Former Ozarka College President Douglas Rush had his name clearing hearing at the college's board of trustees' meeting Dec. 17, about four years after Rush was apparently fired from the college "on the grounds of dishonesty, insubordination, failure to comply with state laws, and willful disregard of board policy," according to the July 7, 2005, board minutes.
Rush had the aide of his attorney, Denise Reid Hoggard, during his hearing. A large number of people from the college and from the public attended to listen to what Rush had to say. The conference room in the John E. Miller Education Complex on the college's Melbourne campus was filled. His hearing lasted about an hour.
Hoggard said that when Rush was fired from the college, "The board then took his good name and called him dishonest. He asked for a hearing to clear his name and he was told, no. He then sued over his termination and what the board members did to his good name. After more than four years, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that he has a right to the hearing to clear his name."
Rush said that having the hearing after such a long time did not clear up matters between him and the board.
Rush and his attorney said Rush received information that he was going to be granted his hearing with only a short notice given and at an inconvenient time because of the holidays. He said there were several people he wanted to be at the hearing but couldn't make it because of previous commitments.
"It would have been a whole lot easier back in 2005," Rush said. "I can't even locate everyone that would be able to tell about my honesty and integrity. In 2005, I believe this hearing -- people would have been spilling out in the hallway. Some good people have moved away, some fear for their jobs, some felt that they might lose some business from the college if they spoke on my behalf. And, one of my greatest supporters, Mr. Larry Billing, who was on the Ozarka Board when I was fired, I think he's died and cannot be with us today, but he would have lots to say."
He said that having the hearing so late has affected his ability to clear his good name.
Rush was hired by Ozarka College, then known as Ozarka Vocational Technical School because it had not reached its two-year college status, in 1978 as the director. Rush went through all the various projects he had helped complete for the school including getting its college status, renovating existing buildings, building on to the campus, creating satellite campuses in Ash Flat and Mountain View and other projects before he was fired. Rush also made voluntary contributions to the college.
"I loved this college," Rush said. "I believed that you ought to give something back to the college."
"My job performance evaluations (performed by the board) had always been exceptional," Rush said. "Every year I was told what a good job I was doing and how pleased the board was with my work until 2005."
Rush explained that every year the board would meet to discuss Rush's performance and each year the board would hire him for another two-year contract. When Rush was fired in 2005, his two-year contract was not up. He said when he was fired, he was given no warning or was advised by the board in writing to do better work.
According to Ozarka College's Policies and Procedures regarding termination, "1. Personnel may be terminated for cause when it is determined that the employee's job performance or behavior is below acceptable and customary standards of performance, including, but not limited to, the following reasons: excessive tardiness, excessive absence, inadequate job performance, unwillingness to respond to supervision (insubordination), dishonesty, theft, fraud, reporting for work under the influence of drugs or alcohol or moral turpitude. 2. When the annual performance evaluation of an administrative or managerial/professional staff member indicates unsatisfactory performance, the results will be fully communicated to the employee, and both the employee and the supervisor will attest to the communication by signatures. As a result of unsatisfactory evaluation, an employee may be terminated at the end of the current work agreement or may be placed on probation for the following school year with future renewal based on the results of three periodic evaluations to be conducted during the year. Should these evaluations indicate a lack of substantial improvement, the employee will be terminated at the end of the work agreement period."
Rush said if he had been given a warning in writing as to what he was doing wrong, he would have done his best to correct it.
The board apparently fired Rush because of a misappropriation of funds for a fitness center on the college. Rush said he brought the idea of a fitness center to the board and they seemed pleased with it and allowed Rush to go ahead with the project. Gayle Cooper, who was the vice-president of finance at the time, was responsible for purchasing items for the project. "It was my job to get the money (through the legislature and grants and so forth)," Rush said. "It was his job (Cooper's) to spend the money correctly."
Rush appointed an Institutional Improvement Committee in 2004 for the fitness center project. "The committee went on and elected Dan Lindsey as the chairperson of that committee," Rush said.
Cooper made some comments at the Institutional Improvement Committee meeting and said, according to Rush and Lindsey, that any purchase over $50,000 required a bidding process and an advertisement in the state newspaper. Rush said he was never involved directly in purchasing anything for the fitness center.
When a legislative audit was performed on the college, Rush said those conducting the audit found there were two bids for fitness equipment. "Even though three bids had been (received), they weren't (received) in a formal way," Rush said.
According to the audit findings, "On April 28, 2004, and June 15, 2004, the college remitted payments of $23,668 and $24,148, respectively, for fitness equipment. Each payment was supported by a tabulation of competitive bids from three companies. These bids were not obtained by competitive sealed bidding. State procurement law and regulation require competitive sealed bidding for applicable purchases in excess of $25,000. These transactions appeared to have been split to circumvent the required bidding procedures. The reassignment of responsibilities for bidding procedures for this project, from the business office to a committee, contributed to the noncompliance."
Copies of the audit were given to the president of the college, the vice-president of finance and each of the board members. Rush received a letter from the Legislative Joint Auditing Committee requesting his presence in Little Rock to review the audit June 9, 2005. Rush said he answered all of the committee's questions as honestly as he could.
Lindsey, the chair of the Institutional Improvement Committee, wrote a letter explaining the role of the college's finance office in the purchase of the equipment. "At the recommendation of Ozarka's finance office, the committee made the decision to purchase as much of the equipment as possible before the end of the 2003-2004 fiscal year, with the plan to purchase the remainder with money from the next fiscal year's budget. Three separate bids were secured, and an order was placed in April 2004 for approximately $24,000 worth of equipment. The remainder of the equipment was ordered from the same company after the new fiscal year had begun.
"The sales representative was informed that the equipment would be needed before the end of the fiscal year -- June 30. Manufacturing delays, however, prevented it from arriving by that date. This resulted in most of the equipment from both orders arriving at the same time, giving the impression that it had all been purchased together," Lindsey wrote.
Rush said he was not involved in the bidding process or made aware of it until after the legislative audit. At that time, Rush said he was in Little Rock getting funding for the college. Rush said it is possible that Lindsey went to Cooper to get help in filling out the purchasing order and they filled it out wrong.
The board apparently also held an illegal executive session on May 26, 2005, Rush said. "(The board) went into executive session and invited the mayor of Ash Flat (Brien Hall) into the executive session," Rush said. "I told the board that the meeting was illegal. I don't think it was appreciated much. I was asked by the press about these illegal meetings, and I told them that I thought that illegal meetings were in fact being held."
"I think absolutely that it was a problem that I talked to the press," Rush said. He said Barbara Perryman, a board member at the time, seemed very irate that he had talked with a reporter with the Batesville Daily Guard.
Others also stood up to speak in support of Rush. Because some people couldn't be at the hearing, those people wrote letters expressing their appreciation of Rush and what he did for the college while he was employed. Rush's attorney, Hoggard, read a letter written by Ed L. Franklin, the executive director of the Arkansas Association of Two-Year Colleges. "I always found Mr. Rush to be a capable, competent person, who did what he said he would do, when he said he would do it. He was a big help at the capitol during the legislative sessions because of his knowledge of the legislative process and his relationships with the legislators of his area. He also worked well with other presidents and chancellors and was not bashful about volunteering when work needed to be done," wrote Franklin.
Rush said people had a tendency to think that he stole money from the college because of being described as dishonest by the board. However, during his years at Ozarka, no money went missing at the college. Some people spoke about Rush's honesty at the hearing.
Rush's sister, Glenda Greenstreet, wrote a letter, which was read by his daughter. "Doug Rush cannot be condemned for his work ethic," Greenstreet wrote. "The issue of misappropriating funds for the purchase of equipment for the new health and exercise room was brought up at one of the hearings. Mr. Rush went to Little Rock and met with the State Legislative Audit Department and was vindicated of any wrong doing. The Ozarka College Board chose not to let it go at that."
John Thornton also spoke on Rush's behalf. Thornton served on the Ozarka board from 1990 to 2002. "I don't remember a time when we had any dissension among the board that would say that he was not performing," Thornton said.
Bob Murphy also spoke about how Rush was able to get a campus in Ash Flat and said he was grateful to Rush for all his work.
Linda Morgan, who was hired as faculty for the nursing program at Ozarka in 1988, also spoke about Rush's integrity. "Mr. Rush, even then, was looking at technology and ways we could improve this college," Morgan said. "He recognized basic skills back then for the technical programs so these people could succeed. Mr. Rush has a philosophy and I think it's still in place today and that is the student comes first, whatever we do it's for the student."
Rush said the name clearing hearing, being as late as it was, doesn't solve anything. "I think the board should reinstate my contract and pay me what is due me," Rush said. "They ought to follow their own policies and honor their contact with me."
The board had no comments after the hearing.
Rush is suing the board members who were responsible for firing him. The court date will be in May 2010.