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Two board members allegedly tried to influence coaching changes

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the accreditation division of AdvanceED, has put the Grady County Board of Education on notice that the board is being monitored for alleged misconduct by two board members.
At the heart of the matter is the alleged desire of Grady County Board of Education Vice Chairman Scott Higginbotham and board member Jeff Worsham to make changes to the coaching staff for the softball and baseball programs at Cairo High School.
Based on emails written by the two board members, interviews with concerned faculty and parents, and SACS’ requested response to the allegations from former superintendent Dr. Tommy Pharis it is clear that Higginbotham and Worsham are the board members who have allegedly been involved in the micromanagement of the CHS athletic program.
The school board has scheduled special training to be facilitated by former Thomas County School Superintendent Dr. Larry Green on Monday, Aug. 12 in response to the concerns raised by the SACS External Review Team concerning “blatant abuse of power.”
“I don’t think this will be a recurring situation. I am not sure of all the background on the training all of the board members have received to date, but this will certainly be an opportunity to clarify the board member’s duties and responsibilities,” Chairman Drew Pyrz said Tuesday.
The board chairman also said that he did not want the alleged actions of some board members to reflect negatively on the school board as a whole or the school system.
“I’m anxious to get this behind us and move on. I don’t think we will have any more problems in the future,” Pyrz said.
However, issues regarding the head coach of the girls softball program at CHS and the head coach of the CHS baseball team have been a point of conflict for some time.
The Grady County Board of Education Code of Ethics dictates that board members will not “undermine the authority of the local superintendent or intrude into responsibilities that properly belong to the local superintendent or school administration, including such functions as hiring, transferring or dismissing employees.” It also states, the board members will “support the delegation of authority for the day-to-day administration of the school system to the local superintendent and act accordingly.”
Comments made to the SACS External Review Team and emails written by board members obtained by The Cairo Messenger under the Georgia Open Records Act indicate Vice Chairman Higginbotham and board member Worsham violated the school board’s code of ethics and SACS standards.
As early as June 2012, Higginbotham was injecting his views concerning the high school’s softball team head coach.
During a June 2012 school board meeting he stated, “Changes need to come and hopefully changes will be coming soon.”
Prior to that, in a March 2012 email to then superintendent Dr. Tommy Pharis he wrote, “If I had the ability to hire and fire by myself, trust me, there would be several gone and new ones taken (sic) their place.”
In Dr. Pharis’ response to SACS regarding board member micromanagement, the former superintendent highlighted several incidents, which The Messenger has determined through interviews and public records research to have been allegations made against Vice Chairman Higginbotham.
The allegations of misconduct by the vice chairman as outlined in Dr. Pharis’ response include:
• Initiating conversations and meetings with school administration concerning the head coach of the softball program. The board member also allegedly made contact with high school softball players, in some cases, by texting them during the school day. According to Dr. Pharis, Higginbotham openly supported the removal of the softball coach.
• Vice Chairman Higginbotham allegedly offered the softball coach at a neighboring school system a job as the head softball coach here and allegedly promised her husband a job at Washington Middle School.
• According to Dr. Pharis, Higginbotham indicated the school system would not fill physical education/health vacancies until his choice for softball coach was hired. The former superintendent said that Higginbotham stated Coach (Tom) Fallaw and Mr. (David) McCurry (principal of CHS) would learn they could no longer do as they wanted to do.
• Vice Chairman Higginbotham allegedly instructed Dr. Pharis not to hire an applicant for a middle school science teaching position, with whom, incidentally, Higginbotham had had a verbal exchange on the playing field during a middle school softball game a few years ago. According to Dr. Pharis, the individual was not hired, but not due to Higginbotham’s insistence.
Copies of emails written to new Superintendent Lee M. Bailey indicate that Vice Chairman Higginbotham has not given up on making changes to the softball coaching staff.
On June 19 Higginbotham wrote to Superintendent Bailey, “It just chaps me that our athletic department is causing good kids to look elsewhere. It is what it is for now.”
In that email Higginbotham alleges that six children who are students in the Grady County schools are looking to transfer elsewhere because of the baseball and softball programs at Cairo High School.
Then earlier this month in an email to the superintendent Higginbotham wrote about the number of practices and games the CHS softball team had been involved in during the summer compared to Thomasville and Thomas County.
Higginbotham wrote, “Again, it’s not that Coach Hoskins isn’t doing anything, it’s the level of commitment that is being put out. Then on top of that, I’m almost going to say that pretty positively Todd (Jones – the school system athletic director) isn’t aware of what the other schools are doing either.”
Higginbotham continued, “I can guarantee our football program is doing at least the same and probably more than the other football programs in our area and the state.”
In his email response back to Higginbotham, Superintendent Bailey reminded the vice chairman that Softball Coach Cathe Hoskins is on a 10-month contract. He also wrote that she held the first-ever youth clinic for younger children in June. As for the team’s summer activities, Bailey pointed out that the softball team played in a Worth County tournament and was to play at Thomas County Central June 27, but Central canceled and the first week of July is dead week for schools.
Bailey emailed Higginbotham to say, “All of the things you are mentioning doing in the summer are outside and in addition to the time we have the coach under contract. I contacted TCCHS AD Mike Singletary and asked him about their girls softball coach…she is on an 11-month contract. As for the football commitment…those coaches are either on an 11 or 12-month contract. You questioned the level of commitment and wanting more than what we are getting…we are already getting more than we are committed to paying for.”
In Dr. Pharis’ response to SACS an alleged incident involving board member Jeff Worsham was also reported.
As for the baseball program, it has been the focus of board member Worsham from the beginning.
Worsham has said that one of his reasons for running was to make improvements to the CHS baseball program.
Unfortunately, Worsham’s child played for CHS Baseball Coach Ron Best and issues arose. Worsham later ran and was elected to the school board last year.
Before even being sworn into office, Worsham emailed CHS Principal David McCurry requesting a meeting to discuss a “couple of things in general.”
Following the Dec. 12, 2012 meeting between the two, the CHS principal emailed Worsham asking for clarification. From the email it is clear the topic of conversation was the removal of Ron Best as the CHS baseball coach.
McCurry wrote, “In reference to our meeting yesterday, were planning to try and have the baseball coach removed in January or after this upcoming season? I’m just trying to figure out how I need to approach this from my end.”
In composing his email McCurry omitted the word “you” and that omission apparently caused Worsham to believe McCurry had dropped his opposition to Worsham’s plan to remove Best from coaching.
After receiving the email from McCurry on  Dec. 13, Worham responded, “David, I don’t know what has changed, but I would like to see it happen with the least amount of attention as possible. Maybe he can announce he has decided to step down or if it has to be put solely on me I am prepared to take the heat for it. I know I have a lot of support in my district and other districts to try to get him removed from coaching. I want to see it happen now and not after this season.”
McCurry then responded that Worsham must have misunderstood his email and he stated “I intend to fight this. Ron Best has my full support.”
In two subsequent emails McCurry realized the omission had caused the confusion and pointed it out to Worsham.
The Cairo Messenger in investigating the conduct of Higginbotham and Worsham obtained the series of emails between Worsham and McCurry earlier this year.
After learning that the emails had been made public Worsham issued an email on April 18 with the subject line being “Responsibilities.”
In the email he acknowledged it is not the responsibility of a board member to make recommendations for personnel.
“If a principal decides to non renew a teacher, coach, non-certified personnel, etc., and the superintendent brings those recommendations to the board, it is my job to vote on those recommendations the way I feel is best for our system. For the record, I am not part of any deals nor will I be regarding coaches or any other personnel in our system. When principals make recommendations for the personnel at their schools, it will be their recommendations and not mine. My integrity and character are very important to me.”
In Dr. Pharis’ response to SACS he indicated that Worsham now understands the role of the board and individual members. Pharis said he suspected that Worsham had been influenced by Higginbotham to push for Coach Best’s removal.
This week Jay Wansley, associate director of AdvancED, of which SACS is its accreditation division, warned members of the Grady County Board of Education that SACS will continue to monitor the situation here.
“The governor has been removing board members left and right. I hope this board is not oblivious to what is going on and that it is not the board’s job to micromanage the school system,” Wansley said.
He added, “We will continue to monitor what goes on, but people need to let us know if the situation is not improved.”

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