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Documents Shed Light on AETN Power Struggle

3 min read

A deal to end a power struggle between the state’s educational TV network and its nonprofit fundraising foundation is under negotiation, according to documents obtained through the state Freedom of Information Act.

The Arkansas Educational Telecommunications Network Commission, a state agency, has received a draft response to its March 27 ultimatum threatening to end the state’s contract with the AETN Foundation if the foundation board fails to meet several demands. Among the demands is the reinstatement of network Executive Director Courtney Pledger as director and CEO of the foundation.

That’s still the sticking point, according to the April 12 draft response from an ad hoc committee of foundation board members. Both the network and the foundation are based in Conway.

In the draft, the foundation board agrees to restore board membership to Pledger and the AETN Commission’s designated representative, West Doss. The two were wiped from the board in a change of foundation bylaws approved by the board after the Feb. 12 firing of longtime foundation COO Mona Dixon.

That bylaws change on Feb. 25 also removed Pledger as foundation CEO.

In response to the AETN Commission’s ultimatum, the foundation agreed to raise its number of board members, extend the term of foundation board chair Lynne Rich through June 2020 and set a 12-year limit on board service.

But the letter, signed by Rich, a professor at the University of Central Arkansas, didn’t agree to AETN’s main demand: restoring Pledger as the foundation boss.

“The AETN Foundation believes empowering the Board to hire and evaluate the Foundation CEO provides direct oversight and accountability,” the draft said. It added that the AETN Commission “would have direct input in hiring and evaluating the Foundation CEO through voting-membership status of the AETN Executive Director and Commission-designated Representative.”

The standoff followed months of tension between Pledger and veteran AETN and foundation employees, who wrote an open letter in March criticizing Pledger’s leadership and Dixon’s firing.

The commission-board crisis was set off by a dispute over who would pay for Pledger’s priorities in revamping AETN’s content offerings. AETN has drawn praise for several of Pledger’s initiatives, including documentaries, increased coverage of government bodies and broadcasts and online streams of high school state championships in football and basketball.

Pledger, hired in early 2017 by Gov. Asa Hutchinson after a stint as executive director of the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, engaged filmmaker and North Carolina public TV executive Rachel Raney as a consultant in content development. Pledger wanted the $36,000 Team Raney contract to be paid with foundation money, and she wasn’t fussy about getting prior approval from the foundation board.

The board rejected the contract in December, calling content obligations the financial responsibility of the network, not the foundation. On Jan. 13, Pledger nonetheless authorized a $13,750 payment to Team Raney with foundation money. The board eventually rescinded its objection and approved spending the money from a capital planning fund.

Dixon, who broached the possibility of removing Pledger from foundation leadership via bylaw changes in November emails to foundation board member Philip Kaplan, was fired on Feb. 12 after 32 years at the foundation.

Dixon’s supporters were outraged, noting that she helped to raise $60 million for AETN, building the largest network of donors in network history. But Pledger’s defenders, including a person intimately familiar with AETN and the foundation, say the firing was a regrettable but necessary response to an “attempted coup.”

Dixon has appealed her dismissal and threatened to sue for wrongful termination, alleging that Pledger retaliated against her as a whistleblower. Dixon had discussed whistleblower status with Rich long before her dismissal, and she engaged Little Rock attorney Melva Harmon to negotiate a settlement.

Details of Dixon’s initial settlement offer were revealed in a letter obtained through FOI requests. In an April 5 letter to Rich and other officers of the foundation board, Harmon wrote that Dixon would not file suit in return for a lump sum of $285,549, or 36 months of pay at her last annual salary of $95,183. (See Mona Dixon Floats Deal to AETN.)

The offer would also require the AETN Foundation to pay Dixon’s legal fees. Dixon told Arkansas Business she could not comment; Harmon, Pledger and Rich did not respond to queries.

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