendent.

The board also approved the closing of Humes Middle School at the end of the current school year. The closing is a first step toward reopening Humes as an optional school in the first year of the merger as a musical arts school open to all 7th and 8th graders in the school system regardless of where they live.

The board also delayed a decision on the charter school application of MASE, Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering, the state’s first charter school which was founded in 2003. The board approved the charter school application of Vision Preparatory charter school.

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