The day before Muscogee County School Board members will vote to hire a new superintendent, they decided to keep the interim one around a little longer.
The board unanimously approved Monday night to employ interim superintendent John Phillips as assistant to the new superintendent through Aug. 31. The reason stated in the agenda item: "to facilitate a smooth transition of leadership."
MCSD superintendent finalist David Lewis, the associate superintendent for learning in Polk County (Fla.) Public Schools, was driving through a rain storm Monday afternoon on the way to Columbus when the Ledger-Enquirer reached him on his cell phone for comment. He said board chairman Rob Varner of District 5 mentioned the idea and he is OK with it.
"It was something that Mr. Varner had talked about, the possibility, realizing that Dr. Phillips has a long history with the district and has lots of knowledge about the district, and I agreed," Lewis said.
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Lewis, 56, has worked 34 years in public education, all in 95,000-student Polk County and none as a superintendent.
Phillips, 67, has worked 42 years in public education, including 27 as a superintendent. He served the 32,000-student Muscogee district as superintendent for five years (2003-2008) before retiring and returning as the interim leader in July 2012 after Susan Andrews retired.
As interim superintendent Phillips has been paid $17,206 per month the first three months of the fiscal year, which starts July 1, and then $8,431 per month the next nine months. As a retiree in the state system, Phillips is allowed to work full time for only three months in each fiscal year, then part time at 49 percent of his salary. His new contract as assistant to the superintendent will continue to pay him $17,206 per month but on a prorated basis.
Asked what Phillips' duties would be as his transition assistant, Lewis said, "We haven't talked about that. We'll discuss that more after tomorrow. But, primarily, it would be making me aware of things in the community and familiarizing me with policies and procedures."
The MCSD central office has six cabinet members making six-figure salaries and another already with the title of chief administrative assistant to the superintendent, Gary Gibson, whose salary for fiscal year 2013 was $84,458, according to district records.
Asked why Gibson or any of the other cabinet members couldn't help with his transition instead of hiring a temporary assistant, Lewis said, "I couldn't answer that."
In interviews before the meeting, Phillips and Varner explained the rationale.
"There are some things I know about the district that I can share that other people don't know or other people won't share," Phillips said. Tasking cabinet members with that role, he added, "puts them in a difficult situation in a way. With a brand new person coming on, they may be reluctant to be forthright."
Varner insisted, "Frankly, I think the board would be irresponsible if we didn't provide our new superintendent with this transition period. Coming from a different state, he doesn't know people here. It is absolutely the busiest time of the year for a school district, and he's just going to need the assistance to have a smooth transition. I think David appreciates it, and I know the board supports it, so it's just the right thing to do."
Last month, the board approved a $270 million budget that is $8.7 million less than last school year's original budget and resulted in closing two schools, one alternative center and laying off 77 custodians to outsource their jobs. Asked if keeping Phillips as an assistant might be an extraneous expense in such an environment, Varner said, "It's a necessary expense. It's probably some of the best money we will ever spend because, if we did not have Dr. Phillips during this transition period, it would cost David months and months of time getting up to speed, whereas Dr. Phillips being here will ramp him up in a manner much more quickly than he could ever do on his own."
During the meeting, Cathy Williams, the nine-member board's lone county-wide representative, and Mark Cantrell of District 6 asked about precedent. "I just don't want to look like we're wasting money," Cantrell said.
Vice chairwoman Pat Hugley Green of District 1 noted Andrews declined the offer to have a transition assistant and Phillips had Bob Bushong in that position for six months.
Board member John Wells of District 2 said no business the size of the school district would hire a new CEO without such a transition period.
The board unanimously approved a new name for Rothschild Middle School.
Michael Forte, who was principal of Marshall Middle School when it closed in June due to budget cuts, replaced the retired Reginald Williamson as principal of Rothschild. Forte made the request to rename the school Rothschild Leadership Academy.
In his presentation during the board's work session last week, Forte said Rothchild's leadership curriculum would teach "that the foundation of true leadership is not power but authority which is built upon relationships, service and sacrifice." The leadership curriculum is in line with state standards and gives students "knowledge and skills that empowers them to graduate from high school, be successful in college and professional careers and to be competitive with their peers nationally and globally."
Among the personnel appointments Phillips recommended and the board unanimously approved:
Eddie T. Lindsey III as program coordinator of the Edgewood Student Services Center, which will house the district's alternative programs after Edgewood Elementary School closed due to budget cuts this year. Lindsey taught at Carver High School from August 1998 to May 2002 and at Northside High School from August 2002 to May 2007. He was assistant principal at Richards Middle School from August 2007 to July 2011 and has been in the same position at Hardaway High School since August 2011.
Jessica Burnett as principal of Gentian Elementary School to replace the retiring Betsy Tomblin. Burnett taught at Clubview Elementary School from August 2003 to November 2009 and was the academic coach shared between River Road and Blanchard elementary schools from November 2009 to August 2010. She has been the assistant principal shared between Clubview and Gentian since August 2010.
Janet Sellers as principal of Dimon Elementary Magnet Academy to replace the retiring Valerie Williams. Sellers taught at St. Marys Road Magnet Academy from July 2007 to March 2011. She has been the assistant principal shared between Dimon and St. Marys since then.