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Phenix City referendum results are in as voters decide whether to change school board

mrice@ledger-enquirer.com

Fifteen years after Phenix City voters rejected the proposal, they considered it again Tuesday.

The referendum asked whether they want to changed the Phenix City Board of Education from appointed by the city council to elected by the citizens.

After the polls closed at 7 p.m., unofficial results showed residents overwhelmingly approved the referendum.

With all three voting precincts reporting, the referendum passed 715 to 214, or 77 percent to 23 percent. The referendum result will be official when the city council votes and considers three provisional ballots during its Tuesday meeting, starting at noon.

Turnout was 930 out of approximately 18,000 registered voters.

The yes votes dominated in every district:

In predominantly white District 1, at the Roy Martin Center in north Phenix City, the votes were 311 yes and 145 no, with one provisional ballot.

In more racially balanced District 2, at the C Club Gym in central Phenix City, the votes were 130 yes and 38 no, with two provisional ballots.

In predominantly black District 3, at the Calvin Spencer Recreation Center, the votes were 271 yes and 30 no.

And the four absentee ballots were 3 yes and 1 no.

According to the state legislation that authorized the referendum, if the elected school board still will have seven members. But instead of being appointed by the five-member city council, it will be elected by the citizens. Two school board representatives will be elected from each of the three districts, and one will be elected by all of the city’s voters to be the at-large representative. They will serve four-year terms. The voting will be during the city’s next local election, in August 2020, when the mayor and city council members also will be elected.

Such a referendum failed 868 to 1,146 votes (43-57 percent) on Dec. 9, 2003. That came only two years after Phenix City voters approved a referendum on Sept. 4, 2001, by 3,392 to 498 votes (87-13 percent) requesting the Alabama Legislature to allow them to consider the change.

Out of Alabama’s 139 public school boards, 89 are elected and 50 are appointed, according to the Alabama Association of School Boards. All 67 county school boards are elected, and 22 of the 72 city school board are elected.

State law requires all county boards to be elected, Dana Vandiver, the association’s public relations director told the Ledger-Enquirer, but the association doesn’t advocate whether a city’s school board should be appointed or elected.

“We are not aware of any obvious trend of city boards changing over to elected boards,” she wrote in an email to the L-E. “These moves are usually on a case-by-case basis, precipitated by local politics/issues or a push from the local community. There is not any kind of law or requirement that calls for city boards to revisit this or put it up for a vote every few years.”

Tuesday’s referendum came the same day as the Ledger-Enquirer reported the resignation of board member John Donohue. He is against having an elected school board.

“Every study I’m aware of says appointed is much more effective,” Donohue said. “Elections inject a whole lot of politics into the school system. Appointed officials aren’t paid. They don’t get a penny, other than (to cover expenses for attending) conferences. But by state law, elected school board members have to be paid at least $500 a month. That’s money that comes from the kids. That would be a minimum of $42,000 out of our school system’s budget.

“. . . I can go into every meeting and vote my conscience. Elected board members can’t do that. They have constituencies who often have axes to grind that may or may not be valid. So if they want to be re-elected, they have to cater to those very noisy groups.”

The Ledger-Enquirer didn’t reach any other Phenix City Board of Education members for comment Tuesday. Phenix City Schools superintendent Randy Wilkes declined to express his preference, but he emailed the L-E this statement after the referendum’s result was reported:

“Phenix City Schools is well on its way to becoming a premier school system as evidenced by the commitment of more than 7,200 students, parents, and 800-plus employees, highest test scores and graduation rate in school system history, state-of-the-art resources, rigorous curriculum, exceptional extra- and co-curricular organizations, and financial prowess,” Wilkes said. “The PCS family appreciates the dedication of both past and present school board members and is excited about its growth potential both short and long term. PCS will remain steadfast in its focus on the student and student outcomes.”

Muscogee County School Board member John Thomas cautioned Tuesday on Facebook, “Dear Phenix City, heed my words, DON’T go to an elected school board! You will never put that genie back in the bottle.”

Thomas added in another Facebook post Tuesday, “Keep professional politicians out of the mix. Years ago, in Columbus, the school board was appointed by the grand jury. Now we have elected board members who make a career of being elected and re-elected. No term limits. People keep their heads down, they go with the flow, no one rocks the boat - they become more cliched than my description of the situation.

“It’s just my personal opinion, but I believe a grand jury appointment is more valid than a bunch of same old, same old who keep getting re-elected as a result of voter apathy. There’s more to being on the school board than being a familiar name.”

Some of the politics and issues between the city council and school board in Phenix City have been controversial.

In April 2016, the council, in a series of four votes with one-vote margins and without public discussion, decided against reappointing board president Brad Baker and vice president Kelvin Redd to second five-year terms and replaced them with Donohue, a zoning board member, and planning commission member Will Lawrence.

Asked to explain the ouster, Mayor Eddie Lowe, who served on the school board from 2000-2012, including seven years as president, told the Ledger-Enquirer at the time, “I wanted to give other people a chance to serve.”

Without a more specific reason — and with the school system on a positive roll — conspiracy theorists speculated the moves amounted to retribution for the school board’s dismissal of two high-level leaders in the school system:

The school board’s October 2014 payment of $587,412 to buy out the 4½ years left on former Superintendent Larry DiChiara’s contract, plus the more than $30,000 in legal fees spent on the 11-month-long dispute. The seven-member board refused to explain why it unanimously voted in a November 2013 called meeting to place DiChiara on administrative leave, abruptly ending his 9½-year tenure, which includes being named Alabama’s Superintendent of the Year in 2011. Board members have said the settlement of DiChiara’s breach-of-contract lawsuit prohibits them from discussing the case. DiChiara previously had complained about the city council meddling in school board issues.

The board’s May 2014 decision to not renew its contract with the mayor’s brother, College Football Hall of Famer and retired NFL linebacker Woodrow Lowe, then the Central High School football coach, who compiled a 33-13 record in four seasons but went 6-4 and missed the playoffs in 2013. Despite an outcry from the coach’s supporters, the board declined three months later to reinstate him and continued to insist it couldn’t discuss the personnel matter.

In August 2016, school board president Rick Carpenter resigned. He told the Ledger-Enquirer in an email then, “Eddie has made it known in word and deed that he wants to replace everyone who was on the Board when DiChiara left, and I’m next. So, I decided I would pick the time, and I think it will benefit the children of the system if I do it now rather than later.”

Lowe said this about the school board’s abrupt dismissal of DiChiara in an interview with the Ledger-Enquirer the previous week for a story about the mayoral election:

“When that started taking place, the entire council — because of some of the nuances, when it came time for the people on that board to be reappointed — we were going to look at going a different route,” Lowe said. “All five of us said that at the time. Now some people changed their minds, which they have a right to.”

Then in March 2018, the city council, in another 3-2 vote led by Lowe, decided without public explanation to not reappoint school board president Paul Stamp and replaced him with the Rev. Samuel Estrada. Stamp was the sixth straight board member not reappointed, leaving Fran Ellis as the only remaining member since DiChiara’s 2013 ouster.

Wilkes, who was hired in June 2014 from Crenshaw County, told the Ledger-Enquirer in an email after Stamp was replaced that he didn’t know why.

“Mr. Paul Stamp has served the Phenix City Board of Education faithfully for 13 years,” Wilkes wrote. “His knowledge and understanding of both school and community cannot be easily replaced. Phenix City Schools is grateful for his time and efforts as rendered. Mr. Stamp has been an integral part of the deployment of 1:1 devices to all students in grades 6-12, the development of the Dyer Family Center, Expansion Facility, addition to Sherwood School and the Transportation Facility, and the Friends of Phenix City Schools initiative which raised more than $1.1 million for school needs.

“During his tenure as Board President, the school system raised its AL graduation rate to 96%, recorded its highest math and ACT scores in system history, and has established a reserve of nearly $11 million.”

Tuesday night, Lowe declined to share his personal preference for an appointed or elected board, but he noted that he was “out in front and adamantly against” the referendum 15 years ago, when he was the school board’s president.

“At the time, the reasons why I wasn’t for it, was because the board was doing a good job and everyone was doing it for the right reason, so I didn’t feel like we needed an elected board,” Lowe told the Ledger-Enquirer in a phone interview. “But once you get on this side, trying to do the right thing, there’s the politics of this and people calling you and texting you to put someone on the board, and then you make a decision and there’s the abuse the council has to go through. . . . I was raised and taught that the only thing a person has is their name and credibility and character and integrity.”

That’s why, Lowe said, the council, in a 5-0 vote in April 2016, asked the state legislature to authorize the referendum again.

“We put it in the people’s hands, and the people have decided,” Lowe said. “That’s just it. It is what it is. They’ve spoken.”

The Rev. Afonza Seldon, president of the Phenix City/Russell County NAACP chapter, said he is pleased with the referendum’s result.

“It puts the power back into the hands of the people, which is good because they want to have more say-so on what’s going on in their schools,” Seldon, pastor of Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in Phenix City, told the Ledger-Enquirer in a phone interview.

Although the chapter didn’t endorse either side of the referendum, it did encourage citizens to vote.

“The people feel that they haven’t been heard or represented properly,” Seldon said, “and they did something about it tonight.”

Mark Rice, 706-576-6272, @MarkRiceLE.

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