Judge delays Open Meetings case against Phenix City school board

A Circuit Court judge on Monday delayed a preliminary hearing into a complaint that the Phenix City Board of Education violated the Alabama Open Meetings Act in the hiring of its superintendent in June.

More than two hours into the hearing in the Russell County Judicial Center, Judge Howard F. Bryan called a halt to the proceedings until attorneys for Rev. I.N. Hudson Jr. could subpoena additional witnesses. The only witness called was Marie Long, the administrative assistant for the superintendent and the board.

A new hearing date was not initially set.

Columbus attorney Joe Wiley, representing Hudson, said the issue was broader than if the school board violated the Open Meetings Act on June 10 when it went into executive session, came out and hired Randy Wilkes as superintendent without a public interview or discussion.

Spud Seal, a Montgomery attorney representing the board, disagreed, saying the only matter in front of the court was the June 10 meeting and if a violation occurred.

Delays have been the norm in the case that was filed in July. The preliminary hearing normally occurs within 10 days of the suit being filed, but the two Russell County judges recused themselves, forcing Bryan, who is now retired, to be brought in from Chambers County. Hudson, senior minister of Nichols Chapel AME Church on 11th Avenue, filed the suit nearly five months ago.

Bryan called for the delay after the attorneys met for an hour behind closed doors.

“We need to get a couple or three more witnesses,” Bryan said. “And I want to give them the opportunity to get those witnesses together. We will continue in a very short time. Then, we will knock out the issue of whether or not there is enough evidence to move forward.”

Wiley made it clear it was not only about what he claims is a violation of the Open Meeting Act, but also about the lack of public trust in the board.

And he said it started in November of last year when the board began the process to buy out the contract of then Superintendent Larry Dichiara.

“They paid almost $600k to buy out superintendent. And there was no explanation,” Wiley told the court.

He spent most of time outlining the search process and how the board had 17 applications and went through a public process before Wilkes emerged without ever being vetted in public.

“This community was taken completely by surprise when the board came out of executive session and voted for Randy Wilkes,” Wiley said. “ Wilkes had never met the community and the community had never met him.”

Seal tried to narrow the focus.

“With all due respect to learned counsel, 95 percent of what was just heard has nothing to do with the reason we are here today,” Seal said. “This is a preliminary hearing only on June 10, 2014, meeting.”

Wiley also contended the board violated Alabama law by failing to advertise for the position after it determined no one in the original application process was a candidate.

Seal argued the point was moot because that was not part of the suit Hudson filed.

Seal and board attorney Robert Meadows of Opelika declined comment after the hearing. Wiley said he had not determined who he would call as witnesses.

Asked if board President Brad Baker was on the list, Wiley said, “He might be one.”

While Hudson is the lone plaintiff, a group of black Phenix City ministers is standing with him. The Community Concerned Clergy, an organization that was founded after City Manager Wallace Hunter and Central High football coach Woodrow Lowe were released from jobs in May, had about 15 people in the courtroom Monday morning.

The school board ended its 6½-month superintendent search June 10, when it hired Wilkes from Crenshaw County. The surprise move came at the beginning of a scheduled work session and after a 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. 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 his contract.

Wilkes has been serving as superintendent since early July. He replaced Larry DiChiara, who left his post a year ago after months of disagreement with the Board of Education. DiChiara later sued the board over what he was owed on his contract. That dispute ended last month when the board agreed to pay DiChiara $587,412.