A local pastor who has helped lead Longview’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day activities says he intends to make good on $4,500 in unpaid scholarships to four students who won contests between 2015 and 2019.
The Rev. Lamar Jones leads Galilee Baptist Church in Hallsville and is a past president of the local NAACP. He’s also an active community volunteer who for years has helped organize MLK Day activities in Longview under what’s known as the MLK Planning Committee. The group is not an official nonprofit organization but accepts donations to provide scholarships associated with the contests.
City spokesman Shawn Hara said the city hosts some of the MLK Day activities through Broughton Recreation Center, but it has not been involved in organizing the contests.
The unpaid scholarships became the focus of a lawsuit filed in January by four Longview High School graduates: Madeline Duvall, Nitin Rangu, Robyn Roper and Kysean Dixon. Court documents show a default judgement was awarded against Jones in September after he failed to respond to the lawsuit despite numerous attempts to reach him in a variety of ways.
“Plaintiffs are all recipients of college scholarships awarded by Rev. Jones … and the MLK Contest Committee, sometimes referred to as the MLK Planning Committee between 2015 and 2019 as part of the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration in Longview, Texas….” the lawsuit states. “(Defendants) organized the contest, advertised the scholarships, accepted Plaintiffs’ submission of essays and art projects in response to the advertised contests, determined the winners of the scholarships, awarded Plaintiffs scholarships as first, second, or third place winners of the contests, held awards ceremonies as part of the annual MLK Day celebration in which they publicly recognized the scholarships winners, including Plaintiffs, publicized the Plaintiffs as scholarship winners with local media outlets, and also recognized the scholarship winners … during the annual community ecumenical service rounding out the community-wide MLK Day celebration each year.”
The lawsuit goes on to describe how the students’ tried to collect the scholarship money and how it affected their finances as they enrolled in college.
“Ms. Duvall graduated from Longview High School in 2017 and enrolled in Pepperdine University in the Fall of 2017, relying on the promise that a portion of her tuition would be covered by the two scholarships awarded to her by Rev. Jones and the MLK Committee. Ms. Duvall attempted to contact various members of the MLK Committee to obtain the two scholarships she had been awarded, but her attempts were unsuccessful. On August 1, 2017, Ms. Duvall wrote a letter to Rev. Jones providing proof of her enrollment in Pepperdine University and requesting, again, that the two scholarships she was awarded by Rev. Jones and the MLK Committee be paid.
“Neither Mr. Jones nor any other member of the MLK Committee responded to Ms. Duvall’s phone call or letter, and the scholarships she was awarded as part of the 2015 MLK Visual Arts Contest and 2017 MLK Essay Contest were never paid. … Ms. Duvall incurred substantial tuition and student loan payments to Pepperdine University in reliance on Defendants’ promise that a portion of her tuition would be covered by the scholarships awarded to her….”
Roper is a 2016 graduate of Longview High School and senior at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
“She won second place in the 2016 MLK Essay Contest and was awarded a $1,000.00 college scholarship…,” the lawsuit says. “Ms. Roper was informed that the scholarship would be paid directly to the college or university of her choice once she had enrolled. …. However, Defendants never responded to Ms. Roper’s communications, and the scholarship money owed Ms. Roper was never paid.”
Rangu was a senior at Longview High School when he entered and won first place in the 2019 MLK essay contest, which included a $1,500 college scholarship, the lawsuit states.
“In reliance that a portion of his tuition would be paid by the scholarships awarded by Defendants, Mr. Rangu enrolled in The University of Oklahoma in the Fall of 2019 and began attempting to contact Defendants for payment of the promised scholarship to The University of Oklahoma, including contacting Mr. Jones, but the scholarship moneys were never paid,” the lawsuit states. “Mr. Rangu incurred financial obligations to The University of Oklahoma in reliance on Defendants’ promise that the scholarships awarded to him by Defendants would be paid.”
The judgement calls for paying $1,700 to Duvall, $1,500 to Rangu, $1,000 to Roper and $300 to Dixon, as well as interest, and close to $10,000 in attorneys’ fees. The attorneys in the case, at Ward, Smith and Hill in Longview, however, have said they intend to use any attorneys’ fees they collect to provide scholarships for “deserving LHS students.”
“As the chairperson, I am responsible, and when I say responsible for making sure that everything was taken care of. I’m not trying to throw anybody under the bus. I take my responsibilities very seriously. We are going to take care of these scholarships,” Jones said this past week.
He said the money is available and would be paid Monday but did not provide additional details.
“One of the years we were short…. The reality of it is, when we first started (the MLK planning committee) we had more people involved, and time brought about where we didn’t have as many people, so some of the responsibilities were dropped and the things that were in place were not followed through,” he said. “I’m taking responsibility. I’m not putting it on anybody else. I’m going to make sure those scholarships are taken care of.”
He said he did not respond to the lawsuit because he was busy and also had some health issues.
Dixon, who graduated from Longview High School in May 2019, won a $300 art scholarship with the entry of a 3D object — a drawing of a 3D clock with artwork of the Liberty Bell, combined with the title “Together we stand. Divided we fall.”
It was “momentous” for him, he said this past week of the honor, but he said the failure of the scholarship to be paid in the following months also affected him. He said he contacted school officials, who he said had helped promote the contest, and Jones about payment of the scholarship money. While he said Jones promised payment, it never materialized.
He went on to enroll at the University of Texas at Arlington in fall 2019, with an intended major of electrical engineering. COVID-19 issues threw those plans off in the spring, and he’s in Longview this semester, working, with hopes to return to the university as virus restrictions ease.
“To me, if affected me a lot. When i started my semester, I did not have a job,” and he had been counting on the scholarship money to help pay for housing, Dixon said.
“I didn’t have any money at the time, but luckily a church in Arlington helped out until I got a job,” he said. “I could have had that money and then had a job. Like I said, it caused a little stumble in my step, but I got right back on track. I accrued some debt because of that.”
Jones also is a longtime Longview ISD employee who in February was named family liaison. Claire Henry, one of the attorneys in the case, said attempts also have been made to reach out to the school district about this situation, with no response. She said it appears at least some of the scholarships during the time period were paid, and that the firm’s representation of the four clients grew after first learning of the issue from Rangu.
Jones is listed as a para-instructional assistant on the LISD website, and district officials confirmed he is still employed by the district but did not elaborate in what position.