The state's educational TV network is offering proposals that could end a six-month dispute with its nonprofit fund-raising arm, according to details revealed Monday in an emergency conference-call meeting of the Arkansas Educational Telecommunications Network Commission.
The proposed deal, which the AETN Foundation has 15 days to respond to, would restore AETN Executive Director Courtney Pledger to the AETN Foundation board, but would not restore her as the foundation's executive director. Pledger, who has been the subject of controversy since taking over the network in March 2017, was ousted by a divided foundation board in February in reaction to the firing of a longtime Foundation employee, COO Mona Dixon.
Dixon appealed her dismissal, claiming whistleblower status, but Pledger's supporters close to the foundation have suggested Dixon was working to undermine the boss. Dixon's defenders, including former colleagues, say she looked into a disputed content consulting contract on behalf of Lynne Rich, the University of Central Arkansas professor who chairs the foundation board. "Every action she [Dixon] took began by an order from her chair," one former colleague said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. Both the network and the foundation are based on UCA's campus in Conway.
Discussion of the terms of the commission's offer was limited in the call, but the network set a 15-day deadline for a foundation response to the draft resolution. Traditionally, the AETN chief has also run the foundation, but several governance experts told Arkansas Business that best practices differ, with many states requiring separate leadership of educational networks and the foundations that support them through service contracts.
Skip Holland, the AETN Commission's new chairman (he recently succeeded Annette Herrington), told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that a compromise with the foundation was necessary because of "issues that we've had with the fundraising platform that we have been using. We're wanting to broaden our abilities to do better fundraising in a digital age."
But the dispute truly hinged on the dismissal of Dixon, who had considerable support at the foundation and had been a face of AETN fundraising for years. The firing also showcased complaints about Pledger's relations with longtime employees and a dispute over a content consulting contract whose funding source had drawn Dixon's scrutiny. Friction had built since Gov. Asa Hutchinson appointed Pledger in 2017, and boiled over after Dixon was fired in February.
Dixon has appealed her dismissal and demanded three years' worth of pay, health coverage and other benefits as an exit package. No deal to end her wrongful-termination complaint has been announced, and the deadline for an out-of-court settlement is Sept. 12.
The AETN Commission and foundation have exchanged compromise ideas over the past months, but Monday's conference call provided the first glimpse into what a deal might entail.
In a March 27 resolution, the AETN Commission, a state panel of members appointed by the governor, demanded that the foundation reinstate Pledger as its chief, granting her authority to hire and fire foundation employees and oversee day-to-day operations, among other requests. If these demands weren't met by April 10, the commission threatened to give 120 days' notice that it would be breaking its service contract with the foundation.
After the foundation board replied that Pledger should have no authority over foundation staff and operations, the commissioners countered with a proposal that would put the AETN executive director back on the foundation board as a voting member, along with a second representative from the commission, which had also been the previous arrangement before the standoff. The deal would give Pledger a chance to offer a list of candidates for the job of leading the foundation. The final hiring decision would be ratified by the AETN Foundation Executive Committee, as well as votes by the foundation board and the commission.
The AETN director would lack the authority to fire the foundation's development director, which would be the province of the foundation's executive committee, according to a draft framework. The foundation development director would hire and oversee the staff.
The proposal would also expand the foundation board from 8 to 15 members, extend Rich's term as foundation board chair and amend term limits for board members.
In response to questions from Arkansas Business, Pledger issued a statement Tuesday afternoon: