Dismissed from Phenix City, Larry DiChiara leads state intervention team in Selma

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comFebruary 21, 2014 

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

MIKE HASKEY — mhaskey@ledger-enquirer.com

The Alabama State Department of Education started its takeover of Selma City Schools on Friday, and a familiar face is leading the intervention.

Larry DiChiara, placed on administrative leave three months ago by the Phenix City Board of Education to try to buy out the superintendent's contract, is Alabama Superintendent of Education Tommy Bice's choice to direct the state's corrective effort in Selma.

According to the Selma Times-Journal, a state investigation last fall found that the school system:

• Inadequately investigated allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior.

• Failed to enforce graduation requirements and standardized testing procedures.

• Disregarded instructional time.

On Feb. 12, the Alabama State Board of Education approved Bice's request for intervention. The state board declared in its resolution that the Selma school board "has not demonstrated the expected level of institutional commitment to implement a corrective action plan that satisfactorily addresses the deficiencies."

Bice explained in an email to the Ledger-Enquirer why he selected DiChiara.

"Dr. DiChara has the skill set I was seeking to accomplish the objectives of the Selma intervention," Bice said. "It can often be helpful to have someone who has experienced controversy, as they bring perspective to the type of work involved in intervention."

The seven-member Phenix City board unanimously voted in a called meeting Nov. 26 to place DiChiara on administrative leave and to seek a buyout of the 4 1/2 years left on his contract. The board has refused to explain why it chose to abruptly end DiChiara's 9 1/2-year tenure, which includes being named Alabama Superintendent of the Year three years ago.

"I'm honored and flattered that Dr. Bice believes I can go in there and lead a team to help turn things around," DiChiara, in his 33rd year as an educator, said by telephone from Selma. "When he spoke to the folks here, he shared with them that I certainly have the wealth of experience and the track record."

Phenix City board president Brad Baker declined to comment about Bice's choice.

DiChiara laughed when asked for his reaction to being dismissed in Phenix City but appointed by the state.

"I just let my body of work speak for itself," he said. "But at the end of the day, people understand sometimes what happens with board dynamics and superintendents."

Seven of the past 10 Alabama Superintendents of the Year had their contracts bought out or not renewed, DiChiara noted.

"So that's an issue that needs to be addressed one day," he said.

For now, DiChiara's focus is on the 4,000-student system in Selma, where he and his team already put three administrators on leave, including the superintendent. DiChiara will serve as interim superintendent.

"I will be receiving a consultant fee plus the state per diem, which is $75 per day and expenses," he wrote in a follow-up email ."At this time, I am not sure exactly what the consultant fee is but my guess is it will be between $300 to $500 per day. Or they may decide to just pay me a salary or specific amount. I just don't know at this time."

Two other administrators who worked in local school districts are part of the Selma intervention team: Don Cooper was the human resources chief for the Muscogee County School District, and John Painter was superintendent in Lee County.

The intervention can take "up to two years and more if necessary," DiChiara said. He plans to make the two-hour commute most days but sometimes will stay overnight in Selma.

"These are good people here," DiChiara said. "They've got a good nucleus, but there's a cultural problem of allowing substandard things to take place, and we're going to try to raise those standards."

On Christmas Eve, DiChiara sued the Phenix City board for breach of contract. Wednesday, Russell County Circuit Judge Albert Judge ordered the two sides into mediation.

Buying out DiChiara's contract is expected to cost the school system at least $750,000, but the exact figure isn't settled because the two sides haven't agreed on which benefits still are owed and for how long. DiChiara has said he and the board are "a couple hundred thousand dollars" apart in what they think is a fair and legal amount.

The Ledger-Enquirer reported Dec. 22 that an open records request revealed DiChiara accused the board of misconduct in an unsent letter addressed to Bice this past 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 past fall 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. Board attorney Sydney Smith wrote 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."

During the Dec. 30 hearing in Johnson's courtroom, Smith said the board placed DiChiara on administrative leave to investigate alleged "wrongdoing," which she has declined to specify. Asked for an update on that investigation, Smith wrote in an email Wednesday, "I am not doing any investigation." Asked in follow-up emails who was doing the investigation, whether it is finished and what it has found, Smith hasn't responded.

DiChiara has said he doesn't know what wrongdoing Smith alluded to Dec. 30 and hasn't heard anything about it from her or the board since then.

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