Larry DiChiara sues Phenix City Board of Education

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comDecember 26, 2013 

Larry DiChiara has sued the Phenix City Board of Education, which voted last month to buy out his superintendent’s contract.

The complaint, filed in Russell County Circuit Court, seeks an immediate temporary restraining order, injunctive relief, declaratory judgment for breach of contract and unspecified damages.

DiChiara’s lawyer, J. Knox Argo of Montgomery, Ala., electronically filed the lawsuit on Christmas Eve.

DiChiara went from being named Alabama Superintendent of the Year two years ago to being ousted Nov. 26, when the seven-member board unanimously voted in a called meeting to buy out the 4½ years left 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.

“Unilaterally terminating a superintendent’s contract is not as simple as it may seem,” DiChiara wrote in an email Thursday morning to the Ledger-Enquirer. “All we have asked is for the board to fulfill its contractual obligations. We simply disagree as to what those obligations entail. I suppose that is what judges and juries are for.”

DiChiara has said he and the board are “a couple hundred thousand dollars” apart in what they think is a fair and legal amount to buy out his contract. The difference is in the benefits, which ones and for how long, the board must pay DiChiara in the buyout. The board voted to authorize its president, Brad Baker, to negotiate a settlement with DiChiara without knowing whether the two sides could agree on a settlement.

According to the lawsuit, DiChiara was notified that his salary and benefits would be terminated as of Dec. 31. The request for a temporary restraining order was filed to force the board to continue DiChiara’s salary and benefits until a buyout of his contract is finalized.

A hearing for the temporary restraining order was scheduled for Dec. 30 in Judge Albert Johnson's courtroom, but board attorney Sydney Smith said Thursday afternoon the hearing isn’t necessary because the board has agreed to give DiChiara “pay and benefits for two months from Nov. 26, and those two months will just come off the settlement amount.”

Reacting to the board’s agreement Thursday afternoon, DiChiara said he is “glad they’re complying with what’s in the contract. The remainder of the settlement will have to be settled by the judge, and we don’t know the date of that yet.”

The board and DiChiara have declined to publicly explain why his 9 1/2-year superintendency ended abruptly, citing a clause in the pending buyout that prohibits disparaging each other. But the Ledger-Enquirer reported Sunday that an open records request revealed DiChiara accused the board of misconduct in an unsent letter addressed to Alabama Superintendent of Education Tommy Bice this summer.

Pressuring the administration to hire a family member, interfering with personnel decisions and breaching confidentiality are among the allegations DiChiara made. But he agreed to not send the letter when the board agreed to mediation conducted by the Alabama School Boards Association. Two mediation sessions lasting more than two hours each this fall, however, failed to ease the discord.

The unsent letter didn’t name names or specific incidents of misconduct, and DiChiara has declined to do so while negotiating his buyout. The board didn’t respond to those allegations in time for Sunday’s story, but Smith said in a subsequent email to the Ledger-Enquirer, “The allegations against the Board in the letter to Dr. Bice are the perceptions of the writer. Perceptions are not truths until evidence proves them to be true.”

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