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Murfree ranked low on criteria

ALBANY -- Questions continued to swirl Thursday regarding the selection of Albany State University Executive Assistant to the President Joshua Murfree, who was voted 5-2 to be the only superintendent finalist by members of the Dougherty County Board of Education at Wednesday's board meeting.

School Board Chairman David Maschke and Emily Jean McAfee were the two school board members who voted against Murfree, who also holds the titles of administrative chief of staff and athletic director at ASU, being selected as Dougherty County's next superintendent. Anita Williams-Brown, Milton Griffin, the Rev. James Bush, Velvet Riggins and Michael Windom voted in support of his selection.

A source who would speak only on condition of anonymity told The Albany Herald Wednesday night that the Georgia School Boards Association, which conducted the superintendent search for the School Board, ranked Murfree No. 34 out of 37 applicants. A second source confirmed that information Thursday. The Herald has also filed an Open Records request for the rankings of the candidates.

GSBA consultant Bill Sampson conducted the national search for the Dougherty County School Board at a cost of more than $8,000. He was displeased that Murfree's ranking had been leaked to the media.

"The rankings are only for the board to use to expedite who they want to interview," Sampson said. "It's based on the criteria that the board wants us to use. The board has the right to interview whoever they want."

The release of the ranking further cemented the belief held by David Hudson, general counsel to the Georgia Press Association, that the board purposely violated the state's Sunshine Laws that require three finalists to be named at the end of a search. 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."

"If he's truly a well-qualified candidate, the public should've had the 14 days to evaluate and make comments to the elected representatives," said Hudson, a partner in the Augusta law firm of Hull, Towill, Norman, Barrett & Salley. "The decision rests on the board, but the constituency should have a right to communicate with the board and know (the finalists') qualifications, so they can communicate with their board members."

Hudson said the Dougherty County School Board simply "deceived" the community in its handling of the national superintendent search, which generated 39 applicants from 12 states and one from the United Kingdom. (One application was incomplete and a second was not processed by GSBA.) The board held at least six meetings regarding the superintendent search that were conducted entirely in secret sessions from Dec. 10 to Jan. 19. The search was to have consisted of two rounds of interviews, but only included a single round of 60-minute preliminary interviews with general questions.

"They deceived the public because it kept you at the paper from using the Open Records Act," Hudson said. "It was a ploy -- whether intentional or not -- to eliminate the public oversight because if the three documents came out about the finalists, there might have been a compelling case why this finalist shouldn't have been named. But you don't know because they didn't make those documents available."

School boards are notorious for trying to avoid disclosure information, Hudson said. He also noted that he had never heard of a school system only naming one finalist for a superintendent position.

"But it's not uncommon for school boards to avoid the documentation of the three finalists," he said. "School boards are some of the greatest offenders in trying to avoid disclosure of the three finalists. ... A big school system would not normally hire someone on one interview unless they were an insider and they knew everything about them. It makes people have diminished confidence that their board has given them the careful duties that the public has the right to expect."

After The Herald reported late Wednesday that board member Williams-Brown, who made the motion to name Murfree finalist, was a business associate of Murfree through a nonprofit Hawkinsville community outreach program for her church, a forgotten tie between Murfree and a second board member came to light Thursday.

Board of Education member Velvet Riggins is a member of Zeta Phi Beta sorority, which she said is the sister sorority for the male fraternity Phi Beta Sigma. Riggins said Murfree belongs to Phi Beta Sigma. Riggins was dismayed that the obscure connection came to light.

"He is a Sigma, which I did not know," said Riggins, 40, who pledged at Claffin College in South Carolina. "People said they told me, but (I was like), 'Oh really.' And that was the end of the conversation. It never dawned on me until you called (Thursday morning). That particular relationship between Zeta-Sigma is so minute that it didn't even come to my mind as to making a decision for the best candidate for the school system.

"I don't recall being at the same Zeta-Sigma functions together at the same time."

Riggins said the community needs to think twice about its efforts to uncover things from Murfree's past.

"We need to stop going back to find stuff," Riggins said. "I don't know why people are trying to dig stuff back in the past because we've done a thorough background (check); they couldn't find anything wrong."

Riggins said she had met Murfree before through attending Albany State sporting events and because of her job at Girl Scouts of Historic Georgia. As membership manager, she has 56 ASU campus Girls Scouts. Riggins said she would like to invite the community to attend the coming community forum about Murfree's appointment. The date for the event, which by state law must come in the next 13 days after Murfree's finalist superintendent appointment, hasn't been set.

"If you're concerned person, a supporter or anyone concerned about the Dougherty County School System, we want your input because we're transparent," Riggins said.

After trying to reach Murfree since Wednesday afternoon, Murfree called The Herald twice Thursday afternoon in two short, clipped conversations. Murfree refused to answer any questions.

"I choose not to give any interviews until I receive something from the School Board," Murfree said. "I got to stay on the job that I've got."

Dougherty County School Board Chairman David Maschke said he officially notified Murfree that he has been named finalist through an e-mail and regular mail Thursday afternoon.

Through its Open Records request with the school system and its attorney, Tommy Coleman, The Herald received each question board members submitted to the superintendent candidates they brought to Albany for an interview in December. Below is a sample of the second question each board member asked, keeping in mind that time limitations may have caused some applicants to not answer all 24 questions that were provided. Bush, McAfee and Riggins asked three questions, and Williams-Brown, Griffin, Maschke and Windom asked four.

-- Bush: "Can you tell us about your disappointments in your previous jobs, areas in which you needed help or guidance from your supervisor; and tell us about the compliments or criticisms you may have received from your supervisor, and other aspects of the last job that you liked the most, or the least."

-- Brown: "Would you utilize management by objectives in administering this district? If so, how would you do it?"

-- Griffin: "What area will you need to improve?"

-- Maschke: "In some people's opinion, the DCSS has a history of hires and promotions influenced by various factors including race, nepotism, religious affiliations, friendships and other questionable factors. What if anything would you do to address these issues and how would you address personnel currently in positions that are perceived to have benefited from these practices in the past?"

-- McAfee: "Please present a plan which demonstrates your commitment to leadership development as well as professional development."

-- Windom: "Have you ever had a conflict with a boss or others? If so, how was it resolved?"

-- Riggins: "If I asked your current employer to tell us about your accomplishments, what do you think he/she would say?"

Riggins and Williams-Brown each said Murfree's appearance in the December 2008 Ebony magazine impressed them. The article titled "Become a Big Brother" was about men becoming mentors to African-American boys. It included two pictures of Murfree and four paragraphs specifically about his efforts in developing the 100 Black Men's Mentoring the 100 Way program. The copy of the article was supplied to The Herald by Riggins.

Whatley and John Culbreath underwent different selection processes. Whatley had no selection process. She was quickly promoted from her deputy superintendent position within the system when she was hired in July 2001. Culbreath, an Atlanta area principal, was hired in 1995 after a national search, which culminated in the three finalists being introduced to the community.

According to OpenGeorgia.gov, for the Fiscal Year 2009 Whatley made $173,143.32. Murfree listed on his 37-page application for the DCSS superintendent that he currently makes $115,225.