The open hearing that ultimately ended in the immediate termination of Pine Bluff School District Superintendent Jerry O. Payne for cause Tuesday night produced a number of emotional exchanges between various school board members and the superintendent.

The open hearing that ultimately ended in the immediate termination of Pine Bluff School District Superintendent Jerry O. Payne for cause Tuesday night produced a number of emotional exchanges between various school board members and the superintendent.

The board initially voted to fire Payne for cause on May 15. In a May 18 letter to Payne on behalf of the board, school district attorney Luther Sutter officially notified Payne of the 26 specific allegations that served as the basis for the board’s decision. Click here to read the letter.

Tuesday’s hearing was required by law to provide Payne an opportunity to respond to the allegations.

Payne addressed each of the 26 allegations under questioning from his attorney, Keith Billingsley. Sutter then was allowed to ask his own questions of Payne, followed by questions to Payne from the board members.

Finally, after the questioning by both attorneys, school board members were allowed to ask Payne questions pertinent to the topic at hand.

The procedure

Billingsley and Sutter sparred over a number of points, including the fact that Sutter was acting both as the attorney for the school board and as the moderator of the hearing.

“I believe this board is acting improperly because Mr. Sutter is wearing two hats,” Billingsley said in his opening statement. “He is representing the board and there was no reason for him to address the public before the start of this hearing. We asked for a third-party moderator but we did not get one.”

Billingsley repeated his concerns with Sutter’s dual role in his closing statement.

“Mr. Sutter is wearing two hats,” Billingsley said again. “The better course would be to have Mr. Sutter represent you [the board] and somebody else to assist the board with the mechanics of how the hearing works.”

Billingsley said several of the board’s allegations against Payne were too vague for him to offer an adequate response, because they centered on issues involving unnamed personnel.

One allegation accused Payne of employing district personnel without board approval of their contracts. Billingsley said his client could not adequately defend himself without more information.

On Sutter’s advice, the board voted to go into executive session to provide Payne with the specifics of the allegation, but Billingsley refused because by law he would not be allowed to join his client in the executive session.

The same process was repeated for every allegation that involved personnel.

After several such exchanges, Sutter expressed frustration.

“All of these allegations could have been handled by adults in that room back there,” Sutter said as he motioned to the back room where executive sessions are held.

At one point, Billingsley and Sutter had a particularly testy exchange after Payne said he didn’t understand a question from Sutter.

“Are you going to clarify the question or leave him with an unclear question?,” Billingsley asked Sutter.

“I thought it was clear,” Sutter responded.

“I have a lot of education and I didn’t understand the question,” Billingsley said.

Sutter laughed and Billingsley replied that he was serious.

“Neither your mood or your demeanor are serious,” Sutter said.

The process

The first two allegations charged Payne with hiring Lt. Col. Reginald Fields as a short-term consultant to correct problems with the district’s information technology system, although the board had voted not to accept Payne’s recommendation to hire Fields, and with misrepresenting to the board how much Fields and his support technicians would be paid.

Payne and his attorney described a scenario in which Payne was forced by circumstances to find a qualified computer systems expert on short notice because of the failure of one employee to get critical information to him.

Sutter countered with a set of questions intended to portray Payne as a superintendent trying to find scapegoats for his own poor management decisions.

Payne said that on Friday, Aug. 13, 2011, the weekend before the start of the 2011-2012 school year, he was informed by the district’s director of technology, Rodney Riles, that the district’s computer system had shut down. The district was unable to connect to the Arkansas Public School Computer Network, which is mandatory for schools to operate.

“I asked why he had waited so long to tell me,” Payne said.

Billingsley asked Payne what he did after learning of the computer problem.

“I called Arkansas Department of Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell and told him what had happened,” Payne said. “The computer network had shut down and I believed it to be an emergency.”

In its allegation against Payne the school board characterized Fields as a friend of the superintendent’s, an assertion that Payne said was untrue.

Payne and the board were most at odds over Payne’s assertion that he had board approval to hire Fields and several support technicians as consultants.

“After Lt. Col. Fields made a Power Point presentation [at an Aug. 16 board meeting] on the problems he had found, board president [Herman] Horace addressed me saying ‘based on what we have seen we want the system to be up and running so do whatever you need to do. Don’t you agree with me board?’”

Payne said that issues with computer viruses plagued the district throughout the fall of 2011.

Payne continued his criticism of Riles by saying that when he had asked Riles whether the district had a physical firewall in place for its computer network he was told that it did.

“It turns out that we did not,” Payne said.

Sutter asked Payne if he was saying that Riles had lied to him.

“Yes, he did lie to me,” Payne said. “He was given a letter of insubordination. He was given a hearing but I was not allowed to attend. Mr. Riles would not go out to work with Lt. Col. Fields and his crew. I considered this a dereliction of duty and incompetence.”

Sutter then asked Payne whether he thought state law required a competitive bid process to find someone to help with the information technology issues.

“It was a crisis and we had to do what we had to do,” Payne said.

“Did you think you had the opportunity by yourself to spend the district’s money?” Sutter asked Payne.

“It was a crisis,” Payne replied. “We could not open school … If there is a computer issue the director of technology should let the Arkansas Department of Education know.”

Sutter began to question Payne about why nobody other than Riles had contacted Payne about the computer problems.

“Shouldn’t more people have known that APSCN was down?” Sutter asked.

Sutter continued by asking Payne who else used APSCN, and Payne replied that principals of the schools as well as administrative office staff utilized the system.

“So it was a failure of your entire command staff, wasn’t it?” Sutter asked Payne.”You don’t accept responsibility for the failure of your command staff?”

“I took responsibility and called Dr. Kimbrell,” Payne answered.