Article Comment 

New suitor emerges in Lee Middle School talks


Shane Cruse

Shane Cruse


R.J. Matthews

R.J. Matthews



Sarah Fowler



A new prospective tenant has shown interest in the much-debated Lee Middle School property, but the future of the vacant school remains uncertain.  


Kingdom Vision International Pastor R.J. Matthews informed the Columbus Municipal School District Board of Trustees Monday night of his church's desire to lease the 96,350-square-foot-building, which is situated on 14.4 acres on Military Road.  


Matthews spoke passionately about the needs of his congregation, saying that by partnering with the school district, the church would help enrich the community. Numerous members of the congregation showed up at Monday night's meeting in support of Matthews' plea.  


"We don't believe it's just good for us, it's a blessing for the community," Matthews said, adding that Kingdom Vision International has been interested in the property since 2009. Currently located in a building off of Highway 69 in Columbus, the 1,000-member church has outgrown its current location, he said.  


If allowed to lease the property, the church would agree to serve as a resource for the school district's Project 2020 dropout program being implemented by district superintendent Dr. Martha Liddell.  


Matthews said his ties to the vacant school go back to his decision as a Lee Middle School student to pursue the ministry. Moving his congregation into Lee represents a spiritual journey that would come "full circle," he said. 


"I believe destiny calls from that building on Military Road," he said.  


Board President Tommy Prude responded to Matthews' petition enthusiastically, assuring him the board would consider his offer.  


"We received your letter, sir, and I guarantee you we will definitely consider it," Prude said. "May God bless and keep you." 


Point of Grace Pastor Shane Cruse then addressed the board, reminding them that his church has also expressed a desire to purchase Lee Middle School. The congregation has been trying to purchase the property since June 2012, but their initial bid of $175,000 was declined. Since the property went on the market in 2011, Point of Grace has made the sole offer. Cruse has approached the board several times since his original bid was rejected but has received few answers to his inquiries.  


Obviously flustered at the latest unfolding of events, Cruse said he echoed Matthews' thoughts about reaching the people of Columbus.  


"Our heart is to reach the community," Cruse said.  


Though the board took the matter into executive session, no decision was made. Prude confirmed that Kingdom Vision International would like to lease, not buy, the vacant school but said the board is considering its options. 


"We don't know if we're going to lease, develop, or sell," Prude said. "We're still trying to figure out what is best for the district."  




Travel questioned 


In other matters, CMSD Chief Financial Officer Kenneth Hughes reported that the district has $157,196 remaining in federal grant money to be used for professional development. Liddell has stated she will not return money to Washington and intends to use the funds before their 18-month expiration in December. So far, the district has spent $40,000 of the grant.  


Board members Jason Spears and Aubra Turner questioned Hughes for a detailed account of that travel -- who was traveling, the destinations, the purpose of the trips and costs of each trip. Liddell told the board she felt she was going above and beyond with transparency.  


"There are few superintendents who give the details we do," she said.  


Spears said in his tenure on the board, detailed budget items that formerly appeared on the agenda have disappeared.  


Turner echoed Spears' concerns.  


"We are asking financial details of who is traveling and the amount," Turner said. "That's what we're concerned with. It's not transparent. We want to know names and how much has been spent on travel." 


Liddell said it could not be done, attributing the paperwork to being an "administrative function." 


Hughes told Spears and Turner that, to date, there is no way to detail which members of the district have traveled where and how much they spent. He added the current software would not support such data.  


Spears asked Hughes if it would be possible to create a paper trail to document how much was being spent on travel.  


"I'm asking for simplicity," he said.  


Turner agreed saying, "It's not to single out one individual. As board members, we want to know how effective is the traveling and training." 


Comparing the money spent on training from 2011, Liddell said the district has spent considerably less this fiscal year.  


According to Liddell, $375,000 was spent on professional development in 2011 while $56,000 has been spent in the 2012-2013 school year.  




Executive session 


The board then went into a two-hour executive session to discuss pending litigation, a student matter, a personnel matter and the issue of Lee Middle School. The board emerged with no action taken on any of items aside from the student matter.  


After the session, Liddell addressed the remaining members of the audience and apologized for an email she sent to Commercial Dispatch publisher Birney Imes in which she accused him of being a racist and sexist based on his paper's coverage of the district. 


"I sent a personal email to Mr. Imes," Liddell began. "It was by no means a reflection of this board."  


Liddell apologized for the email but maintained her stance that it was from her personal email account.  


"By no means did I plan to embarrass the board or myself," she said. "It was a personal opinion sent from my personal email on my heart for sharing with Mr. Imes." 


However, an analysis of the header information contained within the email sent from Liddell to Imes indicates the message was sent from Liddell's school district account and was processed solely by the district's email servers before being delivered to Imes' Gmail account. The actual computer used by Liddell could not be determined. 


While the board did address the email incident in executive session, no action was taken. 




Young Professionals 


In other business, Link'd Young Professionals spokesperson Blaine Walters approached the board and asked for permission to begivn renovations to the Magnolia Bowl in downtown Columbus. The facility belongs to the district and Walters asked the board to provide some of the labor to work with the Link'd volunteers on the project. Walters said any money raised would go back to the district to offset their costs. 


Before the vote, Spears, who is a member of Link'd, recused himself.  


District Deputy Superintendent Craig Shannon said the district did not have the manpower Walters was requesting and the cost of labor would run $9,235.  


Prude questioned the costs and said while he appreciated the efforts of the group, he did not feel the district should have to pay out-of-pocket.  


"I don't see any benefit to the classroom by approving such a renovation," Prude said. "I don't think we should use our money to pay for it."  


Turner made a motion, seconded by Currie Fisher, to table the matter. The motion died on a 2-2 split, with Prude and Glenn Lautzenhiser opposing. Lautzenhiser then motioned to accept the project but it died for lack of a second.


Sarah Fowler covered crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch.



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