Chuck Williams: School board battle feels like messy divorce

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comDecember 30, 2013 

Divorce is rarely pretty.

And the longer a divorce rages on, the uglier it tends to get.

The monthlong saga that is the departure of Phenix City Schools Superintendent Larry DiChiara is nothing more than a messy divorce playing out in the pages of this newspaper. Irreconcilable differences on steroids.

How else do you explain it?

Two days before Thanksgiving, the Board of Education made the decision to negotiate a buyout of the remaining 4½ years on DiChiara’s contract. He went from Alabama Superintendent of the Year to unwanted in two short years.

What’s the first thing that happens in a divorce? Somebody gets kicked out of the house. The board kicked DiChiara out of the house. And after nearly 10 years as the leader of Phenix City’s schools, he went because he knew he had a firm contract and it was going to cost the district north of $750,000 to get a divorce.

Sometimes it is easier to separate than fight it.

Besides, DiChiara and the board had already gone to counseling. Doesn’t everyone on the brink of divorce go to counseling?

Prior to the split, DiChiara and the board went through two mediation sessions conducted by the Alabama School Boards Association. All told, more than four hours with a disinterested third-party trying to put the pieces back together.

It obviously didn’t work.

And what would a juicy divorce be without a little game of he-said, she-said.

According to documents obtained by the Ledger-Enquirer, DiChiara outlined his complaints against the board in a July 1, 2013, letter to Alabama Superintendent of Education Tommy Bice. The letter was never sent, but it was at the core of the mediation.

“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,” DiChiara wrote. “… I am prepared to provide you with specific names, dates and board member actions that support the claims outlined above.”

Monday in court, board attorney Sydney Smith, who has been left to explain the board’s actions as members have agreed to keep quiet, shot back. When pressed by Circuit Court Judge Al Johnson, Smith said that the board was investigating DiChiara for “wrongdoing.”

It took a month and a lawsuit filed by DiChiara against the board for that to come out.

Who’s right? Who’s wrong? People will be able to make their own judgments the longer this mess drags out.

But there is one certainty in this sea of uncertainty. Just like many divorces, the ones caught in the middle are the kids.

Chuck Williams, senior editor for content, chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.com.

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