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DCSS names 'only' finalist

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

ALBANY -- On the day that Dougherty County School Board member Anita Williams-Brown made a motion to select Albany State University Athletic Director Joshua Murfree as the only finalist for the school system's superintendent position, a violation of state Sunshine Laws that require three finalists to be named, The Albany Herald uncovered an undisclosed business relationship between the two.

Williams-Brown, a Hawkinsville minister, is the chief executive officer of her church's community outreach program Blessed Community Development Corporation and Murfree is the chief financial officer of the nonprofit that was created Sept. 3, 2003, according to the Georgia Secretary of State's Web site. The organization's last annual registration was Feb. 26, 2009.

The relationship between Williams-Brown and Murfree was not revealed to the School Board or public before or during the school system's search for its next superintendent, which began shortly after eight-year Superintendent Sally Whatley announced her retirement on Aug. 26, 2009.

Williams-Brown contends she divulged her business relationship with Murfree when she ran for office in 2008. Asked about the relationship late Wednesday night, Williams-Brown argued it wasn't a conflict of interest.

"We haven't done anything with that board since 2008," said Williams-Brown, the pastor for the last 12 years of the Harvest Temple Church of the Kingdom of God in Hawkinsville. "I didn't work for him. I worked on a board with him. We wanted to put up low-income housing in Hawkinsville-Pulaski County, but we never put up a house. I could never find financing.

"I always register just in case something comes up," she added. "It's my church and we wanted to do something with the community and I found two people around here (Murfree and Ralph Anderson) to put on the board."

Williams-Brown went on to say that she doesn't think her relationship with Murfree -- which she said dates back to when she met him when she was an assistant principal at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School -- would cause problems.

"He don't owe me anything and I don't owe him anything," Williams-Brown said. "I'm not seeking anything from it. I'm just recommending him to move us forward to the next level. ... Just don't try to read into this. I did that (nonprofit) so that we'd have our 501(c)3 and we have not met. I talked to him today. I talked about the appointment and everyone was calling. I asked him if he had been notified."

The Albany Herald requested to talk to Murfree and ASU President Everette Freeman through Albany State's Office of University Communications, but neither contacted The Herald on Wednesday.

Upon hearing about Williams-Brown and Murfree's relationship from The Herald, Board Chairman David Maschke, one of two board members who voted against Williams-Brown's motion Wednesday, said the information was "stunning."

"My reaction is that I don't recall that (relationship) being revealed, so this is the first I'm hearing about it," he said. "And if it is indeed accurate, then it should've been disclosed not only to the board but to the public prior to today's vote. If it's true, it's stunning and disheartening."

ONLY 'FINALIST'

Maschke and Emily Jean McAfee were the two school board members who voted against Murfree being selected as Dougherty County's next superintendent at Wednesday's board meeting at Monroe Comprehensive High School. Williams-Brown, Milton Griffin, the Rev. James Bush, Velvet Riggins and Michael Windom voted in support of his selection.

Williams-Brown said Wednesday she wanted to select Murfree as the next superintendent, but was told by Maschke that she couldn't do that. Under state law, finalists must be named 14 days before the board can vote on the next superintendent. Williams-Brown then stated a motion to name Murfree the only finalist, and Griffin seconded the motion.

Before the 5-2 vote for Murfree, Maschke asked the board to continue with its planned superintendent search process.

"I want to make another appeal to the board that we go through the full process before we make the decision today," he said. "Everyone agreed to the process before we started. We've got big shoes to fill and whether the superintendent stays one, five or nine years, the impact of the superintendent will have an impact on the community for the next 20 years."

Griffin, who has rarely spoken at board meetings over the past year, said the board didn't need to go to a second round of interviews.

Windom said the first-round of interviews lasted about 60-70 minutes and were general questions. Each board member was allowed to ask three questions, but not all their questions were answered in the allotted time.

"I talked to (Georgia School Boards Association consultant Bill) Sampson and he said we've gone through all the steps," Griffin said.

"I don't think we finished the interview process with the second-round of interviews," Maschke said. "I still have questions to ask."

"Throughout the year, if there's a way to make a process longer, you do it," Griffin said to Maschke.

Bush then weighed in on the discussion.

"I was told once we found a candidate we liked we could select," he said.

At which point, Maschke said, "Either there's more discussion or the floor's open for a motion." Williams-Brown followed with her motion.

The lack of other finalists being named caused some friction after the announcement. The question arose because of the original Dougherty County Board of Education Superintendent Search 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."

" 'As many as three' has caused great debate, but hasn't been litigated," school system attorney Tommy Coleman said. "Some people think any number up to three and some people think three or more. I told (Maschke) to disclose three a couple times on the phone and he agreed they needed to disclose at least three. (I said), 'If you don't disclose three you have all these questions and maybe a lawsuit.' That's what I told David and he knows that. Things went very quickly today."

Before the superintentendent vote, the board voted 7-0 to request for proposal for attorney's services and will work with the existing firm of Perry & Walters LLC until one is selected. Coleman has represented the Dougherty County School System for 14 1/2 years.

TWO SECRET FINALISTS?

Despite the board only naming Murfree as its finalist, Windom said after the meeting that the board actually did have two other finalists for the position. Windom said both those candidates were from out of the area and refused to name them.

"There were two other finalists," said Windom, the longest tenured board member. "We had narrowed it down to three individuals, so when it became apparent that Dr. Murfree was the consensus of the majority I was fine in supporting that because I do think he has the potential of being an outstanding leader. The way I see it, now the burden is on him to do that.

"I would've preferred to take another look at the other two finalists in the pool, but the majority (felt) that they had the person they wanted," he added. "Obviously, I wasn't convincing enough to get the majority to go along with that to take a second look and be absolutely sure. ... The preferred candidate I would've (liked to have) seen was eliminated by the majority. I guess the last person standing is Dr. Murfree."

Sampson conducted the national search for the Dougherty County School Board at a cost of more than $8,000.

"A board can name as many finalists as they want to, based on the (Georgia) Open Records law they can't name a superintendent until 14 days after the finalist has been named," he said. "That gives the public an opportunity to have input. Just because they named him finalist, they're not obligated to name him superintendent."

Sampson said it was "not uncommon" for a school board to name only a finalist and not finalists for a superintendent position. "Some other systems have done that. Wilkinson (County) did that about a year ago," he said.

Herald Editor Jim Hendricks said the newspaper will file Open Records Law paperwork with the school system this morning for the names and related paperwork for three finalists. The Herald has already made verbal requests for the materials Wednesday.

"This was without a doubt a blatant attempt to circumvent state law and hide information from the public, pure and simple," Hendricks said. "The decision to hire Murfree, it is starting to appear, was made in secret by a clique of board members even before the public meeting, and to argue that three finalists don't have to be named is proposterous. This is just more smoky cloakroom politics designed to keep citizens and taxpayers as much in the dark as possible."

ONE-HOUR INTERVIEWS

The date for a planned community forum to discuss and meet Murfree was not announced at Wednesday's board meeting.

Immediately after the meeting, Bush said he was impressed with how Murfree presented himself. Murfree has been Albany State's athletic director since 2007 and also serves as executive assistant to President Freeman and administrative chief of staff. He was hired April 2, 1999, as the department chair of psychology, sociology and social work.

"I think Dr. Murfree will be a great motivator, leader and he's smart; very articulate," Bush said.

Williams-Brown said she was impressed with how well Murfree works with children.

"Number one, he loves children, he works very well with parents, he's knowledgeable about school data," she said. "If I'm not mistaken, he's on the national SACS (Southern Association of Colleges and Schools) Accreditation Committee. SAC evaluates schools across the country.

He works well with budgets. At Albany State, he brought the athletic department budget up. He is 100 Black Men Mentor chairman. He was featured in Ebony magazine with his success in the national mentoring program. And, he has a lot of national contacts, people in the educational field."

Griffin, who walked around a Herald reporter requesting an interview, said: "No, I have no comment."

The Herald was unsuccessful in reaching McAfee after the meeting.

The superintendent vote disappointed Maschke. "I was frustrated with the fact that the board did not follow through on a proper and complete selection process," he said after the meeting. "I'm not prepared to name a finalist on one one-hour interview. The selection of superintendent is too critical and it needs to be taken very seriously."

Maschke said the first round of questions were general in nature and the second would have been more specific.

"I feel the process was short-circuited and so I don't have a comfort level with naming a finalist because we have so little substantive information," Maschke said. "We never got to the point of getting into specific areas of concern or philosophy of education or what specific efforts this candidate will bring to the system. Perhaps over the next two weeks we'll learn about that at the forum."

The Dougherty County School System superintendent position attracted 39 people before the application process ended Nov. 24. The Dougherty County superintendent applicants resided in 12 states -- including 22 from Georgia -- and one lived in the United Kingdom. Besides Georgia and the U.K., three applicants lived in South Carolina and two hailed from Virginia, New Jersey and Alabama. Kansas, Florida, North Carolina, Michigan, Arkansas, Oklahoma and California were the other states where applicants resided.

According to his 37-page application he submitted to the school system, Murfree has no K-12 experience. At Albany State, he oversees a $2.5 million budget and is responsible for 375 employees.

As of October, the Dougherty County School System has 16,234 students and 1,157 teachers, 1,081 non-teacher employees, 29 principals and 34 assistant principals. The system operates on a $127.3 million general fund budget.

Murfree earned his bachelor's in psychology at Fort Valley State University in 1978, master's in clinical counseling at Valdosta State in 1980 and doctorate in counseling psychology from Howard University in 1987. Murfree earned an executive leadership training certificate in 2005 from Hampton University. He also earned a training and leadership for higher education certificate from National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education in Silver Spring, Md., in 2006.

"A successful school system will focus on students' success through learning outcomes and overall student achievement," Murfree wrote in his application letter in regards to the elements of a successful school system. "The system will be a transparent system that will bridge parents, teachers and the community as collaboratives to build a strong framework that education should be anytime and anywhere."

A COOL DUDE

Based on his outgoing personality, Albany State junior basketball player Derein Chatman said the selection of Murfree as the finalist for Dougherty County's superintendent appears to be a good choice.

"He's a cool dude, he'll communicate with everyone and make sure everyone's in good spirits," Chatman said as he sat in the HPER gym. "He's real down-to-earth and he ain't afraid to interact with students. He'll be up to the challenge and change things for the better.

From the few conversations I've had with him, he sounds like a very positive person and he likes to help (people)."

Interestingly, Albany State Office of University Communications news writer Joseph West said he had learned of Murfree being selected as the finalist Tuesday night. West had recently returned to ASU after a two-year military leave with the Army.

"I knew that was coming. I just heard it from a friend of mine (Tuesday) night," he said. "He's a super guy. I've told him that he should be president of something; I just think that highly of him. But, he said, 'Nah, don't put me up too high.' He's really humble in that way. He has exceptional presentation skills."

Riggins also believes Murfree would benefit the school system.

"I think he will do our system a great service as far as leadership is concerned, especially with our students," Riggins said. "If it turns out that way, his leadership ability that he possesses, his national and global resources that he possesses will enhance our system."

To ease the transition, Whatley said she won't leave her superintendent position until the board asks her to do so.

"That's something for the board to decide," she said. "I'll make the smoothest transition. If there's a need for assistance on my part, I'll provide that and if there is no need on my part, then the new superintendent will move forward."

FURLOUGHS TABLED

Early in the board meeting, Whatley said she had pulled the school system's request to use the Finance Committee's recommendation Monday for three additional furlough dates. Board members had concerns with the half-day early-release dates of Feb. 18-19 and professional leave days of March 12 and May 25 that were selected. The furloughs were part of Gov. Perdue's Amended Fiscal Year 2010 budget released Jan. 15.

The furlough dates are planned to be brought to the board at the Feb. 8 meeting, which was was moved, following a unanimous vote, to the Albany Civil Rights Institute.