Attorney: Board violated act

ALBANY -- Today's called Dougherty County Board of Education meeting at noon, called at the request of board member Michael Windom, will include a discussion of a letter from school system attorney Tommy Coleman.

Coleman's letter, dated Monday, has requested that the school board release the names of the other finalists in its superintendent search.

Albany State University Executive to the President Dr. Joshua Murfree was appointed the only finalist for the Dougherty County School System superintendent position at the Jan. 27 school board meeting.

Board members Anita Williams-Brown, Milton Griffin, the Rev. James Bush, Velvet Riggins and Windom supported the appointment. Board Chairman David Maschke and Emily Jean McAfee voted against the appointment. Williams-Brown made the motion for the appointment.

The Herald learned on Jan. 27 that Williams-Brown was a business associate with Murfree for her Hawkinsville church's community outreach program Blessed Community Development Corporation. Murfree, 54, is the chief financial officer of the nonprofit that was created Sept. 3, 2003.

The original Dougherty County Board of Education superintendent search that was given to the board Oct. 1, 2009, stated: "Georgia law requires that at least 14 days prior to appointing a superintendent, the Board of Education must release to the media the information they have about 'as many as' three candidates who are being considered." The question of other finalists besides Murfree followed comments made to The Herald Jan. 27 by Windom -- "There were two other finalists" -- and Williams-Brown -- "Well, we had three finalists...."

"After careful consideration of Georgia Law, and a great deal of thought and consultation with other attorneys, it is my opinion that the Board must release information with as many as three positions of those persons the Board feels are most qualified to hold this position," wrote Coleman, who was not present during the closed-to-media meetings from Dec. 10 to Jan. 19 in which board members discussed the superintendent process and conducted interviews with applicants.

"It is my opinion that the Board's action to designate only one finalist at the meeting of last Wednesday violates Article 4 of Chapter 18 of Title 50 of the Official Code of Georgia," wrote Coleman, who has worked for the school board for 14 1/2 years. "OCGA 50-18-72(a)(7) provides in part that before a final vote is taken to fill the position of an executive head of an agency, the agency shall, 'release all documents which came into its possession with respect to as many as three persons under consideration whom the agency has determined to be the best qualified for the position and from among whom the agency intends to fill the position.'"

Coleman then stated that the code doesn't provide for giving designation to finalists.

"It provides for the release of as many as three candidates who the Board determines to be the most qualified to hold the position," he wrote. "While I was not present in the executive sessions regarding the selection process, it would appear that from press reports that at least two other Board members have indicated that there were other 'finalists.' In addition, it is my understanding that the GSBA representative who conducted this search (Bill Sampson) was asked to, and in fact did, call three individuals that were under consideration, to notify them that they could possibly become a finalist and offering an opportunity to withdraw prior to disclosure to the press and public.

"These facts would clearly lead one to believe that the individual designated was not the only one among the 37 candidates qualified to hold the position of School Superintendent," he continued.

"Consequently, others should have been released who were determined to be qualified prior to the selection of Superintendent."

After reading the Georgia Open Records Act -- which has never been litigated -- and reading the statute in its entirety, Coleman stated that he believes, "It is clear that the General Assembly meant for agencies to release those persons who the Board determines to be the most qualified to hold the position and from whom the agency intended to make its selection."

Coleman also related that, "the courts have repeatedly held that the Act would be liberally construed in favor of disclosure of public documents. It has been the Court's position that the public has the right to inspect those documents that are in the public's interest. Clearly, the court would find that the naming of the Superintendent of the Dougherty County School System was in the public interest."

To violate the Open Records Act, Coleman wrote, can cause the state attorney general to bring either criminal or civil action. The violation carries a $100 fine and is a misdemeanor.

"Not having been privy to the decision making of the Board it has proven difficult to determine what actually occurred and under what circumstances," Coleman wrote. "However, as facts regarding the decision making have become public, it is clear that the Board has made a decision in a manner contrary to that provided by the Official Code of Georgia.

"It is my strong recommendation that the Board take every step to rectify this violation at the earliest possible time."

Coleman told The Herald Tuesday that the Dougherty County School Board simply didn't follow procedure.

"I'm telling them they didn't follow procedure and they'll have to decide if they want to do anything about it all," he said. "They certainly can do nothing and move forward."

Maschke said Coleman's letter will be discussed by the board today at its special-called meeting, which is open to the public and will be held at the Administration Building in the first floor Board Room.

"Well, I think it has significant points that the board needs to discuss because we need to consider those points as we move forward," said Maschke, who has spoken to Murfree three times about setting up a community forum date. "I don't want to get into the specifics of the letter (Tuesday) because it has many points that need to be discussed by the board and would best be explained by the attorney."

Before the superintendent vote at the Jan. 27 board meeting, the board voted 7-0 to request for proposal for attorney's services and would continue to work with the existing firm of Perry & Walters LLC until one is selected. Bush added the agenda item late during the board's pre-briefing.

Since Windom e-mailed board members Saturday morning and asked them to "reconsider our options" and to "reconsider our selection process of the next superintendent," he has received a lot of phone calls and e-mails from the community.

"I have received a lot of correspondence and e-mails and calls asking for it (the decision) to be reconsidered, but probably a few (calls) that weren't happy and there may be more than a few when it's all said and done," Windom said to The Herald Tuesday. "But, either way, you can't be afraid to take a stand. You're elected to make a decision and every decision has consequences."

The consequences of the board voting 5-2 to appoint Murfree superintendent after only an hour interview and being ranked 34th out of 37 applicants based on its own qualifications criteria in a ranking system compiled by the Georgia School Boards Association, has caused a stir in the community that Windom had never seen before.

Windom is the longest serving board member after starting in January 1995. He has been part of now three superintendent searches.

"I haven't seen any issue where I've been contacted by the public at large like I have about this issue and it hasn't trailed off since this Thursday," said Windom, who served as board chair from 2007 to '08. "This is my 12th conversation about this issue today. It has been unprecedented unlike anything I've ever seen. What this tells me is how important the selection of the next superintendent is to the community. I get that. I get it. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. That's a good thing because it tells me the community cares about education."

Windom estimated that he had taken 60 to 65 calls about the superintendent search since Thursday.

"I didn't know so many people wanted to get in touch with me," said Windom, who serves as the director for District 2 of the Georgia School Boards Association. "I've never been hard to find. I'm still listed in the phone book for those who still have phone books."

The media leak of Murfree's ranking by the GSBA was one of the many leaks about the $8,000 superintendent process that have frustrated Windom.

"It seems the whole process was fraught with leaks because people would tell you exactly what you were doing and how is that happening," he said. "All I could say was, 'Well, that's interesting.' I do believe better days are ahead. We're just people and we have human frailties, and no one is perfect."

The Herald also asked Windom about Williams-Brown's business relationship with Murfree and whether it was divulged.

"Never to me, and I can only speak for my perspective," he said. "You never want to find out first through a newspaper."

Dougherty County School Board of Education members Bush, Griffin, McAfee, Riggins and Williams-Brown did not return calls for comment from The Herald.