School district transportation director resigns day after he was hired

The Muscogee County School District’s transportation director has resigned — the day after he was hired.

Muscogee County School Board chairman Rob Varner confirmed John Lyles’ sudden turnaround in an email Wednesday afternoon to the Ledger-Enquirer. Varner said he received the news in a voicemail from Superintendent David Lewis.

Varner said Lyles “was not happy about the way he was treated by a couple of board members and the media. I don’t have any other information.”

Asked for his reaction, Varner said in another email, “It’s a shame; seems like a talented person.”

The Ledger-Enquirer hasn’t reached Lyles or Lewis for comment about the resignation. A news release Wednesday night from MCSD communications director Valerie Fuller included written statements from them.

“I really appreciate the opportunity and support, but I am withdrawing my application for the Director of Transportation for the Muscogee County School System,” Lyles said in the release. “I commend the MCSD administration, but I cannot complete the onboarding process at this time. At the BOE meeting on September 21, 2016, I must say that I have never experienced such a hostile environment directed towards administration in my professional career. My focus is on improving student achievement and the community. Columbus is my hometown. But because of this experience, I have decided that MCSD is not a good fit for my expertise at this time.”

Lewis said in the release, “It is regrettable that we would lose any talented applicants that could benefit our district and our students. I will continue to recommend the best qualified candidate for any vacant position.”

Until then, the transportation staff will continue to report directly to MCSD operations chief David Goldberg, Fuller said in the release.

During its monthly meeting Tuesday night, the board approved Lewis’ recommendation to hire Lyles, a former Columbus TV newscaster, to replace Frank Brown, who was MCSD’s transportation director for four years before he was fired Aug. 19 for what district officials have called violations of ethics and purchasing policies.

Lyles has nearly 15 years of work experience in public transportation, including with MCSD and the Columbus Consolidated Government, according to his resume.

The vote was 5-0-2. Varner of District 5, vice chairwoman Pat Hugley Green of District 1, Athavia “A.J.” Senior of District 3, Naomi Buckner of District 4 and Shannon Smallman of District 7 voted yes. Kia Chambers, the nine-member school board’s lone county-wide representative, and Mark Cantrell of District 6 were absent from the meeting. John Thomas of District 2 and Frank Myers of District 8 abstained.

Thomas said he abstained because of conflicting information about Lyles’ employment history. The administration has said he is employed by the Liberty County School System in Hinesville, Ga., but his resume shows that he was assistant superintendent for operations in the Liberty County from August 2013 to June 2014 and lists two current job positions: president and chief executive officer of Atlanta-based Internet Transportation Solutions LLC (also known as iTrans) since June 2010 and owner of Columbus-based JR Construction Inc. since June 2005.

Nobody cleared up the discrepancy during the meeting. Afterward, the Ledger-Enquirer asked Lyles to clarify. He said he is the Liberty County School System’s transportation director and his resume wasn’t updated. He also said the correct information is on his application, although it wasn’t provided to the public. He wouldn’t say whether he is in the positions he lists as current on his resume and referred all other questions to Fuller, who also wouldn’t answer.

Myers expressed a different reason for abstaining.

“I’ve known John Lyles for 20 years,” Myers said. “I’m a big fan of John Lyles on a personal level, but the idea that — I guess the policy hasn’t changed — that we’re not allowed to even talk with somebody, I have a couple questions I want to talk to John about, but we’re not allowed as board members to meet somebody before we vote.”

Lyles’ other jobs, according to his resume, have included: transportation director for Atlanta Public Schools from December 2010 to August 2013, transportation director for Clayton County (Jonesboro, Ga.) Public Schools from December 2005 to December 2010, transportation specialist for the Muscogee County School District from September 2003 to December 2005, transportation services manager for the METRA transit system in Columbus from March 2001 to September 2003, the owner of a Subway sandwich shop franchise in Columbus from January 1998 to January 2004, senior news anchor for WTVM in Columbus from November 1994 to March 2001, bureau chief and news reporter for WLOS in Asheville, N.C., from November 1992 to November 1994, government reporter for WLTZ in Columbus from November 1991 to November 1992.

Lyles earned a master’s degree in business management from Troy University in 2006 and a bachelor’s degree in communications from Columbus State University in 1999, according to his resume.

Lyles’ annual salary would have been approximately $90,000, said MCSD human resources chief Kathy Tessin. That’s approximately $5,000 more than Brown’s last salary figure because Lyles has more experience in transportation, Tessin said.

The Ledger-Enquirer reported last week that Brown’s departure wasn’t publicly disclosed until the administration answered the L-E’s questions about why the vacancy was created.

“Specifically, purchasing limits and approval procedures were not followed, and Mr. Brown failed to report that his son had ownership in the business in which these violations were involved,” Fuller told the L-E in an email.

Tessin and Goldberg told the L-E after last week’s board work session the district didn’t spend any money with the business in question, but Brown did try to get his son’s company the district’s contract that included sanitizing buses, they said.

“There was no purchase before we caught the issue,” Tessin said.

Brown’s termination came three days before the Aug. 22 single-vehicle crash that killed bus driver Roy Newman and sent all seven passengers to a hospital. Newman was driving a replacement bus after his original bus broke down that morning, but the accident and Brown’s dismissal aren’t connected, Tessin said.

Mark Rice: 706-576-6272, @markricele