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Where does Phenix City go from here?

It’s hard to move forward without knowing how you got here. And history says we’ve been here before.

Let’s quickly recap: Phenix City Council, which appoints the members of the Phenix City School Board, voted against reappointing the president and vice president last week. Instead, they appointed John Donahue and Will Lawrence.

Multiple overwhelming storylines appeared after the dust settled in another startling hush-hush decision. Does Phenix City Council hold too much power? Can we move to an elected school board? Why are some of the most important decisions in our city being made without any public discussion?

It was nearly two years ago that famed head coach Woodrow Lowe was, err, his contract wasn’t renewed.

“He is not terminated,” interim superintendent Rod Hinton clarified May 2014 to our high school reporter. “But he will not be the head football coach. He can continue as physical education teacher. He has a job there, and we plan to employ him 12 months. Just not as head football coach.”

No explanation.

It was 2 1/2 years ago the school board decided to buy out superintendent Larry DiChiara’s contract, which ultimately resulted in them paying him close to $600,000.

The official response for placing DiChiara on administrative leave in late 2013 was to investigate alleged “wrongdoing,” then-board attorney Sydney Smith said. DiChiara also accused the board of misconduct.

After the settlement was reached, now-superintendent Randy Wilkes said “neither party alleges any wrongdoing by the other.”

No further explanation.

Do you see a pattern?

We’re repeatedly told by officials that the decisions are being made in the best interest of the school system. But what we really are asking for is some accountability.

But is an elected school board something the majority really wants?

That’s not what Phenix City wanted nearly 13 years ago.

I requested from the city a breakdown of a December 2003 election that asked voters if they’d like to have an elected school board.

Only 2,014 people voted and nearly 57 percent voted “no.”

In fact, statistics provided by the Alabama Association of School Boards say we’re in the majority.

Of the 138 school systems in the state, 49 of the 71 city school boards are appointed.

In 2003, school board officials voiced concern that an elected board would fail to reflect the diversity of the district. Of the seven school board members in 2003, three were black, four white and two women. As of today, three are black, four white and three women.

Maybe an elected school board doesn’t fix the problem. But it provides more accountability and takes some leverage away from council, which clearly holds too much power.

Some folks on the eastern side of the Chattahoochee think Muscogee County had it right several years ago when it used a grand jury to appoint its school board. It took the politics out of the governing body.

I’m not certain where we go from here, but it’s created conversation in a community I believe the majority of is desperate to move in the right direction.

Those conversations are tense and uncomfortable. They often mention racial diversity, economics and geographic challenges in a city that has its own Mason-Dixon line, re: Stadium Drive.

But let’s not shy away from those, let’s talk about it. Sometimes change hurts.

2003 DECEMBER ELECTION — Do you want an elected school board?



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