A dispute over the rehiring of a former Alma School District assistant superintendent came to a head during a district board meeting Thursday night.
Some board members and Alma School District Superintendent David Woolly had angry reactions after board member Chapen Rucker spoke against a recommendation of Woolly to rehire Dr. Mike McSpadden for the assistant superintendent position.
During the Thursday meeting, board member Ronnie Newton placed on the table a motion to approve Woolly’s recommendation, which included three other new hires in addition to McSpadden. The motion was quickly followed by a request by Rucker for an executive session, which was granted by Alma school board president Mike Higgins.
After about 20 minutes of deliberation, board members returned to regular session with Newton’s motion still on the table. Rucker then requested that each of the four hirings be considered separately, but Newton refused to retract his motion to approve the collective recommendation.
Woolly’s recommendation was approved, with Rucker the only one of seven board members to vote against.
After the vote, Rucker was granted permission by Higgins to give what Rucker said would be a brief statement.
In his statement, Rucker criticized the process by which McSpadden had resigned and been rehired. He claimed residents and district employees had approached him about the issue and echoed his same concerns.
“I voted against this recommendation because I don’t want to have my name attached to its approval,” Rucker said. “I apologize to the other three hire recommendations listed.”
When Rucker finished his statement, Woolly and several board members, including Higgins, were clearly angered.
“I apologize to those present; that was not what I had been led to believe it would be,” Higgins said. “If I had known this is what it would be, I wouldn’t have allowed it.”
Both Higgins and Woolly objected to the statement, they said, and Woolly gave a heated response.
“What was done was 100 percent within the law,” Woolly said. “It’s (McSpadden’s) money.
“When you listen to a few handful of people who are obviously ill-informed … then you are wrong. You are not voting in the best interest of the students and you are not voting in the best interest of the school district.”
Woolly went on to suggest Rucker resign from his position on the board.
“If I were you, I would resign from your position on the board, because you are obviously out of step with the other board members,” Woolly said. “You obviously have alienated the other board members and you have alienated the administration staff.
“You have put yourself in a position that anyone that has a bone to pick with the district, and there are always some, you are their go-to guy. I hope you enjoy the phone calls you are going to get.”
McSpadden retired from his position as assistant superintendent effective June 30. Under a state program administered by the Arkansas Teacher Retirement System (ATRS), he was eligible to return to work while collecting his retirement after 30 days.
According to Arkansas Teacher Retirement System Director George Hopkins, there currently are 4,000 working retirees in the state.
In the entire 80 years that the ATRS has existed, there have been options for education retirees to return to work, Hopkins said.
“In a rural state like Arkansas, sometimes it is hard to find qualified teachers, administrators, bus drivers, to deliver the required curriculum,” Hopkins said.
A program was adopted in 2009 that offers three categories in which a member of the retirement program can return to work.
Hopkins described those categories as follows: A person over the age of 65 can retire and collect benefits with no need at all to separate from the school district for which they work; a person under 65 and without 38 years of service in Arkansas education must separate from their career for six months before they can return to work; and lastly, a person with 38 years of experience under the age of 65 must separate from their career for 30 days.
To fulfill the requirements of the final category, for which McSpadden qualifies, there must be no prior agreement between the school district and the retiree for the retiree to return to their position after 30 days.
Those who fit into this final category are “highly sought after” because of their experience, and often are the most qualified to fill their own previous position, Hopkins said.
“They know the school district, they know the problem areas and there is very little or no on-the-job training needed,” Hopkins said.
In an interview Friday, Rucker said he voted against Woolly’s recommendation because he was unhappy with the process and how it was handled by the school district.
“I believe as a district we could have handled this better,” Rucker said. “I’m not in favor of the 30-day clause. While legal, I don’t agree.”
Rucker stressed that his issue was with the handling of the rehire, not with the applicant himself.
“I have no issue with that employee on a personal level,” Rucker said. “I had a long, productive meeting with him (Thursday) night and I fully support him in his role with the school district.”
In his statement on Thursday, Rucker listed several issues he took with the process, including McSpadden’s one-sentence resignation, that no retirement party was given for McSpadden and that only one interview was given out of the five that applied for the assistant superintendent position.
Woolly said the school district acted within the law. There was no agreement with McSpadden to hold his job, and the district advertised for applicants to the open position.
While the district received “high quality” applicants to the assistant superintendent job, it was easy for Woolly to choose McSpadden to recommend, he said.
“It was not difficult at all to look at the applicants in this case and determine that Dr. McSpadden was by far and away the best applicant for the job,” Woolly said. “I didn’t have to interview other applicants to know that.”
Woolly added that one sentence is all that is required to submit a resignation, and that McSpadden requested that he not be thrown a retirement party and his wishes were respected.
Rucker also found issue with the school district’s handling of McSpadden’s rehire, he said, because he interprets the law to allow an educator who has “truly retired” to return to work and continue to collect benefits only in a time of need or on an interim basis.
But Hopkins characterized the program as a benefit and incentive for educators to remain in the field, and said there was no issue for the ATRS in an educator returning to their former position.
“From a public policy standpoint from ATRS, if a retiree can go back to work and serve the students, we’re happy with that,” Hopkins said. “As long as they fulfill that one-month separation and there is no agreement to return to work, it has no impact on how we view it.”
It is often after 38 years of service that educators have “tapped out” their benefit options and choose to retire, Hopkins said. The mere 30-day separation is a “sort of a reward,” Hopkins said, for the educator’s years of service and an incentive to keep them in the school systems.
“It’s not a limited program; it’s not unusual,” Hopkins said.