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Teacher contracts approved on 3-2 vote

Two Grady County Board of Education members attempted to halt the renewal of contracts for classroom teachers and other existing personnel just days before a state required deadline to take action.
Board members Scott Higginbotham and Allen Jenkins on Tuesday night voted against offering contracts to local educators for the 2012-2013 school term.
Grady County School Superintendent Dr. Tommy Pharis recommended renewing contracts for existing personnel less the 9.5 certified positions and 4 non-certified positions that he has eliminated from the proposed budget, which the superintendent submitted Tuesday night.
Board Chairman Teresa Gee Harris and Board members Drew Pyrz and Cuy Harrell III voted in support of the superintendent’s recommendation.
The board voted unanimously in March to approve the contracts for principals and central office personnel for the next fiscal year, but Higginbotham has continued to question the size of the county teaching staff, the need for seven instructional coordinators and the number of assistant principals in the county.
On Tuesday night, Higginbotham urged the vote on contract renewals be delayed until the board settled on an operating budget for the new fiscal year.
The District 5 board member has been vocal in his opposition to budgeting based on the money the school system has available to it rather than budgeting based on the needs of the school system.
Dr. Pharis noted that the board has until May 15 to vote to renew teachers’ contracts or vote to non-renew or else the contracts would be automatically renewed.
The proposed budget submitted by Dr. Pharis and Finance Officer Dan Broome includes funding for the personnel being recommended for contract renewal and, according to Dr. Pharis, the tentative budget has a revenue surplus of $436,424.
“Well, there is no need for us to do anything ever if they are automatically renewed. I’m not happy with it,” Higginbotham said.
Dr. Pharis said it was not his intention to argue state law with members of the board and Higginbotham responded, “I’m not trying to argue state law, but I do want to understand the process.”
Board Chairman Teresa Gee Harris acknowledged the District 5 board member’s objection to the superintendent’s recommendation and stated, “It’s your prerogative to vote against it.”
The superintendent reminded board members the board had adopted a budget plan and he and the administrative staff had followed that plan in drafting the proposed 2012-2013 spending plan.
“We are operating as efficiently as we can. All of the personnel in this budget has been discussed. There are no surprises in this budget,” Dr. Pharis said.
After the board meeting ended Dr. Pharis vented his frustration with the board over the debate regarding contract renewals and with Board member Higginbotham in particular.
Tempers flared and Chairman Harris quickly encouraged the group to disassemble.
Pharis later apologized for his remarks.
After the board meeting, board member Higginbotham contacted The Cairo Messenger and said he had emailed the superintendent Tuesday morning asking if the contract renewals could be postponed and if not could a delay in renewing contracts for instructional coordinators and assistant principals be put off until a later date.
“I asked the question Tuesday morning and I’ve never gotten a reply,” Higginbotham said.
The Cairo Messenger has filed several open records requests this year for email communications between the board and superintendent.
Those public records indicate a rift between the District 5 board member and the superintendent.
In a March 23 email to Chairman Harris, Higginbotham wrote, “The feeling is mutual at this point between Tommy (Pharis) and I. He doesn’t trust me and I don’t trust him.”
In that same email he wrote, “If I had the ability to hire and fire by myself, trust me, there would be several gone and some new ones taken (sic) their place.”
In more than one email he has written his position, if he had the backing of the board, would be to make changes in leadership positions within the school system.
Examination of the school system’s public records show that the majority of email communication between board members and the superintendent this year are between Higginbotham and Pharis.
After making his public declaration at the March board meeting that elimination of some instructional coordinator and assistant principal positions was a way to reduce school expenses, Higginbotham has continued to push that recommendation in email communications.
Even after Dr. Pharis and Broome shared positive financial news with the school board at its April meeting, which showed the system receiving over $800,000 in additional state funding this fiscal year as part of the midterm allotment and even more money for the next fiscal year, Higginbotham continued to make the case for position cuts in an April 20 email to board members, the superintendent and school system finance officer.
In his April 20 email Higginbotham states that, based on the superintendents recommended average class sizes for the different grade levels, the school system employs 68 more teachers than are needed.
The April 20 email also includes Higginbotham’s prediction that the system would “survive” with three instructional coordinators as opposed to seven.
“Government has wants. Citizens have needs. My personal experience is that those two together are very far off,” Higginbotham wrote.
He said he supports smaller class sizes and instructional coordinators but “at what cost?”
The Cairo Messenger previously sought a response from Dr. Pharis concerning the board member’s emails, but the superintendent declined. The superintendent could not be reached Tuesday night to comment on Higginbotham’s Tuesday morning email.
On May 2, The Cairo Messenger met with Higginbotham to discuss his proposals and other issues involving the school system.
The District 5 board member said he wants the superintendent and finance officer to develop a budget based on the “needs of the system and the children and not the wants.”
Higginbotham said the budget should be built around those needs, not built around the money the school system earns and can spend.
“We will eventually need a new school,” Higginbotham said and he said he believes that cutting out the “wants” will provide funding “down the road” to build a new school.
As for instructional coordinators, Higginbotham questions how one instructional coordinator at a school with nearly 1,200 students can do the same job as an instructional coordinator at a school with between 300 and 400 students.
“Either that person is doing four times the work or the others don’t have as much to do. I just want Dr. Pharis to explain the difference and why we need seven. I’ve been told principals said they could share instructional coordinators,” Higginbotham said.
Higginbotham has the same thoughts on the seven assistant principals employed in the county.
When asked by The Messenger to respond to criticisms that his children are not enrolled in the local schools but attend public school in Thomas County, Higginbotham said the application for seeking a seat on the board of education does not require you have children enrolled in the public schools.
“I’ve grown up with folks here who have children in the system, I have clients who have children in the system, my mom taught in this system, I have neighbors who are in the system. Just because my kids do not go to school here does not mean I don’t have a vested interest in this school system. I want this to be a better school system when I leave than when I got here,” Higginbotham said.
Higginbotham is currently employed by TNB Financial Services in Thomasville and questions have been raised if his residency has changed.
The District 5 board member rejects such allegations and said although he works in Thomas County and spends a lot of time there and elsewhere traveling he lives with his wife in Grady County.
He noted his past involvement in United Way for Grady County, the Zebulon theater, the Cairo Rotary Club and the Downtown Development Authority. “Cairo and Grady County have given me the opportunities I have now. I see my service on the board as a way to give back.”
Higginbotham acknowledges that his estimate of having 68 too many teachers is not accurate because he did not average in elective courses that often have smaller enrollments.
“Do I think we have 68 more teachers than we need? No, but there is a lot of wiggle room there. I just want someone to explain the number,” he said.
When asked if he supported the various course offerings and programs made available to local students in addition to core classes, Higginbotham said he supported programs such as the Advanced Placement courses at Cairo High School and the Pre-AP team at Washington Middle School.
“Before I leave office I’d love to see us moving more in the direction of a magnet school,” Higginbotham said.
He predicts the system could retain 90 to 95 percent of local students who are leaving the system for other educational opportunities if the county could offer a magnet school for advanced placement and honors programs with accelerated academic opportunities.
“We could afford to build a new school from the money we would earn for all the kids who are leaving our system who would be attracted to stay,” he said.

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