UPDATE: Phenix City pastor sues school board over superintendent hire

A Phenix City pastor has filed a lawsuit against the Phenix City Board of Education, asking the Russell County Circuit Court to set aside the hiring of a superintendent because the board allegedly violated the Alabama Open Meetings Act.

The Rev. I.N. Hudson Jr. is the only plaintiff listed on the lawsuit. He is the senior minister of Nichols Chapel AME Church on 11th Avenue in Phenix City.

The board ended its 6½-month superintendent search June 10, when it hired Randy Wilkes from Crenshaw County. 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.

Kenneth Burton, assistant superintendent for administration at Opelika City Schools, and Craig Ross, then-principal of Robertsdale High School, also were announced as the board’s finalists, but they dropped out of consideration before their scheduled 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 his contract.

Wilkes worked in the Crenshaw school system for 20 years, including as superintendent since January 2011. He started his job in Phenix City on Tuesday, the same day attorney Joseph Wiley filed the lawsuit on Hudson’s behalf.

Baker declined to comment about the lawsuit, saying he hadn’t read it yet. Board attorney Sydney Smith wasn’t reached for comment.

Baker has said Wilkes emerged as a candidate when he asked an Alabama State Department of Education official for recommendations.

"We got to the end and we didn't have a candidate," Baker told the Ledger-Enquirer after the June 10 meeting. "I talked to the state, and they said we did not have to open the process back up. They told me to go get who we wanted."

During a news conference at Hudson's church Wednesday afternoon, the preacher and his attorney said the board began the superintendent search with an open and public process but ended it with a closed and secretive path toward hiring Wilkes.

“Each step, the school board and the attorney would say we didn’t have to reopen the process,” Wiley said. “We researched that to see if that was the law. We came to the opinion that was not right. Then, step by step, executive session, work session, just too many legal violations that we could not stand by and not get involved.”

Hudson said, “As citizens, as taxpayers, as intelligent people, as adults, the day is over that we just accept what anybody says. There are processes to follow.”

The Rev. Noble Williams, pastor of Greater Mt. Zion Baptist Church and the spokesman for Community Concerned Clergy, also spoke at the news conference, which was attended by about two dozen people.

“We simply want to see our school board do that which is not only legal but that which is also morally right,” Williams said.

The vacancy in Phenix City was created Nov. 26, when the board, without public discussion, unanimously voted in a called meeting to seek a buyout of the 4½ years left on Larry DiChiara’s contract. The board has refused to explain why it chose to abruptly end DiChiara’s 9½-year tenure, which includes being named Alabama Superintendent of the Year three years ago.

Last month, Russell County Circuit Court Judge Albert Johnson dismissed DiChiara’s breach-of-contract case against the board. DiChiara has said he will appeal to the Alabama Supreme Court.