By Trent Moore
The Cullman Times
The Cullman County Board of Education has found its new superintendent, though the decision was not a unanimous one.
The board voted 4-2-1 Tuesday night to offer Robertsdale High School Principal Dr. Craig Ross the system’s appointed superintendent position, after front-runner Vinemont High School Principal Brandon Payne removed himself from consideration due to nepotism concerns related to a new state law.
When contacted by The Times following the meeting, Ross said he was excited to come to Cullman County and start work as soon as possible.
“I couldn’t be more thrilled with this opportunity to serve the children, teachers and administrators of Cullman County,” he said. “My family knew when I got back from my interview, I told them this was the one I wanted, and I’ve been praying about it ever since ... I think in a very short amount of time anyone with any doubts will be assured I’m there to do one thing — serve the children and educators of Cullman County. My heart is true, and there’s no hidden agenda except to serve kids.”
Payne had been the leading candidate for the majority of board members following a meeting last week. That stood until it was determined his appointment could potentially be a violation of the state’s newly amended nepotism laws that raise issue with superintendents having family members or spouses working in the same system. Payne’s wife currently serves as a teacher at Vinemont Elementary School and has for 17 years.
In an effort to avoid possible legal concerns for himself and the board, as well as the potential requirement that his wife resign, Payne sent a letter to the board formally removing himself from consideration.
“After learning today that my continued candidacy would be conditioned upon Amy and I agreeing that she would resign from teaching in Cullman County if the Board’s legal counsel later deemed the nepotism statute was applicable, I made the decision to withdraw my name from the Board’s consideration,” he wrote. “My withdrawal eliminates any potential legal issues for both the school system and my family, allows the Board to move forward with its selection process, and enables us all to focus our efforts on our true mission - striving to provide Cullman County students with the highest quality education.”
Payne was the second of the board’s five choices to remove himself from consideration after fellow finalist Northwest Georgia RESA principals’ center coordinator Dr. William Thompson McCown accepted a job in a different system last week.
After Payne’s removal was announced, board member Wendy Crider introduced a motion to hire Ross as the system’s new superintendent. The motion passed by a slim majority, with Crider, James Thompson, Chris Carter and Jason Speegle voting in favor. Gene Sullins and Kenny Brockman voted against the hire, while Randy Hasenbein abstained.
Before the vote, Hasenbein and Sullins recommended the board scrap the search entirely and start over, though a motion to do so was not made before Ross’ hire was put forward.
“When you lose two of your top three, I think you need to reopen it,” Hasenbein said.
Following the meeting, Hasenbein told The Times he was disappointed the board made a hire on a split vote, and he was also upset the nepotism bill blocked who he believed to be the best candidate from getting the job.
“We had to act because of a law that was poorly put together and is causing some problems, that’s for sure. Under this, (current superintendent) Mr. (Billy) Coleman couldn’t have even been superintendent,” he said. “Brandon Payne was an outstanding candidate and had the attributes necessary to lead this school system. I think it should be noted that Dr. Payne cares enough about this system to make that decision and withdraw.”
Hasenbein also said he was frustrated the nepotism concerns surrounding the new law were not brought to light before Payne made the short list as selected by the Alabama Association of School Boards (AASB).
“We spent $8,500 (to contract with AASB) and we have a mess, and we could’ve made a mess of it on our own,” he said. “I just look forward to us moving forward. It will all work out.”
Sullins, who voted against Ross’ appointment, said he has nothing against the candidate — just that he thought Payne was the better choice.
“There’s been so much confusion, and I’m disappointed. I think Ross will make a good one, and everyone has their own opinion,” he said. “I was backing my district, and that’s what they wanted me to do. Payne was the best selection for me.”
With an offer now formally on the table to Ross, Carter said he hopes the board can look past its differences and rally behind the selection.
“We have the best superintendent to go forward with this system. People talk about Cullman County being a progressive system, and we’re so excited to have Dr. Ross join the CCBOE,” he said. “Now, everyone has to get on board, get behind him and work as a team.”
The minimum salary for the position is $115,000, with a final contract negotiable based on experience and demonstrated success. The board is now officially in the negotiating phase.
Current superintendent Billy Coleman, who has volunteered to retire from his elected position to make way for the appointed superintendent under the newly created system, is set to retire July 1. Coleman and the school board petitioned the state legislature to make the change to an appointed superintendent, noting they believed it would be in the best interest of the system.
Assuming terms are reached, Ross will start on July 1, matching up with Coleman’s planned retirement date.
‰ Trent Moore can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by telephone at 734-2131, ext. 134.