The ongoing battle of words between Phenix City’s school and city leaders is going on to the courtroom.
The city school board filed a Russell County Circuit Court complaint Monday against Mayor Sonny Coulter and council members Jimmy Wetzel, Max Wilkes, Michelle Walker and Arthur Sumbry. The motion sought an order restraining them from removing anyone on the school board or otherwise injecting themselves into school district affairs.
This follows city council votes this year to remove board members, direct the board to meet with city leaders, and subpoena school district information.
In a memo Monday to local media, school Superintendent Larry DiChiara wrote that Phenix City Police Chief Ray Smith was threatening to arrest board members if the board failed to comply with a council subpoena, which the chief said would constitute a misdemeanor offense. The mayor and council in May voted not to reappoint longtime board members Eddie Lowe and Lori White, and in September voted to remove board president Frankie Horace.
Circuit Court Judge Al Johnson granted the board’s request Monday, finding that the mayor and council “pose an immediate threat of danger” to the board and its employees. Johnson issued an order temporarily restraining city leaders from getting involved in school board business until he hears arguments in a court session set for 10 a.m. EST Monday at 500 14th St. in Phenix City.
Unlike in Columbus, where school board representatives are elected, in Phenix City the council appoints board members, and city leaders contend that under the city charter, they have as much authority to remove a board member as to appoint one.
The board claims the mayor and council are acting beyond their authority under Alabama law, and asks the judge to find city officials lack the power to remove board members or tell the board what to do.
The board’s complaint further asks the court to rule “that city boards of education are free and independent agencies of a city school system and that board members are officers of the city and cannot be removed except by impeachment as set forth in the Alabama Constitution, and that boards of education are free and independent agencies of the city in the operation of the city school systems, free of interference by the governing bodies which have appointed the members.” The motion also seeks to keep the current mayor and council from appointing any new school board members and from “investigating the business of the board.”