Muscogee County School Board members had agreed on superintendent candidate, but he turned them down

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comJune 20, 2013 

The Muscogee County School Board unanimously agreed to try to hire the undisclosed candidate it interviewed April 28 in Atlanta, but that candidate rejected the opportunity, the Ledger-Enquirer has learned.

Three board members confirmed the scenario Thursday. One board member also confirmed the person who was interviewed is a black male -- so he would have been the first black superintendent in the history of the Muscogee County School District.

MCSD's enrollment of 31,707 students is 58 percent black, 29 percent white and 13 percent other ethnic groups, according to the district's 2012 annual report. The nine-member board has three black representatives.

All of which adds a new layer of background to the 15-month superintendent search as board members will return to Atlanta today to interview two more undisclosed candidates, the first at 10 a.m., the second at 1 p.m.

As it did two months ago, the board will convene a called meeting in open session at the Atlanta office of law firm Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP, 201 17th. St. NW, Suite 1700, where search consultant Glenn Brock is a partner. The interviews will be in closed session, as allowed by state law.

The one that got away

The candidate the board interviewed that rainy Sunday morning was the black male a Ledger-Enquirer reporter saw emerging from a taxi about 1 hour before the scheduled meeting, board members confirmed. The reporter was driving into the parking garage at that time, so he didn't get a good look at the candidate's face, but Brock was on the corner and stepped toward the taxi to greet the suited gentleman.

Board members Athavia "A.J." Senior of District 3, Shannon Smallman of District 7 and Beth Harris of District 8 confirmed the board subsequently decided that candidate was their top choice.

Senior said the candidate met all of the board's search guidelines to be the next superintendent, including the previously elusive one: at least five years of experience as a superintendent in an urban school district similar to MCSD -- and not fixing to retire.

"Things were in motion, but he turned us down," Senior said. "The board as a whole, we all selected him. It was unanimous. He would have taken us to another level. He was the creme de la creme."

Harris expressed her frustration this way: "It was like a hot air balloon you see so pretty, and then the air comes out of it."

Smallman noted that this candidate hadn't applied -- Brock contacted him -- so hiring him was a reach.

"We were trying to move him away from that position, but it still was very disappointing," Smallman said. "We took a shot at trying to get him here."

Board members said they don't know why their offer was rejected, and none would discuss whether a salary was mentioned, but they do know being so close to a hire shows this diverse board can indeed unanimously agree on such a potentially controversial decision.

"The (type of) person we want, we are still unanimous on it," Smallman said. "So it's taking long because we are pretty strict on our parameters."

Board member John Wells of District 2 emphasized the importance of not settling for a candidate just to fill the vacancy.

"Our community deserves our deliberation to find the best candidate we can," he said.

Cathy Williams, the board's lone county-wide representative, said, "I think we all recognize we are looking for a young, energetic educator who is passionate about education and has been a superintendent in an urban setting."

Then she suggested that description could be considered an oxymoron: Young superintendents often aren't experienced in urban districts; experienced superintendents in urban districts often aren't young -- and if such educational leaders are found, the question becomes whether they are available.

Two months ago, the board had one of those big fishes on the hook, but he slipped away.

Now, as another school year is seven weeks away, the challenge is to stay true to the spirit of those guidelines, which came from public forums.

"There are many shades in each one of those guidelines," Williams said.

Expense and convenience

The same question that arose when the board conducted the April 28 interview in Atlanta has come up again: Why can't these meetings be in Columbus?

It's a matter of expense and convenience, Brock and board members said.

Based on Brock's fee of $300 per hour, plus expenses, board secretary Karen Jones said in an email that MCSD was charged $2,520 for his services April 28 "to coordinate, attend interview at office, follow-up and respond to media inquiries."

If the interview were in Columbus, Brock said, the expense would have been more. He would have charged MCSD for his driving time and the candidate's car rental or flight from Atlanta to Columbus.

Board attorney Greg Ellington of Hatcher, Stubbs, Land, Hollis & Rothschild LLP said in an email that he "charged 3.7 hours for attending the Atlanta meeting ($610.50). I did not charge for the travel time getting to and from Atlanta, and did not seek any mileage expenses from MCSD."

And although board members could have filed their expenses for reimbursement on that trip, none of them did, Jones said.

Williams, who has been the board's most vocal advocate for open meetings and records, said the public isn't missing anything significant when the closed interviews are conducted away from Columbus.

"I think if the meetings were anything more than going into executive session, there might be a reason" to object, she said, "but I don't think the public would clamor to see us say that we're going into executive session."

Board chairman Rob Varner of District 5 wasn't available by phone Thursday, but he said in an email that today's trip to Atlanta will "cost us a full day away from our work and/or family. Now, it's only logical that, were the interviews to progress to the next level, we'd have the candidate(s) come to Columbus, but for this initial phase of the interview process, it's a good use of our resources to conduct the meetings in Atlanta."

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