Interim Muscogee County School District superintendent John Phillips is getting part-time pay, but making full-time decisions

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comJanuary 26, 2013 

He sure isn't just keeping the seat warm.

As the Muscogee County School District's interim superintendent, John Phillips is now getting part-time pay but has produced full-time changes the past six months, despite a health issue that caused him to lose noticeable weight in the fall.

"I think it was all (his wife) Suzanne could do to keep him from doing work while he was in the ICU," said Cathy Williams, the Muscogee County School Board's at-large representative.

In fact, he wouldn't make time to sit still for an interview last week. In an email, he respectfully declined the Ledger-Enquirer's request: "It is not my intent to be in the media but only to best serve the interests of the Muscogee County School District and provide my leadership during this time of need."

That need grows greater every day as the board's search for a full-time superintendent is in its 10th month.

Susan Andrews announced in March her plan to retire. Her last day on the job was June 30. On June 18, the board voted 7-2 to bring back Phillips as interim superintendent. Williams, then the chairwoman, and District 6 representative Mark Cantrell voted no.

Williams favored appointing a current administrator instead of paying what it would cost to bring back Phillips as the interim. Friday, however, Williams praised his performance.

"I'm thankful he was able to come on board," she said. "We have an amazing cabinet that is able to carry on the day-to-day activities, and they depend on Dr. Phillips' leadership to move the district forward."

On Oct. 8, after three months of interim duties, Phillips' workweek was reduced to 19 hours due to his state retirement. The part-time clause reduced his salary from $17,206 per month to $8,431 per month, which is 49 percent of his full-time compensation.

"I think he's doing just an outstanding job for the school district," said school board chairman Rob Varner of District 5. "For somebody who is part time and now getting paid part time, he is very efficient with that time."

"He's perfectly capable, and he wants to do it," said John Wells, the board's District 2 representative. "People complain about the salary, but we're getting him for half price now, and he's a great superintendent."

Phillips began his tenure as Muscogee County School District superintendent Jan. 6, 2003, moving from Bartow County. His first contract here in 2003 paid him $211,165. His compensation increased to $250,181 by the time he retired in August 2008. Then he served as interim superintendent at $20,848 per month until the board hired Andrews on Dec. 1, 2008, from neighboring Harris County.

Role model

In many ways, Phillips embodies the characteristics board members are seeking in their superintendent search.

"Dr. Phillips has the tools and experience we're looking for," Varner said.

"He's a CEO-type," Wells said. "He has an air of authority. People respect him. … I wish he would stay."

Williams wouldn't go that far.

"Dr. Phillips is a consummate professional who has a passion for education and an action-oriented individual," she said, "but there are lots of different personalities that have those same traits. I thought Dr. Andrews also was a consummate professional who was also action-oriented."

Cantrell wasn't reached to comment for this story, but he said earlier this month, "Knowing we already have a strong leader who we are very familiar with, like having a strong backup quarterback, you have a luxury and aren't in a rush to find someone better. … Dr. Phillips, he has made a commitment to stay with us as long as we need him to stay with us until we feel comfortable with someone else."

Varner cautioned making a causal relationship between the effective Phillips and the ineffective search.

"The fact that we are comfortable with Dr. Phillips in no way lessens our desire to get a full-time superintendent or causes us to slow down our efforts," he said.

During the Jan. 14 work session Theresa El-Amin of the Southern Anti-Racism Network told the board, "I don't think Dr. Phillips wants to be a permanent superintendent, so I think you need a timeline."

Phillips cracked up the crowd when he seconded that emotion. "I don't know what bird whispered in your ear, but you're right."

Changes

He doesn't want the full-time position, but three huge moves show he has been fully engaged:

• July 5: At a called meeting, the school board approved Phillips' recommendation of the same seven principals and two other administrators a split board rejected when Andrews brought those appointments May 21. All but one of the votes were unanimous. Some of the blocking board members explained their changed votes by saying Phillips did a better job of answering their questions.

• Sept. 17: The school board unanimously approved Phillips' recommendation to cut the number of furlough days from five to three for teachers and other school district employees. One instructional day and one in-service day were put back on the calendar for teachers.

This change restored the number of instructional days for students to 180 without increasing the budget or expenses. Phillips, who was ill and not at the meeting, had said money was found by cutting some programs out of the budget and also by not filling some open positions. There also were some unexpected retirements. Each furlough day saves about $1 million in the district.

• Nov. 26: In a 7-2 vote, the board approved Phillips' recommendation to eliminate and defer millions of dollars worth of projects to make up a shortfall expected to be as much as $40 million in the $223,155,784 list voters approved to fund in 2009 with a 1 percent Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax. Then-District 3 representative James Walker and Naomi Buckner of District 4 cast the "no" votes.

The $17,756,250 worth of projects eliminated were: $6,725,000 to renovate the 29th Street facility housing the shop program for the Academic Success Center; $6,075,000 for a new adult education building on the Daniel Education Center site, the Manchester Expressway building which houses the Rose Hill program for students with disciplinary problems; $4,956,250 for renovating Daniel to accommodate Academic Success.

These cuts eliminated Academic Success, a program for about 200 secondary education students who struggled academically at regular school. Those students will be brought back to their home schools next school year.

The $19,568,977 in deferred projects include: $7 million for a system-wide gym at Fort Middle School; $5 million for technology, $3 million for a system-wide athletics facility; $2,633,977 for furniture fixtures and equipment; $1 million for Jordan High's auditorium; and $935,000 for security equipment.

All of which helped preserve the arts academy project, now expected to cost about $30 million. Phillips proposed building the facility for 500 students in grades 6-12 on school district property behind the Columbus Public Library and the city's service center and natatorium under construction. The former Columbus Square Mall site also is where the school district's main office is located on Macon Road in midtown.

None of the board members contacted for this story objected to Phillips making such significant decisions.

"I wasn't surprised at all that he took an aggressive look at the budget in an attempt to give those furlough days back," Williams said.

"I would be more concerned if the guy came in for four hours a day and sat around and didn't do anything," Varner said. "We would be wasting the school district's money."

Herb Garrett, executive director of the Georgia School Superintendents Association, described the best-practice guideline for an interim superintendent, striking the balance between doing too little and too much.

"Take care of the critical tasks, things like deadlines that have to be met, all the personnel recommendations, contracts, evaluations," Garrett said. "… But, certainly, his or her job is not to start any new initiatives."

Garrett knows Phillips well. As assistant superintendent in Marietta, Phillips supervised Garrett when he was a principal. Phillips also was president of the GSSA.

"Those who work with him hold him in high regard," said Garrett, noting Phillips' superintendencies in three Georgia districts and one in Texas. "He's got a boatload of walking-around sense and been in the business a long time."

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