Phenix City Schools superintendent Larry DiChiara applies for top job in Muscogee County

Phenix City Public Schools superintendent Larry DiChiara is a candidate for lead job in the Muscogee County School District.

DiChiara, named by his peers in 2011 as the Alabama superintendent of the year, confirmed Wednesday that he has applied for the open superintendent's position.

"I really, really studied it and prayed over it," he said. "I didn't take it lightly."

DiChiara, 53, is in his ninth year as Phenix City superintendent, his first job as a school system leader in a 32-year educational career. He is a native of Gulf Shores, Ala., who graduated from Auburn University and worked 23 years for Lee County Schools.

With unused sick leave, DiChiara said he could have 34 years in the Alabama retirement system and "double dip" with an additional salary across the Chattahoochee River in Muscogee County.

Beyond the potential financial windfall for him, DiChiara said he is attracted to the Muscogee County School District for the challenge to get more of its schools achieving state standards.

"Around the state, Muscogee County has a good reputation as a good school district. I think they're looking for someone to come in and get them excited. Over here, they say, 'He's one of our school district's greatest cheerleaders.'"

Muscogee lists 31,884 students; Phenix has 6,883 students.

Thomas Jacobson, one of the Muscogee County School Board's consultants conducting the search, said 22 candidates applied by the Oct. 31 deadline.

"For a district your size, it's about average, 20-25, so it's right there," said Jacobson of McPherson & Jacobson LLC, based in Omaha, Neb. "But to me, the important thing is the quality of the candidates."

This pool's quality, Jacobson said, has "some very strong candidates, and the board will have some tough choices to make."

The consultants are contacting the candidates' primary references and asking them for two or three other references and then asking those folks for two or three more.

"We are looking for consistency of answers so we really know them before we present them to the board," Jacobson said. "We don't want any surprises."

The consultants will give the vetted list of candidates to the school board during a called meeting scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday, Nov. 26. The board is expected to go into closed session to evaluate the applications and decide which candidates to interview. Board members continue to plan on allowing the public to meet the finalists before they hire a new superintendent by the end of December. When the hired candidate would start here isn't clear because it depends on availability and contractual commitments.

Board members have wondered aloud whether the controversies they have gone through during the past year would prevent otherwise interested candidates from applying. Jacobson, however, doesn't see a reason to worry.

"That doesn't scare anybody away," he said. "These people in the business know that's part of it. Sometimes you have conflict and controversy. They're aware of it if they've done their homework."

DiChiara did.

"I talked to a lot of people in the district who know the board members well and the climate there," he said, "but they still encouraged me to apply because they know I am well liked and respected and can bring them together."

Controversy also is a word that has described DiChiara's tenure in Phenix City.

Residents elect Muscogee County's school board, but Phenix City Council appoints its school board. DiChiara argued with the previous city administration over school board appointments and what he considered city officials' meddling in school board affairs.

He said he asked a Muscogee County School Board member whether his conflicts would hinder his candidacy.

"That member said, 'Dr. DiChiara, one thing that we know about you is that if you think anyone is doing something to hurt the school board or school system, you will fight for us, and that's appealing.'" he said. "I have a reputation of getting along with county commissions and political leaders. I never had a controversy until the last four years, when the city council began trying to dictate stuff on our school board."

DiChiara's stance was validated when Phenix City voters swept the council's incumbents out of office during the Aug. 28 municipal election.

Muscogee County School Board chairwoman Cathy Williams and vice chairman Rob Varner welcomed the news of DiChiara's application, but they were cautious about his candidacy because they haven't seen the 22 applications.

Williams said her knowledge of DiChiara is "very limited to what I've read. I've met him on a couple of occasions, but I'm fairly focused on what we're doing here."

Varner said, "I don't know him personally. I only know him through what I've read in the newspaper, but I'm glad he put his hat in the ring."

As for DiChiara's conflicts in city politics, Williams said that would "depend on how his résumé ranks with the others and whether board members want to drill down into the specifics."

Varner said, "In positions of leadership, whether they are in a school system or a more commercial type of enterprise, you get a person in that role who has skills to be diplomatic when they need to be and tough when they need to be."