Eight days since voting in a called meeting to buy out the superintendent's contract, the Phenix City Board of Education still isn't answering questions about the abrupt departure of Larry DiChiara, who was named the Alabama Superintendent of the Year two years ago.
The only part of this story that became clearer Wednesday is that DiChiara didn't propose the buyout, which is expected to cost the school system more than $750,000 to cover the 4 ½ years left on his contract.
DiChiara, who was Phenix City's superintendent for nearly 9 ½ years, continued his stance from last week, declining to discuss the details, but he emphasized Wednesday, "It was the board's idea to buy the contract out, and I was cooperative in making that work out."
Asked why the board sought his exit, DiChiara said, "That's the part I can't comment on because it would be considered disparaging the board."
And the buyout being finalized prohibits both sides from speaking ill of each other, he said.
DiChiara said he is scheduled to meet today with board attorney Sydney Smith to complete the agreement. Board members have referred all questions about the buyout to Smith, who wasn't reached for comment Wednesday.
Marie Long, the executive assistant to the superintendent, types up the board meeting minutes but declined to release the minutes of the Nov. 26 called meeting or disclose the board vote. She said board president Brad Baker instructed her not to release any information.
"There will be a statement put out once everything is finalized," Baker said.
Asked whether the statement would explain why the board wants to buy out DiChiara's contract, Baker said, "Probably not."
Asked why the board wouldn't explain its rationale, Baker again deferred to Smith.
Baker also refused to say how the board would pay for such a buyout. Looking at the school system's financial statement, the board can afford the payment, but it would leave the system little margin for error to pay for other unexpected expenses this fiscal year.
The system's general fund balance going into this fiscal year was $5,330,120. The Alabama State Department of Education requires school systems to have at least one month's worth of expenditures in reserve at the end of the fiscal year. One month spending equals about $4.3 million in Phenix City schools, depending on the month, so giving DiChiara more than $750,000 would leave about $4.6 million in reserve -- only $300,000 more than the minimum.
Baker said he hopes the board can hire DiChiara's replacement in time for next school year. Meanwhile, the board brought in a familiar face to be interim superintendent: Rod Hinton.
The 66-year-old Phenix City native worked 16 years in the school system as a history teacher, central office administrator and principal of Ridgecrest Elementary and Central High. He left education in 1984 to work for the W.C. Bradley Co., where he became vice president of corporate human resources, CEO of The Game division and a board member. In 1993, he joined Russell Athletics as vice president of licensing products. He eventually became chief operating officer and general manager of Jordan Outdoor Products, aka Realtree, before retiring in 2010.
Hinton's background makes him well qualified to lead the school system through this transition, Baker said.
"I've known him all my life," he said. "I just felt like in this situation it would be good to have someone local who understands the dynamics of this community, and I felt like he'd do a good job."
Hinton is the stepfather of one of the school board's seven members, Ricky Carpenter. Although he said he recused himself from the vote to hire Hinton, Carpenter wouldn't say whether he also would recuse himself from voting on his stepfather's recommendations. He referred that question to Smith.
Hinton made a presentation to the board Wednesday, outlining his expectations as interim superintendent. His vision is to "maximize our individual and collective success by remaining focused on and totally committed to excellence, maximizing potential and getting better every day."