More confusion over former Phenix City superintendent DiChiara's buyout

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comJanuary 9, 2014 

Larry DiChiara, Phenix City schools superintendent. 07/29/10

MIKE HASKEY — mhaskey@ledger-enquirer.com

During its called meeting Thursday night, the Phenix City Board of Education deleted an agenda item that was added 1 hour and 40 minutes before the meeting and would have rescinded the board’s 6-week-old vote to buy out the contract of outgoing Superintendent Larry DiChiara.

The board also unanimously voted without public discussion to:

• Hire another attorney to advise the board in this matter.

• Hire a public relations firm to promote the Phenix City Schools in the community.

Board president Brad Baker explained after the meeting that there was confusion about the Dec. 30 order from Russell County Circuit Court Judge Al Johnson. The board thought the order meant it had to give DiChiara “a written 60-day notice of termination, effective Dec. 30,” which would have left no legal reason for a buyout. But board attorney Sydney Smith cleared that up during the board’s closed session Thursday, Baker said, so the board will continue to pursue buying out the remaining 4½ years on DiChiara’s contract.

That is expected to cost the school system at least $750,000, but DiChiara has said the two sides are “a couple hundred thousand of dollars” apart on what they consider a fair and legal settlement. The difference is in the amount and length of the benefits he is due. DiChiara sued the board Dec. 24 for breach of contract. During the Dec. 30 hearing, Johnson ordered the two sides to send him their best settlement offer in 45 days.

DiChiara was named Alabama Superintendent of the Year in 2011, but his 9½-year stint in Phenix City came to an abrupt end Nov. 26, when the seven-member board unanimously voted in a called meeting to put him on administrative leave and buy out his contract. Board members and DiChiara have declined to publicly discuss the reason for their separation, citing a clause in the pending buyout that prohibits disparaging each other. But the Ledger-Enquirer reported Dec. 22 that an open records request revealed DiChiara accused the board of misconduct in an unsent letter dated July 1 and addressed to Alabama Superintendent of Education Tommy Bice.

Pressuring the administration to hire a family member, interfering with personnel decisions and breaching confidentiality are among the 15 allegations DiChiara made. 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 failed to ease the discord.

Then during the Dec. 30 hearing, Smith revealed through questioning from Johnson that the board is investigating DiChiara for “wrongdoing.” After the hearing, Smith said in an email to the Ledger-Enquirer that she couldn’t be more specific, but “the allegations were made prior to and subsequent to the board’s decision to buy out the contract. It should take several weeks at least to complete the investigation.”

Baker said in a prepared statement that hiring former Phenix City attorney Ronald G. Davenport, now practicing out of Montgomery, Ala., will give Smith more time to “focus on the day-to-day legal affairs of the school system and assist the board in the search process for a new leader for Phenix City Schools — the leader our community deserves. The board’s priority will be moving our school system forward, focusing on retaining outstanding teachers to enhance student learning and increasing our test scores.

“I’d like to reiterate how appreciative we are of our community’s support and dedication to our city and to our schools. We welcome your input, and, working together, we will move our schools forward and continue to get better every day.” Davenport was city attorney for Phenix City and the Russell County School Board from 1976-84 before moving to Montgomery, where is in the law firm of Rushton, Stakely, Johnston & Garrett. Smith will continue to represent the board during litigation, she said, but Davenport will lead the buyout negotiations.

Media, Marketing and More of Columbus is the public relations firm the board hired. Although the agenda items for the two hires stated the board was approving their contracts, no contracts were made available Thursday night. Davenport has only an oral agreement now but will charge the board $250 per hour. Marquette McKnight and Helena Coates of Media, Marketing and More said they haven’t finalized the scope of their work for the board, so they couldn’t say how much it will cost the school system.

Regardless, interim Superintendent Rod Hinton praised the board for hiring the public relations firm.

“We’ve got a great story to tell,” he said. “We need to do a better job telling it, and I think these professionals will help us do this, and I think it will increase confidence in the actions of this board and this school system and the personnel involved.”

Board vice president Kelvin Redd didn’t attend the meeting.

Baker also announced he has appointed Florence Bellamy and Redd to join him on a subcommittee to search for the next superintendent. Smith said she has contacted search consultants to send the board proposals.

In other action, the board unanimously approved without discussion a bond issue for nearly $10 million.

As the Ledger-Enquirer previously reported, the bond issue will fund the following projects in a five-year capital plan:

• $1,924,200 for cafeteria, kitchen and office renovations and the addition of an unspecified number of classrooms at Westview Elementary School.

• $1,500,000 for roof renovations at Central High School.

• $1,500,000 for a bus barn.

• $525,000 for an access road at Central High School.

The bond issue also will be used to fund two projects the board previously approved:

• $1,802,500 for a four-classroom addition and multipurpose room at Sherwood Elementary School.

• $1,212,853 for a 12-classroom addition at Lakewood Primary School. The project, already in progress, is expected to cost $1,506,070. The other $293,217 will come from the bond refinanced last year.

The rest of the money from the bond issue will go pay:

• $1,500,000 for 14-15 new buses. The school system recently received seven buses and plans to order five more immediately and another five this summer. State transportation funds would be used to cover the remaining cost of the 17 new buses in total.

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