LITTLE ROCK — A Pulaski County circuit judge did not err when she ruled that the state is immune from being sued over the state’s takeover of the Pulaski County Special School District, the Arkansas Supreme Court said Thursday.
In a unanimous decision, the high court upheld Judge Mary McGowan’s ruling that dismissed the state Department of Education and state Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell from lawsuits filed by the Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers, or PACT; the Pulaski Association of Support Staff, or PASS; and former employees of the district.
The lawsuits alleged that after the state took over the district in June 2011 because of fiscal distress, it exceeded its authority and acted in bad faith in ordering the district’s superintendent to withdraw recognition of PACT and PASS as collective bargaining agents for the district’s teachers and implement new personnel policies that the unions had not negotiated.
The former district employees also alleged that the non-renewal of their contracts constituted breach of contract by violating personnel policies that the unions had negotiated.
The state argued that it was entitled to sovereign immunity, and the Supreme Court said Thursday it agreed.
An exception to the doctrine of sovereign immunity can apply to a state agency that acts outside of its authority or in bad faith, but the actions taken by the Department of Education and its leader were permissible under the law allowing state takeover of public school districts, the court said in its opinion.
Justice Paul Danielson wrote in the opinion that the law gives "broad … authority" to the department "when dealing with fiscally distressed districts, wherein the General Assembly saw fit to allow ADE to ‘take any other action allowed by law that is deemed necessary to assist a school district in removing criteria of fiscal distress.’"
The state removed the district’s superintendent and dissolved its school board when it took over the district. It named Jerry Guess to serve as superintendent while the district is under state control, and earlier this month named a community advisory board to gather input from patrons of the district and make recommendations to the education commissioner.
When the district is returned to local control, the advisory board will be replaced with an elected school board.