Update: Muscogee County School Board reacts to Phenix City native Eugene White now wanting to be Muscogee superintendent

Phenix City native Eugene White is retiring as superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools and now wants to be the Muscogee County School District’s next superintendent.

Last fall, White declined to seek the vacancy in Columbus after Muscogee County School Board member Cathy Williams asked its search firm — which the board later fired — to contact him. But the political landscape changed for White when new Indianapolis school board members took office in January.

“The new board is just going to take a lot of work and hassle because philosophically we aren’t on the same page,” White said. “I’ve done such a good job, so, quite frankly, they couldn’t terminate me. But it is clear some of the things we are doing are not in congruence with some of the things they promised in their campaign.”

White noted the largest divide is about charter schools.

“Charter schools are OK, but I don’t want a charter school district,” he said. “We have some autonomy, but they would like to have full autonomy for schools. I’m sure we could have worked together, but it would have been a struggle, and I didn’t want that. If they could top what we did, then the district would be in great shape.”

White’s performance does seem to have room for improvement — in substance and style — despite being the 2002 and 2009 Indiana Superintendent of the Year.

The Indianapolis Star reported Jan. 15: “White’s early community support waned and frustration built over the district’s continuing problems with low test scores, declining enrollment and charges of a bloated bureaucracy. New state initiatives — such as a private school voucher program, an expansion of charter schools and the state’s move to take over four persistently failing IPS schools this year — raised the stakes. The district came under increasing fire for not making more progress.”

In October 2011, White was criticized for defending his district’s performance by saying in a radio interview that his schools must educate students who are “blind, crippled, crazy.” He later apologized.

Closer to home

After seven years leading Indianapolis schools, White said his last day on the job will be April 5.

“I want to relocate to the Southeast to finish my last five or six years of working,” said White, 65.

Asked whether he is interested in becoming MCSD’s superintendent, White said, “Yes, I am. I know they were going with a new firm, and I’m still trying to find out some information. A lot of people talked to me about that job this past weekend and also the vacancy in Lee County (Ala.)”

White was in Columbus for his induction into the Chattahoochee Valley Sports Hall of Fame last Saturday. He played on South Girard High’s 1966 Alabama black state championship basketball team. He graduated with academic honors from Alabama A&M, where he led the basketball team in scoring.

White said he hasn’t applied for the MCSD or Lee County jobs and hasn’t talked with any board members, “but I’d prefer Muscogee County.”

The Indianapolis board approved a $619,121 buyout of his contract, which runs through 2015, the Indianapolis Star reported. White’s base salary is about $200,000, but his total annual compensation package is valued at around $374,000, according to the Star. Susan Andrews, the last full-time superintendent in Muscogee County, cost the district $190,713 in salary and $9,144 in travel in the past fiscal year (July 1, 2011 to June 30, 2012). Andrews retired June 30.

The Opelika-Auburn News reported Jan. 29 that the Lee County Board of Education approved a salary range of $125,000 to $150,000 for the superintendent to replace Stephen Nowlin, who accepted the superintendent position for Jefferson County (Ala.) schools in October.

The Indianapolis and Muscogee school districts are similar in size, approximately 33,000 students in Indianapolis and 32,000 in Muscogee. Lee County’s enrollment is 9,738.

Andrews was the first female superintendent in MCSD history. White wants to be the first black one. He is the 2007 National Association of Black School Educators Superintendent of the Year.

And he has a recent history of looking to move back South. He was a finalist to be superintendent in Mobile, Ala., and Greenville, S.C., last year.

Board reaction

Williams, the nine-member Muscogee board’s lone county-wide representative, welcomed the news of White’s interest.

“I’m very pleased that he’s eager to look at our community, and I hope that he’s a good match,” Williams said. “He is eminently qualified, and he meets all of the priorities we’ve set.”Board members have said no candidate among the 22 applicants met all of the criteria. The major sticking point was the requirement of having five years of superintendent experience in a similar district.

The criticism of White and his pending departure from Indianapolis doesn’t lessen Williams’ opinion of him.

“Elections change everything,” she said, “and I understand he felt the direction the new board was going might not be what he felt was best for the district. I’m good with that. It shows a certain level of integrity.”

Now that she no longer is chairwoman of the Muscogee board, Williams said she isn’t in a leadership position to contact White or the new search consultant, Glenn Brock of Atlanta law firm Brock, Clay, Calhoun & Rogers LLC. “I hope our board chair or vice chair would do that,” she said, “and I hope our search firm is watching our community to reach out to him.”

Board chairman Rob Varner of District 5 and vice chairwoman Pat Hugley Green of District 1 said it’s up to White to apply. Brock said he won’t comment on any potential candidates.

Naomi Buckner of District 4 and Mark Cantrell of District 6 were joined Williams in favorably reacting to White’s interest. John Wells of District 2 and Athavia “A.J.” Senior of District 3 said they aren’t familiar with White. Shannon Smallman of District 7 and Beth Harris of District 8 weren’t available.

Original search

In the original search, conducted by McPherson & Jacobson of Omaha, Neb., the Ledger-Enquirer identified three of the 22 applicants.

Karyle Green, the superintendent of East Allen County Schools in Indiana, which has an enrollment of about 9,500 students, was among the four semifinalists the Muscogee board interviewed in close session Dec. 5 before that search was aborted. The other two identified candidates have local connections but weren’t interviewed: Phenix City Schools (6,883 students) superintendent Larry DiChiara and former Shaw High School principal Jim Arnold, now the superintendent of Pelham (Ga.) City Schools (1,520 students).

All three said Thursday they don’t plan to reapply.

“I’ve been following what’s been reported,” Green said. “I know the board is going in a different direction, and I wish them well.”

Arnold said, “I would be extremely interested, but, at this point, I do not think I would be applying. If they turned down an opportunity for an interview the first time, I don’t see why they would change that.”

DiChiara declined to comment by phone, but he released this statement in an email:

“When I made the decision to apply previously, I based that decision on three factors: 1) I was actively being encouraged by many Muscogee County educators and community members to apply, 2) I studied the criteria and characteristics of a superintendent that had been identified by the board and community, and applied it to myself to see if I met that criteria. I believed I did. The search firm and board members apparently believed that I did not, and 3) I believed the job would be a tremendous challenge and that I could pull the folks together and truly make a difference.” “At this point in time, I have not seen or heard any information that the Muscogee County School Board has modified its search criteria, or that they might now be interested in a small-town superintendent like myself. I have to assume that if they believed me to be unworthy or unqualified for an interview a few short months ago, then re-submitting an application for the job at this point would seem silly and most likely futile whether I am interested in the job or not.”