BENTONVILLE—A fired NorthWest Arkansas Community College employee will not receive an appeal hearing before the Board of Trustees, the board members decided in a special meeting Friday morning (Aug. 31).
The college’s board policy says that President Dr. Becky Paneitz has the authority to fire employees but that if a conflict of interest is determined to be present in her decision, the terminated person can appeal to the board, said Brandon Cate, Parsons’ attorney. Cate is with Quattlebaum, Grooms, Tull & Burrow PLLC of Springdale.
“We’re disappointed and we disagree with the board’s decision,” Cate said after the meeting, adding that his client will probably pursue litigation for wrongful termination.
At the center of the discussion is whether or not the board has the authority to hear the appeal. While the policy gives the board that authority, it is only when a conflict of interest on the president’s behalf is determined. The NWACC Board traditionally operates as a policy board that delegates the day-to-day college operations to the president and staff to manage.
Attorney Marshall Ney with Mitchell Williams Law in Rogers, who has worked with NWACC on other matters, represented the college and Paneitz in the meeting. Ney asserted that there was no specific evidence to support conflict of interest and if the board members were to hear the appeal, it would break their own policy. He also said that this case would set precedence in other employment matters.
“People will be able to look back at this and tell what the board qualifies as a conflict of interest,” Ney said.
He said that the idea of conflict of interest is not clearly defined in the policy. When he served on the Bentonville School Board, conflict of interest was defined when someone makes a decision that gives them a personal financial advantage, or if that person assists a relative in gaining an inappropriate advantage. Neither of those applies in this case, he added.
Cate argued that the appeal request clearly outlined a conflict of interest, stating that Paneitz fired Parsons without having all of the appropriate facts related to the situation. He was also not afforded a human resources representative during the meeting with Paneitz as he was being terminated, the appeal states.
On July 25, Paneitz met with Parsons and Ney to discuss several employment issues, including a discrimination claim against Parsons. The claim was determined to be invalid and Parsons was given 30 days to improve his performance in the other matters, according to the appeal letter.
He was terminated Aug. 1. The other employment matters ranged from a cash-flow problem to use of inappropriate language in the workplace.
Board member Johnny Haney moved that the board accept the request for an appeal hearing and asked during the discussion if the board set its own policy if it could break the policy. Board member Mike Shupe agreed and reiterated the question.
Ney said the board could change its policy but he advised the trustees to keep consistent with the existing policy as it is stated until it can be changed in a proper venue. Shupe and Haney were the only two board members to vote to allow the appeal.
The six Trustees who voted against the appeal were Alex Vasquez, Joe Spivey, Randy Lawson, Ric Clifford, Mark Lundy, and Joan Clifford. Trustee Hadley Hindmarsh was traveling and unable to attend.
Though Paneitz did not speak during the special meeting she gave the following statement in a press release on Friday:
“As President of NorthWest Arkansas Community College, it is my responsibility and duty to exercise strong leadership for the best interests of the college and its students. At times, this requires making difficult but necessary decisions, including those associated with college personnel,” Paneitz said. “My first priority will always be to do what is best for the future of this community college and its students. I look forward to the future as our college positively impacts the lives of thousands in the communities we serve.”