Inside the shadowy world of the Arkansas school-“choice” movement – Part 5

When people ask what newsrooms are like, I usually explain the environment and dynamics thusly: 

Imagine that every day represents a holiday dinner and that every single person in your lovably quirky yet highly dysfunctional family is present. 

There’s camaraderie, yes. Lots of shared recollections and laughter. There are debates during “budget meetings” – the twice-a-day gatherings during which editors decide what stories will run and in what sections. Those contentious meetings often reminded me of the moment that politics creeps into the Thanksgiving-dinner conversation. 

At deadline, you’ll hear editors and reporters arguing over cuts, quotes and edits, and the copy desk staff shouting that they need that story right now, dammit. 

Regardless, the paper gets put to bed and everyone comes back the next day for another lively turkey dinner. 

I always thought that the corporate world would be more … well, refined. 

My three years at the Walton-funded Arkansas Public School Resource Center proved otherwise. 

In the rough-and-tumble world of newspapering, women learn early what it takes to get ahead – and stay ahead – of their male colleagues. You outthink them, outdrink them and outrun them. And, eventually, you not only earn, but demand, their respect. 

That is why the culture at APSRC caught me off-guard. I always thought that the corporate world – and make no mistake: APSRC, while a nonprofit, is very much a corporate and political organization – would be different. 

By the end of my first year, I realized, however, that APSRC Executive Director Scott Smith has a major problem with women. As in, if Webster’s ever asked me to write the definition of “misogynist,” I would need only two words: “Scott Smith.”

In this post, I am sharing only my experiences with Smith because these are my stories to tell. I say that because I am not the only woman who has had issues with him. The fact that Smith has a problem with women is well known even by those who don’t work for APSRC.

The Waltons, of course, don’t care. Smith is just the sort of ruthless person they need to accomplish their goal of destroying public education. 

So my story –

Three times in team meetings, Smith put his hand on my knee while making some sort of point. I didn’t interpret it as a sexual gesture. Rather, his behavior struck me as proprietary. 

You belong to me. You belong to this organization. You belong to the Waltons. You are company property. 

Bear in mind, this is a man who would call meetings, only to cancel at the last minute if something came up, and yet throw a tantrum if when, on a whim, he wanted to talk to a female employee who had left the office for lunch.

He complained incessantly when female employees called in sick or had to accommodate the needs of their children – illness, doctor’s appointments, etc…

He once mocked one of his female employees for missing several days of work after suffering a severe concussion.

“I don’t know what’s going on with her this time,” he announced to a group of us. “Something about getting hit on the head with a vase. It’s always something.”

You see, there are different rules at APSRC for men and women.

For example, men are allowed to close the doors to their offices. Women? No. I can’t tell you how many times Smith would find a reason to knock on my door, ask a question and then very pointedly leave the door open. 

And then there was the tracking of employees’ leave and sick time. Women – most of whom are mothers or caring for elderly family members – are closely monitored, questioned and criticized – so much so that I told my husband that Smith’s obsession with knowing his female employees’ every move came across as creepy and stalkerish. And God help you if you didn’t reply to an email or respond to a phone call while out sick, on vacation or in bed. 

Again, Smith’s paranoia didn’t seem to stem from sexual origins. It was like he thought his female employees were out sneaking around to huddle in illicit meetings with politicians, educators and foes of APSRC. That kind of paranoia suggests to me that Smith, the Waltons and their backers have many things to hide. Or maybe he just believes that women are lazy or incompetent. I honestly don’t know. It was just … weird. 

On one occasion, I mixed up the dates for an Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)  meeting I had intended to cover. As I sheepishly made my way back from the Capitol to APSRC, I heard someone calling my name. 

It was Smith. 

“What are you doing here?” he asked in an urgent manner. 

“Oh, hey,” I said. “What’s up?”

“Why are you here?” he pressed. “Who were you meeting with?”

“Um. No one. I thought there was an ESSA meeting today. But it turns out it’s next week.”

This explanation seemed to (temporarily) satisfy him. 

In the end, two incidents served as the catalyst for my sudden decision to quit. 

In May 2019, I underwent a partial knee replacement. Smith was not happy about the two weeks I took off for the surgery and recovery. The fact that I then had to go twice a week for an hour of physical therapy pissed him off even more. 

Apparently, osteoarthritis is the equivalent of female “hysteria” or “weakness.” 

At the first staff meeting after my return, Smith pointedly asked if anyone else would need to take significant time off over the summer. (I resisted a maniacal, just-for-kicks  urge to announce an unexpected pregnancy. He probably would have found or manufactured a reason to fire me on the spot.) 

A few weeks into my physical therapy, Walters informed me that she didn’t have my SAU HR  password. That’s because months earlier, when I forgot my password, I had changed it. I had no idea that Walters, by her own admission, knew the log-ins and passwords for every APSRC employee. 

“I just want to make sure you have enough leave time to cover these appointments,” she said. 

“I planned ahead, I assured her. “I’m good.” 

Bear in mind, I had given her the dates of my physical therapy appointments. It’s not like she was checking with HR to see when I would be out.

Still, she sent multiple email requests for my new password. 

Remember, per the MOU between APSRC and the Southern Arkansas University Foundation, SAU’s HR staff is charged with keeping up with leave and sick time. However, one of Walters’ primary duties is to keep Smith informed of employees’ whereabouts, whether she’s monitoring arrival and departure times from the office or leave and sick time. 

Toward the end – or maybe right after, I don’t recall – the 2019 legislative session – I was exhausted and in chronic pain. In short, I was struggling. By then, I was counting down the days to my surgery and using a cane around the house. (I was too vain to take it to work.) 

One morning, after I had called in to say I would be using sick time to come in late, Smith came into my office to inquire after my well-being. I told him I was managing. 

And then he walked around my desk and stood behind me. He put his hand on my shoulder, squeezed it, and said, “I was beginning to think I would have to fire you.”

That male hand on my shoulder clinched my decision that it was time to get out of there. 

Because here’s the thing – there is no way to get help from HR if you are a woman working for Smith at APSRC. 

I thought long and hard about my predicament. SAU’s HR staff work for the university, which is located in Magnolia, a good 115 miles away. Was I supposed to drive down there to file a grievance with people I’d never talked to, much less met? Should I just call? Email? 

And from what I’d heard, the HR department wasn’t terribly thrilled with the fact that its staff had had to add APSRC to its workload back in 2012.

I imagined a scenario in which I swept in to file a complaint, only to find the Waltons’ enforcer, Kathy Smith, on hand to inform SAU staff as to how they should respond. You think I kid. Kathy sees all, knows all, and has an ability to materialize at any moment that the Waltons and their yes men might be the recipients of criticism.

Granted, I suffer from PTSD due to a childhood trauma that involved physical and sexual abuse by a man 9 years my senior. So I second-guessed myself. Was I too “sensitive,” maybe? 

But no – the hand on my knee, the hand on my shoulder – my instinct screamed that this was just wrong and not normal in the workplace. 

So I fumed, kept silent and told my husband repeatedly that I wasn’t sure whether I could remain at APSRC until I found a new job. 

When FOIA’ing SAU after I quit – without a job – I asked about its stance toward workplace violence. 

“There is no document that exempts any part of SAU from workplace violence,” was the response I received from Roger Giles, Vice President for Administration and General Counsel. He referred me to the university handbook.

It states: 

Workplace Violence 

The University is committed to providing a safe, healthful workplace that is free from violence or threats of violence. Reports of threatening or violent incidents are taken seriously and dealt with appropriately. Individuals who engage in violent or threatening behavior may be removed from the premises, and may be subject to dismissal or other disciplinary action, arrest, and/or criminal prosecution.

The University does not tolerate behavior that: 1. is violent, 2. threatens violence, 3. harasses or intimidates others, 4. interferes with an individual’s legal rights of movement or expression, and 5. disrupts the workplace, the academic environment, or the University’s ability to provide services to the public. Violent or threatening behavior can include physical acts, oral or written statement, or gestures and expressions. Any violent or threatening behavior must be reported immediately to the University Police Department

I’ve since imagined myself showing up at the SAU PD to report that my boss, one of the Waltons’ lead henchmen, comes across as controlling and, sometimes, threatening.

No way would that have ended well for me.

But SAU’s entanglement with APSRC suffers from many other problems than those between Smith and the women he employs or encounters in his role as executive director/lobbyist.

Tomorrow, I’ll delve into the reciprocal agreement between the two entities. Neither APSRC nor SAU is actually abiding by that MOU signed in 2012. 

Like everything else involving APSRC, this agreement is just a cover for what the organization is really up to.

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