Countywide school board members already had a lot on their agenda Tuesday, Dec. 18, when they were surprised by an internal ethics investigation.
Near the beginning of this week’s meeting, 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 other post-employment benefits (OPEB).
Board members voted down an effort to add the resolution to the agenda, 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.
In fact, school board attorney Dorsey Hopson warned Jones of that possibility before Jones read his resolution.
According to the 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 and fees on the investments in the first year and $30,000 annually after that.
Board member Mike Wissman said FBI agents had contacted him in the past six to eight weeks. He said the agents described it as a “witch hunt.” Wissman said the FBI inquiry was probably prompted by a complaint from 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 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 said.
“These are serious charges,” said board member Sarah Lewis. “If they are true, we need to know it.”
The board also 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. That vote came with other indications of a deeper rift among board members.
Board member David Reaves moved to delay the contract vote until after the merger start date in August.
“We’re looking for stability all across the county and there is stability already,” Reaves said, referring to Shelby County Schools superintendent John Aitken. “I still think it’s a mistake to go through this process at this time.”
It will take a two-thirds vote of the 23-member school board to approve anyone as the merger superintendent. Reaves and several others favoring Aitken don’t believe he or anyone else will be able to get that many votes at the end of the process.
Board member Jeff Warren said he would vote for Aitken now and that the merged school district needs a leader already here. But he countered that there has to be a national search, in part, because of the action by the old Shelby County Schools board to extend Aitken’s contract through the first two years of the merger just before the countywide school board was formed.
“That was a very hostile move,” Warren said. “As far as I’m concerned I think what we need to do for everyone here is to give everyone who wants to apply an opportunity. You guys who voted this contract in did it in such a way knowing we would be in this position.”
Wissman argued the search is a “dog and pony show to appease the public.”
“We’re going to tell everybody we put a show on for you,” he said.
The countywide board later opted not to renew the contract of Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash past the start of the merger.