Another finalist drops out of Phenix City superintendent search

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comMay 19, 2014 

As the Phenix City Board of Education prepared to interview the first of its finalists to be the school system’s next superintendent Wednesday, the second of its four original finalists dropped out of consideration Tuesday night.

Craig Ross, the principal of Robertsdale High School in Baldwin County, was hired as superintendent by the Cullman County Board of Education on Tuesday night. Ross was scheduled to interview in Phenix City on Thursday.

According to WBRC, the Fox affiliate in Birmingham, Ross released the following statement:

“My family and I could not be more excited tonight! I am so honored to be named Cullman County Superintendent. I am thrilled to have the opportunity to serve the children, teachers, administrators and community of Cullman County. I came home from my interview and told my family that Cullman was where we need to be, we have been praying about it ever since! We cannot wait to join your community and start meeting everyone.”

The Ledger-Enquirer wasn’t able to reach Ross for comment.

Irma Townsend, the human resources director and student services supervisor for Enterprise City Schools, is scheduled to meet Phenix City Interim Superintendent Rod Hinton and board members at 1 p.m. Wednesday, then be given a tour of the school system and city as time permits. The official interview, which Alabama law requires to be open to the public, will be at 5 p.m. in the Central High School auditorium, 2400 Dobbs Drive. Following the interview, Townsend will be available to meet and speak with those in attendance, according to the board’s news release. The other Phenix City finalist is Christopher Quinn, the assistant superintendent for instruction in Stafford County (Va.) Public Schools. His interview is scheduled for May 27. The time and location are the same as the one Wednesday.

Phenix City’s enrollment is approximately 6,900 students. Enterprise has about 6,200, and Stafford County about 27,000.

The Phenix City board announced last week the names of four finalists out of the 17 applicants, but Kenneth Burton, the assistant superintendent for administration in Opelika City Schools and formerly a principal in Phenix City, withdrew from consideration a day later.

The Ledger-Enquirer took time last week to learn more about the finalists. In telephone interviews with some of their references and some folks they didn't list, we gained more understanding than can be gleaned from their resumes. Here are the highlights, in order of their scheduled visits to Phenix City:

Irma Townsend

Townsend, 53, is an Opelika High graduate (1979). During her 32 years as an educator, she has been a teacher, guidance counselor, principal, central officer administrator, grant writer and project director. She has worked at LaGrange High School and in the Alabama schools systems of Ozark City, Dale County and Coffee County before spending the past 18 years in Enterprise. She earned a bachelor's degree in speech communication and education from Auburn, a master's degree in school counseling from Auburn, certification in school administration from Troy and a doctorate in counseling education and supervision from Auburn.

"At this stage in my career, I just have such a belief in this generation," Townsend said. "I just know I have the vision for a school district and the experience, so I can provide some positive leadership and be part of a great system and a great team. I was born and raised in Opelika, so it would be almost like coming home for me."

Townsend said she isn't a candidate for any other superintendent jobs. She was a finalist for the top spot in Enterprise last fall.

Enterprise City Board of Education president Ross Cotter has known Townsend for about 15 years. He called her "a very fine lady, very qualified. She has done a good job here in Enterprise and has the experience to do a good job as a superintendent. I don't have anything but good things to say about her."

Cotter noted Townsend has worked in the administration for three superintendents in Enterprise, so she has been "exposed to the inner workings of the central office and is knowledgeable in many areas."

Townsend "speaks well on subjects she brings before the board," Cotter said, and is "well respected" in the community.

Enterprise City Schools superintendent Camille Wright appreciates Townsend for being a "class act" and "a real asset to me" despite the board choosing Wright over Townsend.

"She knew they wanted somebody from the outside to bring in fresh ideas," said Wright, who was instruction director for Madison City Schools. "She's been my biggest supporter."

The problem in Enterprise was "completely political," Wright said, and didn't involve Townsend.

"She could have done this job blindfolded," Wright said. "She basically does a little bit of everything in the school district, so she's very competent when it comes to making decisions. She's just a leader. She's got a vision about where we need to go."

Christopher Quinn

Quinn, 60, has worked for 10 school districts in 35 years, including communities ranging from poor to wealthy, small to large, rural to urban. He gained experience in Georgia (Richmond County, Wilkes County, Walton County, Bartow County, Appling County, Liberty County and Dublin) and New York (Williamsville and Buffalo) before arriving in Stafford in 2005. His positions have ascended from teacher, to superintendent intern, assistant principal, principal, curriculum director, executive assistant to the superintendent and now assistant superintendent for instruction.

He is a native of Georgia, graduated from Evans High School in 1972, earned a bachelor’s degree in history (1976) and a master’s degree in education (1983) from Augusta State University and a doctorate in education administration from SUNY-Buffalo (1988).

Quinn said the Phenix City job interests him because "it's a smaller system, a stable system, with structures in place that are meeting the needs of the students. … I like the fact that there is a trend of improving achievement, which tells me there's capacity there. My commitment is to be an instructional leader. That's our business: teaching and learning."

The superintendent's role is "all about building culture and leadership and getting everyone on the same page," he said. "It's not fixing people; it's fixing the system. Most people, 99 percent, are in it for the right reasons. But, sometimes, it's the structure or bureaucracy that's not getting the resources in the right places."

Quinn said he also is a superintendent finalist in a Virginia district he declined to name. He had a second interview there this past Saturday, but he said in an email Monday that result is “still tentative. These things are never easy. I do plan to travel to Phenix City for the interview on May 27. I look forward with great anticipation to my visit.”

His boss, Stafford County Public Schools superintendent Bruce Benson, emphasized he has been in the district for only six weeks, but he already senses Quinn has what it takes to lead a school system.

"He's an incredible educator," Benson said. "His focus is on the right thing, our young people, helping them be as successful as they can be. He's very personable and a great communicator."

Stafford County School Board chairwoman Nanette Kidby is impressed that Quinn "always has been very cutting edge when it comes to education, particularly with 21st Century learning skills."

When it comes to community relations, she said, Quinn is "very good about making sure our story is being told. Everybody loves him. … He's always been very highly respected. Whatever he says, you can count on it."

Vacancy's origin

Phenix City's superintendent vacancy was created when the seven-member board unanimously voted in a called meeting Nov. 26 to place Larry DiChiara on administrative leave and to seek a buyout of the 4½ years left on his contract. The board has refused to explain why it chose to abruptly end DiChiara's 9½-year tenure, which includes being named Alabama Superintendent of the Year three years ago.

Such a buyout is expected to cost more than $750,000, but the deal hasn't been made six months later because DiChiara and the board haven't settled on a figure. The dispute is focused on the benefits owed in the contract. DiChiara's two lawsuits against the board are pending in Russell County Circuit Court. Now that his Phenix City contract has been terminated, he is acting superintendent of Selma City Schools as part of the Alabama State Department of Education intervention team.

Asked why they still want to work for the Phenix City board despite DiChiara's controversial exit, the finalists had the following responses:

• "I have not really kept up with that process much at all," Townsend said. "I just knew there was an opening and felt it was a good fit. That school district is very similar to ours in Enterprise."

• "I don't know much about it, other than what I've read," Quinn said. "I do know that, just like horses plowing a field, you need to pull in tandem to create a vision for the children, and that doesn't always happen."

Mark Rice, 706-576-6272. Follow Mark on Twitter@MarkRiceLE.

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