Can MCSD afford John Phillips' price?

With teachers facing five furlough days next school year and administrators scouring the budget for additional cuts, two Muscogee school board representatives Monday night said the district can’t afford to hire former Superintendent John Phillips as an interim after Superintendent Susan Andrews leaves office July 31.

But they couldn’t say how much he would cost.

Citywide board representative Cathy Williams said attorneys advised board members that because Phillips’ pay as interim has been discussed only in closed meetings to which the press and public were barred, it remains privileged information.

School board counsel Jorge Vega said Phillips had to be publicly named as the nominated interim Monday because state law requires a top job candidate’s identity be disclosed 14 days before he or she is hired. The board plans to vote June 18 on hiring Phillips.

Had the school board chosen three top candidates for the job, all three by law would have to be named two weeks before one was chosen, Vega said.

Monday’s meeting was called primarily for the board to hold a mandated public hearing on the property tax millage rate and to adopt a tentative fiscal year 2013 budget. No one in the audience had anything to say about property taxes, but board members had quite a lot to say about a budget with dwindling state support amid rising pension and health care costs.

District 2 board representative John Wells, who is pushing the board to bring Phillips back as interim, said the school district cannot stay the course of increasing costs and decreasing revenue, and faces a budget crisis if it does not find more significant cuts.

“The train’s coming down the road and the station’s closed,” said Wells, who suggested the board consider hiring a consultant to find more cost savings.

The tentative budget for the fiscal year starting July 1 is set at nearly $280 million, almost 86 percent of that in salaries and benefits. Even with five teacher furlough days, administrators still had about $800,000 to cut before the final budget is adopted June 18 — the same day the board’s to vote on hiring Phillips as interim, an expense Williams and District 6 representative Mark Cantrell said the board can’t afford.

“I will not be supporting this because of the discussion that we’ve just gone through about this budget,” Williams said of hiring Phillips. “I appreciate how painful this budget was to the directors and to the entire staff and administration.”

After five years with the district, Phillips retired Aug. 1, 2008, but returned as interim Sept. 1 of that year. His entire compensation package while in the job was about $250,000 annually. As interim he was paid $20,848 monthly as a search firm sought his replacement.

The board appointed Andrews superintendent on Dec. 1, 2008, recruiting her from the Harris County district.

Williams said she did not think it necessary to bring in an outsider as an interim with enough professionals on staff to carry on until the board finds a permanent replacement for Andrews. “I think we have talent right here in this district,” she said.

“The amount of money that we’re talking about for Dr. Phillips’ contract is excessive, and I don’t think it’s fiscally responsible, so I will not be supporting it,” she said.

Said Cantrell: “I support you on that. It seems like we would have somebody on the cabinet who could take over as interim superintendent for the three to six months that we’re looking for somebody, and that would save $100,000 to $150,000 right there.”

District 8 representative Beth Harris said the board has discussed internal candidates for interim, and decided they weren’t up to the task. She said she wants to suggest a second candidate for interim, but she did not name anyone. After the meeting she said she had not discussed this proposal with the person she had in mind.

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