Hiring process questioned after Phenix City names superintendent

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comJune 11, 2014 

As the new Phenix City schools superintendent signed his contract on Wednesday, the secretive process the board of education used to select him was called into question.

Crenshaw County Superintendent Randy Wilkes was hired Tuesday night after a weeklong courtship that was not open to the public. The board had previously named five finalists, two of whom were interviewed in a public meeting, in accordance with Alabama law. The other three withdrew from consideration.

Wilkes was not interviewed publicly because the first time the board as a whole discussed his name was when he was nominated Tuesday night to replace Larry DiChiara, who parted ways with the board in November. That nomination came after a 30-minute closed session for the board to discuss "good name and character."

"We were not required to do anything but post the job," board president Brad Baker said Wednesday in the wake of the hiring.

Board attorney Sydney Smith said the board made a decision to make the process as public as it could and involve the community. And did so during the early stages of the process.

"But they were not required to make it public," Smith said.

Under Alabama law, if the board as a whole had interviewed Wilkes, it would have needed to be public. The board never held such an interview, but five of the seven members met with Wilkes the week prior to his hiring. They did not violate Alabama law because a quorum -- four board members -- were never in a room at the same time.

Baker and board members Rick Carpenter and Kelvin Redd met with Wilkes on June 4 at a Montgomery restaurant, Baker confirmed.

On June 5, Wilkes came to Phenix City and met with board members Paul Stamp and Fran Ellis in Smith's law office on Broad Street, Wilkes confirmed. Board members Barbara Mitchell and Zara Parham were out of town and did not meet with Wilkes, Smith said.

Wilkes was hired to the $145,000 a year job on a 5-0 vote with Mitchell and Parham abstaining.

"They could not meet as a board and interview him in secret," Smith said.

Wilkes said he followed the process as it was presented to him.

Concerned citizens

The Rev. Noble Williams, pastor of Greater Mt. Zion Baptist Church and the spokesman for Community Concerned Clergy, questioned the secretive process that led to Wilkes' hiring.

"Why even look for a legal loophole when something as important as the superintendent of the Phenix City schools is concerned?" Williams asked. "This is about the integrity of this board. Even if it is legal, it is not right to do it that way."

Baker said it was done that way because of time restraints.

"We did not have the time to put it all together and do it," he said.

Interim Superintendent Rod Hinton's contract with the board expires today, and that was part of the pressure to hire someone, Baker said. The district will operate without a superintendent until Wilkes takes over July 1.

Baker said he did feel the pressure from Williams and the Community Concerned Clergy, a group of black ministers who organized in the wake of the May firing of City Manager Wallace Hunter and dismissal of Central High football coach Woodrow Lowe. Hunter has since been reinstated.

"I did feel the pressure from that group, absolutely," Baker said. "But my question to Noble was: 'How do we make it better? Give me some suggestions on what you and your group would do to help mend this?' He didn't have an answer.

"He said, 'I understand the situation you are in,' but he didn't have any insight."

Another factor, Baker said, was Phenix City was not the only school district talking to Wilkes, who has been with the Crenshaw County system for 20 years and the superintendent since Jan. 1, 2011.

He was one of five finalists for the new superintendent's job in the Gardendale, Ala., district. Gardendale is forming its own school district and is pulling out of the Jefferson County district.

Wilkes, one of 29 applicants, was scheduled to interview in Gardendale in the coming days, but withdrew from consideration after he signed his contract Wednesday morning.

Williams was in the board room Tuesday night when Wilkes was hired during a work session. He is on the public agenda of tonight's scheduled Board of Education meeting.

"We will make our concerns known to the board," Williams said.

Ready for the job

Wilkes said he knows he is coming into a district that has issues and challenges. His hiring comes as DiChiara is in a lawsuit with the Phenix City Board of Education and its individual members. DiChiara is seeking the salary and benefits he says the board still owes him for the remaining 4½ years left on his contract.

"There is not going to be a perfect system," said Wilkes, 47. "It is like the Sunday school teacher said, 'If you find a perfect church, don't go there because you will mess it up.'"

Wilkes, a numbers guy and former math teacher, is quick to point out the differences in the Phenix City system and Crenshaw County.

"I am coming from a $20 million budget to a $70 million budget," he said. "I am coming from 271 employees to about 850. I am coming from 2,400 students to nearly 7,000."

The new superintendent submitted a list of 138 questions he would like to have answered before he takes charge.

"It is everything from budget information to organization charts to who is doing what," he said.

He has one number he plans to focus on immediately. He comes from a system with three small high schools and a graduation rate of about 96 percent, well above the roughly 77 percent graduation rate in the Phenix City system.

"The state rate is 80 percent, and 90 percent is acceptable," he said. "But I am not going to be satisfied until it is 100 percent and our graduates are ready for a career, ready for a job or ready for post-secondary education."

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