Allegations surface against Phenix City Board of Education

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comDecember 21, 2013 

Pressuring the administration to hire a family member, interfering with personnel decisions and breaching confidentiality are among the allegations of misconduct Larry DiChiara made against the Phenix City Board of Education before it voted to buy out the superintendent's contract.

A Ledger-Enquirer investigation of the dispute between DiChiara and the board reveals a divided governing body finding a controversial issue they could unite around: muzzling its outspoken superintendent.

Through an open records request, the Ledger-Enquirer received documents that show the board's deteriorating relationship with DiChiara. He went from being named Alabama Superintendent of the Year two years ago to being ousted last month, when the seven-member board unanimously voted to buy out the remaining 4½ years on his contract. That move is expected to cost the school system at least $750,000, but the exact figure still isn't settled and DiChiara has predicted the issue will be decided in court.

The board and DiChiara have declined to publicly discuss the separation, citing a clause in the pending buyout that prohibits disparaging each other, but public documents help fill in the blanks.

And if there is a smoking gun in the drama that put a bullet in DiChiara's 9 1/2-year superintendency, it appears to be in the form of an unsent letter.

Alleged misconduct

DiChiara wrote a 2½-page letter dated July 1, 2013, with the intention of alerting Alabama Superintendent of Education Tommy Bice about a series of incidents he considers board misconduct. But after DiChiara shared the letter with board president Brad Baker, the board agreed to mediation conducted by the Alabama School Boards Association, and DiChiara agreed to not send the letter.

Two mediation sessions lasting more than two hours each this fall failed to ease the discord, however, so the board voted in a Nov. 26 called meeting to place DiChiara on administrative leave and authorize Baker to complete a buyout.

In the unsent letter to the state superintendent, DiChiara claims he has witnessed "violations of the Alabama Governance Act perpetuated by certain members of my current school board." He also accuses unnamed board members of violating Alabama ethics laws and the Phenix City School District Policies and Procedures.

He further asserts that the board's actions have "compromised the Governance and Leadership standard established by AdvancEd as we currently are accredited district-wide. We come up for accreditation review in March of 2014."

All of which, DiChiara writes, amount to a "legal breach-of-contract," because the board's misconduct interfered with performing his duties.

Here are some of the 15 allegations DiChiara makes against unnamed board members:

• Board member(s) asking or pressuring him or the personnel director to hire family members.

• Board member(s) acting on their own when receiving a complaint from a constituent rather than following the proper protocol.

• Board member(s) breeching confidentiality of information shared in documents and closed sessions.

• Board member(s) contacting the personnel department or principals to pressure or question them regarding dismissal of employees.

• Board member(s) regularly contacting employees, "which results in intimidation, pressure and fear of future promotions or job security."

• "Within the last few years, board members have refused to approve the superintendent's recommendations to hire administrative staff at the local school level, as well as at the central office level, for personal or political reasons. Additionally, board members refused to approve a veteran principal's contract despite exemplary evaluations and central office commendations and endorsements."

DiChiara sums up his concerns in the unsent letter to the state superintendent by writing, "I could take the path of least resistance and simply resign my position as superintendent, but I believe that would only reward this board member misconduct. … I am prepared to provide you with specific names, dates and board member actions that support the claims outlined above."

Examples

Board attorney Sydney Smith noted in an email Friday to the Ledger-Enquirer "that the allegations of board misconduct describe matters occurring over an 8-9 years period and are not restricted to the actions of the current Board."

DiChiara, however, told the Ledger-Enquirer that "90-95 percent of those things were happening with the current board. I wrote the letter on July 1, 2013, because of the actions of my current board." He declined to name names, citing the pending buyout agreement prohibiting disparaging comments from both sides, but board meeting minutes provide examples of his allegations:

• At the March 2011 meeting, the board rejected DiChiara's recommendation to promote Jana Laster from assistant principal at Ridgecrest Elementary to principal at Lakewood Primary. He failed to get a majority when board members Florence Bellamy, Barbara Mitchell and Paul Stamp voted no and Fran Ellis abstained. Mike Benefield, Frankie Horace and Matt Shirley were the three members who voted yes -- all of whom the city council eventually removed from the school board.

• At the December 2012 meeting, Bellamy made a motion, seconded by Mitchell, to not roll over DiChiara's contract for another year. The motion failed, however, when Ellis and new members Brad Baker, Ricky Carpenter and Kelvin Redd voted against it. Stamp abstained.

• At a called meeting in June 2013, the board rejected one more personnel recommendation from DiChiara -- and its domino effect meant the board also blocked an additional recommendation it had approved on the previous agenda item.

The death of assistant superintendent Mary Jane Riley in May had created a vacancy DiChiara wanted to fill by promoting Central High assistant principal Todd Stanfill to a central office job at the director level. DiChiara also recommended former Central High and central office administrator David Wilson to replace Stanfill as assistant principal at the high school.

By a 4-3 vote, the board approved the rehiring of Wilson. Baker, Carpenter, Redd and Stamp voted yes; Bellamy, Ellis and Mitchell voted no.

Stanfill's promotion was the next agenda item. The motion failed to get a majority, however, when six board members voted the same way as the Wilson rehiring but Stamp abstained. Stamp's son had applied for the position.

So the Wilson rehiring was voided because there ended up being no vacancy to fill.

Four days later, DiChiara unloaded his list of alleged board misconduct in that unsent letter to the state superintendent.

• At the September 2013 meeting, the board unanimously approved DiChiara's recommendation to remove the rollover provision of his five-year contract.

Reprimand

Other documents show the following events are part of the fallout between the board and DiChiara.

In a May 1, 2012, half-page letter hand-delivered to DiChiara, then-board president Eddie Lowe, who now is Phenix City's mayor, reprimanded the superintendent for "unprofessional" behavior at the previous week's board meeting.

"Last Thursday was not the first time you had suddenly left the Board meeting without any explanation," Lowe wrote. "You acted the same following the Board's vote to not accept your recommendation of the termination of (an unnamed worker). The third time you left the Board meeting angry when there was no Board motion to accept your recommendation to hire (name redacted).

"Your unprofessional actions concern the Board. These actions are becoming more frequent, and we feel that you show no respect for the Board and our opinions. … It is the hope and expectation of the Board that you will think about your actions and will act professionally in the future."

Four days later, DiChiara responded in a 2 ½-page letter to Lowe.

"First of all, I take exception to a few things that you list in the letter as facts that are simply not so," DiChiara wrote. "For example, last Thursday was the first board meeting that I have ever walked out before it was adjourned. All action had been taken and all that was left was for the meeting to be adjourned. I felt like I was being unfairly targeted with allegations of wrongdoing in a gotcha manner. Not a single board member had the courtesy to share these concerns prior to the board meeting so that I could get him/her the facts either prior to the meeting or during the executive session."

In the letter, DiChiara apologized for leaving the meeting early and promised it won't happen again. He explained that it came at the end of a 16-hour, "incredibly stressful day. … I also consider it a failure on my part that I have been unable to create an environment that would make some of our current board members comfortable enough to pick up the phone or come by prior to a board meeting if they have questions or concerns."

DiChiara continued in the letter to Lowe, "You stated that the board does not allow unprofessional behavior and is entitled to respect from all its employees. I agree. But am I not entitled to that same professional behavior and respect from the board? If you would like specific examples, I would be happy to provide them. But that is not necessary because you are very aware of those occasions and have acknowledged such."

Dichiara further stated in the letter to Lowe, "On the other two occasions that you have cited, the meeting had already been adjourned and it is my prerogative and right to leave the meeting in a foul mood if I feel as though I have been disrespected or undermined. Board members often leave in the very same mood 'without any explanation.' I do however accept that I am the paid employee and should be held to a higher standard. I accept that responsibility and pledge to do better. It would be nice, however, if as board president, you would ask board members to show me the same courtesy and respect that you demand."

DiChiara explained in the letter that, during the meeting's closed session, "one board member continued to insist and insinuate that I had done something improper by paying mileage to a non-employee. On Friday, the day after the board meeting, (name redacted) verified that (name redacted) was indeed an employee and still on the clock. In executive session, I shared with the board that I was uncertain at the time if he was still on the clock. This is something I could have easily verified had I been asked prior to the board meeting."

DiChiara also wrote that, in the same closed session, he was asked about an allegation of a non-employee using the school system's credit-card account. Only after the meeting was DiChiara able to determine "the card was never used to purchase any items. … Once again, this is something that I could have easily verified and provided to the concerned board member had I been asked prior to the board meeting."

DiChiara concluded his letter by asking Lowe to help end the board's "environment of insinuations and gotcha. If we are all suppose to be a part of the same team, that outcome would be very sad for the future health of Phenix City Schools and those employees who have been tasked to educate and take care of our students."

Transparency

Responding to the Ledger-Enquirer's open records request, Smith, the board's attorney, wrote in an email Friday, "The Alabama appellate courts and the Alabama Attorney General have ruled that 'sensitive personnel records are exempt from disclosure.' A judge must apply the rule-of-reason and balance the question of embarrassment and harm to an individual against the right of the public to know.

"Arguably the disclosure of the documents you have requested may cause embarrassment to both Dr. DiChiara and the Board. The Board could refuse to produce the requested documents relying on this legal principle. If the Board refuses to disclose the documents you have requested it is assumed that the Ledger-Enquirer would file suit in an attempt to force disclosure. Rather than prolong this matter through litigation that would be time consuming and costly for all involved, the Board will provide you with the requested documentation.

"The Board wishes to be transparent in all of its actions and wishes for the citizens of Phenix City to be informed. … The Board understands its responsibilities and acts only when it believes that it is in the best interest of the Phenix City School System to take a particular action."

Most of Alabama's school boards are elected, including the Russell and Lee county boards, but the Phenix City Council appoints the city's school board members, who serve five-year terms.

Last year, DiChiara confirmed to the Ledger-Enquirer that he had applied for the vacant superintendent job across the Chattahoochee River in Muscogee County. Although he didn't get an interview, the public acknowledgment of his interest prompted backlash.

Russell County attorney Kenneth Funderburk resigned from the Phenix City school board in November 2012, eight months after the council appointed him. Funderburk said he realized his workload didn't give him enough time to serve the school board.

DiChiara had criticized the appointment, saying it amounted to "payback" over a legal battle the school district fought against the city. In a Nov. 28, 2012, Ledger-Enquirer article about his resignation, Funderburk said DiChiara created a "public spectacle" and was "shortsighted" in disclosing his interest in another job.

DiChiara defended himself in the article by saying he simply tried to honestly answer the Ledger-Enquirer's question about his Muscogee County application.

"That is not what I call making a public spectacle," he said. "It's called being transparent."

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