If there’s one thing that’s clear about governance of the public school system in Phenix City, it’s that not much of anything about governance of the public school system in Phenix City is ever clear.
In a hybrid arrangement of deflected accountability, in which the school district is run by people who aren’t elected but are appointed by people who are, major decisions about public education are made with little or no explanation, and no apparent sense on the part of anybody involved that there could be a problem with that. From the hiring and firing of superintendents to the coming and going of school board members, reasons and details are apparently none of the business of the people who pay all the bills.
School board member Cordelia Moffett, a former assistant superintendent who 17 years ago sued, then settled with, the school system in a racial and gender discrimination case, has resigned after just four months on the board of the same school system she took to court. Mayor Eddie Lowe, who as a former school board president has seen both sides of the curious school board-city government relationship, would not say why Moffett resigned. Moffett was unavailable for comment.
Her departure comes close on the heels of board president Rick Carpenter’s. Carpenter at least provided a reason for leaving, writing in a recent email that “Eddie [Lowe] has made it known … that he wants to replace everyone who was on the Board when DiChiara left, and I’m next.”
“DiChiara,” of course, refers to former Superintendent Larry DiChiara, whom the board, of which Carpenter was then a member, paid $587,000 and change in 2014 to go away. Why was it worth so much of the taxpayers’ money to send a former state Superintendent of the Year packing? Nobody’s ever said.
There was no explanation of why Phenix City Council decided not to reappoint former board members Kelvin Redd and Brad Baker. And the process by which DiChiara’s successor, current Superintendent Randy Wilkes, was hired (two board members had not even met him) is a case study in how public officials who don’t answer to the public tend to shrug off annoyances like accountability.
Wilkes has tried — with admirable success, it seems — to distance himself from school system politics and focus on education. Asked about the fact that most of the board that hired him is now gone, he referred to test scores and facilities improvements, and said the schools are “moving in the right direction.”
The mayor, meanwhile, said the school board is “a separate entity.”
“The only thing we can do is appoint them,” Lowe said. “Then we’re out of it.”
Well … yes and no. The fact that the city council appoints the board means it’s not strictly separate. But once those board members are appointed, then the elected officials can distance themselves, at least for a while, from school matters.
That’s the system. And that’s a big part of the problem.