Phenix City school board alleges harassment from clergy

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comJuly 15, 2014 

Phenix City Council hears from concerned clergy on Monday following the controversial firing of City Manager Wallace Hunter on May 20.

ROBIN TRIMARCHI — rtrimarchi@ledger-enquirer.com

A pastor and a group of activist ministers are "harassing, intimidating, humiliating, defaming and interfering" with the Phenix City Board of Education and some of its members, the board alleges in its response to a lawsuit.

The Rev. I.N. Hudson Jr., the senior minister of Nichols Chapel AME Church, sued the board two weeks ago in Russell County Circuit Court. He accuses the board of violating the Alabama Open Meetings Act during its superintendent search, and he seeks the board's hiring of Randy Wilkes to be invalidated.

The board ended its 6½-month superintendent search June 10, when it hired Wilkes from Crenshaw County without a public interview or his candidacy being disclosed. The surprise move came at the end of a called meeting and after a 30-minute closed session to discuss "good name and character," as allowed under Alabama law.

Wilkes' hiring wasn't on the agenda and was approved without public discussion. Board president Brad Baker, vice president Kelvin Redd, Rick Carpenter, Fran Ellis and Paul Stamp voted to hire Wilkes. Those board members met individually with Wilkes. The two board members who didn't meet with Wilkes, Barbara Mitchell and Zara Parham, abstained.

Wilkes wasn't one of the two candidates the board interviewed in public sessions: Irma Townsend, human resources director and student services supervisor for Enterprise City Schools, and Christopher Quinn, assistant superintendent for instruction at Stafford County (Va.) Public Schools.

Kenneth Burton, assistant superintendent for administration at Opelika City Schools, and Craig Ross, then-principal of Robertsdale High School, also were announced as the board's finalists, but they dropped out of consideration before their scheduled interviews.

After the board interviewed Townsend and Quinn, it announced its intention to interview another candidate, Troy Public Schools Superintendent Lee Hicks, but he canceled the interview because the Troy board renewed his contract.

Wilkes worked in the Crenshaw school system for 20 years, including as superintendent since January 2011. He started his job in Phenix City on July 1, the same day attorney Joseph Wiley filed the lawsuit on Hudson's behalf.

In the board's response, which board attorney Sydney Smith filed July 10, the board identifies Hudson as a member of the Community of Concerned Clergy, which has motivated citizens to protest the May 19 dismissal of Central High football coach Woodrow Lowe and the May 20 Phenix City Council's firing of city manager Wallace Hunter. The council reinstated Hunter on June 3 after the clergy group organized a rally attended by more than 750 people.

The school board also has felt that group's heat.

"The Plaintiff and the CCC have recruited their supporters to attend meetings of the Board to pack the Boardroom and the adjoining hall in an attempt to intimidate the Board and to cause the Board to take actions in accord with their wishes," the board says in its response.

The board says those actions "have resulted in much negative publicity" and "is harmful to the reputation" of the board and the school system.

As a result, the board says, "citizens of Phenix City who have school age children may choose to send their children to another school system in the area thereby decreasing the revenues of the Board to operate the school system."

The board also says, "Industries and commercial businesses interested in locating in Phenix City will be disillusioned and turned away by the negativity and the obvious lack of support for the Board by certain of its citizens."

The board concludes, "The actions of the Plaintiff and the CCC are vexatious and harassing and are for the purpose of embarrassing the Defendants."

Wiley, on Hudson's behalf, filed on Monday a response to the board's motion to dismiss and counterclaim for injunctive relief. In his response, Hudson admits he is a member of the clergy activist group, but he denies that the "CCC is a party to this action and thus any conduct alleged by such Entity is not before the Court in this action."

He submits that "all activity on his part is an exercise of his constitutional right as a citizen."

Hudson also submits that "any negative impact upon the City of Phenix City is because of the Defendant's conduct towards the public and not due to any conduct on his behalf."

No hearing date has been scheduled for the case.

DiChiara's dismissal

The superintendent vacancy in Phenix City was created Nov. 26, when the board, without public discussion, unanimously voted in a called meeting to seek a buyout of the 4½ years left on Larry DiChiara's contract. The board has refused to explain why it chose to abruptly end DiChiara's 9 ½-year tenure, which includes being named Alabama Superintendent of the Year three years ago.

Last month, Russell County Circuit Court Judge Albert Johnson dismissed DiChiara's breach-of-contract case against the board. DiChiara's appeal is pending in the Alabama Supreme Court.

Since Feb. 21, he has served as acting superintendent of Selma City Schools as part of the state's intervention team.

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

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