Saying it was a moral issue and a matter of principle, a Phenix City pastor has appealed a judge’s decision that the city’s Board of Education did not violate the state’s open meetings laws in the hiring of a superintendent a year ago.
The announcement of the appeal came Tuesday afternoon at Greater Mount Zion Church in a news conference attended by about a dozen black ministers.
Rev. I.N. Hudson filed a suit almost a year ago, claiming that the Board of Education violated the Alabama open meetings laws when it hired Superintendent Randy Wilkes last June without a public interview or public discussion immediately following a closed session.
Retired Chambers County Circuit Judge Howard F. Bryan heard the case after two local judges recused themselves because of potential conflicts of interest. He ruled on May 12 that there was not enough evidence to move forward with the civil claim filed by Hudson with the backing of the Community Concerned Clergy, a group of black ministers that became active in events involving the school district and the city council a year ago.
Hudson said he was disappointed, but not surprised by Bryan’s ruling.
“Right now this is a matter of principle,” Hudson said. “This has never been about Randy Wilkes as a person. It is about process. When the process doesn’t begin correctly, it rarely ends correctly.”
Noble Williams, the president of the Community Concerned Clergy, agreed with Hudson.
“We have said from the beginning it is a moral issue and a great injustice has been done,” Williams said. “They willingly violated their own rules. We can not allow this precedent to be set.”
And they will press forward, Williams said.
“It was not filed out of malice or hatred ...,” Williams said. “We felt and still feel a dangerous precedent has been set.”
Phenix City Board of Education attorney Robert Meadows of Opelika, Ala., could not be reached for comment.
The appeal was filed Monday. Bryan’s order did not dismiss the entire case, but did take the teeth out of Hudson’s complaint, said Hudson’s attorney Joe Wiley.
“There is still an issue about the appointment of the superintendent and whether or not it was done correctly, and there is still a piece about another open meeting violation,” Wiley said. “But the main thing was our assertion that the school board violated the open meetings laws in the hiring of the superintendent.”
A series of events that have been going on for more than a year and a half led to the lawsuit and the decision to appeal Bryan’s decision, Wiley said.
Former Phenix City Superintendent Larry DiChiara left his position in November 2013 during a running dispute with the Board of Education. DiChiara later sued the board over what he was owed on his contract.
That dispute ended in October 2014 when the board agreed to pay DiChiara $587,412.
It took the board more than six months after DiChiara left the job to hire his replacement. On June 10, 2014, the board hired Wilkes from Crenshaw County, Ala.
The surprise move came at the beginning of a scheduled work session 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. Two other announced candidates dropped out before the public 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 Hicks’ contract.
“The Open Records Act requires that the community be informed of important policy decisions; and that was never done in this case,” Wiley said. “And we recognize that as a violation of the spirit of the law and the law.”