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May 4, 2013 9:06:45 PM
If you have tried to reach Columbus Schools Superintendent Martha Liddell at her office this school year, there's a one-in-three chance you were told she was not in the office. In fact, there's a one-in-three chance that Liddell wasn't even in town.
So far during the 2012-13 school year Liddell has taken 21 trips that kept her out of the district for at least 60 of the 180 school days this year. Her contemporaries in Starkville, Lewis Holloway, and Lowndes County, Lynn Wright, have made 17 trips between them and have been away from their districts a combined 23 days.
And in a school year in which the superintendent put all "non-essential spending" on hold in January, Liddell's extensive travels have cost the district $8,058.89, twice as much as Holloway has spent ($4,037.07 on 11 trips) and roughly four times as much as Wright has spent ($2,177.95 on six trips).
In her almost two years as superintendent (she held the post on an interim basis in 2011-12), Liddell's travel expenses have totaled $18,860.19.
Her predecessor, Del Phillips, spent $5,990.13 during his last two years as superintendent.
For the past three years, the CMSD has been on "academic watch" or rated "D" (low performing) by the Mississippi Department of Education. The ratings for the current school year will be released in September.
The Mississippi Legislature signed into law an expanded charter-school bill this session, which allows charter schools to open in any district that is rated as D or F.
The possibility of a charter school, which could draw away students -- and the state and federal funding that accompanies each student -- represents a possible crisis for CMSD. Liddell says her frequent travels are efforts to gain information that could prevent that possibility.
"Every superintendent in this state who is scoring below a "C" is worried about (charter schools)," she said. "Certainly I'm worried about it. When you think about what happens to your school district and what could happen, it's absolutely worth it. It's an investment in better achievement as we move forward. We stand to lose a whole lot more than we gain. We could lose half a million dollars."
Liddell says all of her travel has been for professional development, including training on the Common Core curriculum that will be implemented in 2015.
"Because I don't have anything to hide as far as transparency, I'm going to be honest and above board in whatever I do," Liddell said. "Certainly I'm not saying others are not, but over the years I've worked with other people who may not be as accurate as they should be. But that's them. I haven't been to anything that hasn't been related to professional development."
CMSD board member Glenn Lautzenhiser said installing the Common Core curriculum will be an expensive challenge to the district.
"I do know that (Liddell) has been traveling a lot in the conjunction with Common Core," Lautzenhiser said.
In the Lowndes County School District, Wright is taking a different approach to preparing for Common Core.
Wright said that while he and his staff are offered a variety of workshops, they are selective on which ones they choose to attend, not just as a matter of fiscal responsibility, but because Wright said he prefers to spend his time in the district.
"We're offered a lot of workshops throughout the state about Common Core and other subjects, but it's up to us to choose which ones we go to. We try to be selective. I've got some great people that do a great job of going to workshops and then reporting back to us. There are a lot of opportunities out there for superintendents and other administrative staff to learn, but we just try to utilize our people as much as possible."
Wright said Common Core is offered at some of the state workshops but he opts to send deputy superintendent and curriculum coordinator Dr. Robin Ballard.
"There are a lot of other issues that I need to be dealing with. Dr. Ballard handles the curriculum and instruction. I have a lot of confidence in her."
He added that as superintendent, he feels it is his job to responsibly manage the taxpayer money.
"Instead of instructors traveling around the state, the Lowndes County School District has an early student dismissal time on Wednesdays where the teachers stay and learn new teaching methods and techniques," he said. "We want to provide our students with every opportunity possible and our teachers with adequate training. At the same time, we need to be good stewards of the taxpayers' money and find the most efficient use of our time and money."
Ballard said for the county schools, Common Core training is mostly done within the district.
Instead of one person attending classes outside the district and returning to share that information, LCSD brings in instructors to teach faculty members, Ballard said.
"We want to try to keep our teachers in the classroom and our administrators in the building as much as possible," Wright said.
Holloway said the SSD's philosophy on travel is similar to that of Lowndes County.
"I try not to travel unless I absolutely have to travel," Holloway said. "I have traveled extensively. I don't like to travel. I don't want to go to Jackson unless I have to go. I don't want to go to Biloxi unless I have to go. Some of that might be where I am in my career. I have been to lots of national conferences, I have been to staff development, superintendent development and I just don't enjoy that. I don't go unless there is something I can really gain from it."
Holloway said the majority of his 11 trips this year have been to Jackson for updates on the consolidation process -- the Legislature is working on a plan that would merge the SSD with the Oktibbeha County School District -- rather than for implementation of Common Core.
"I don't travel for Common Core," Holloway said. "Sometimes Common Core is discussed in the meeting but I'm going to the meeting for other reasons, to talk with legislators or for legislative updates regarding consolidation."
With 27 years in education, Holloway said he prefers to spend his time in his district.
"My job is in the district not out of the district. That is going to continue to be my attitude," he said.
CMSD Board president Currie Fisher said that she was aware of Liddell's travel and was not concerned with her time away from the district.
"They've mainly been trips to Jackson with Mississippi Department of Education," Fisher said. " We can't all travel but Dr. Liddell is expected to be informed and keep us informed."
"I wish it were not the case. However, when we consider the reality of where we are in our grading as a school district we have to make sure that we get any information to enhance the teachers, to enhance the principals.
While Fisher feels Liddell's travel is a necessity, she hopes Liddell's time out of the district will decrease.
"I think it's probably, in my estimation, something that we must do at this time. I'm expecting that our grade will be brought up and I'm expecting the travel will decrease."
Board questioned travel
The issue of travel expenses was broached by the board during its February meeting, when board member Jason Spears questioned CMSD accountant Kenneth Hughes on ways to track travel expenses for each employee.
While tracking past expenses of each individual employee is not impossible, Hughes said it would be time-consuming because up until the February board meeting, there had not be a digital format to do so. Since that meeting, new technology has been put in place to track each employee's travel.
Addressing the board, Liddell at that meeting said she felt her office was transparent when it came to expenses.
"There are few superintendents who give the details we do," she said.
To that, Spears said that during his tenure on the board, detailed budget items that formerly appeared on the agenda have disappeared.
Board member Aubra Turner echoed Spears' sentiments, challenging Liddell's assertion of transparency.
"We are asking financial details of who is traveling and the amount. That's what we're concerned with," Turner said.
"It's not transparent. We want to know names and how much has been spent on travel."
The Dispatch filed three Freedom of Information Act requests for details on Liddell's travel before receiving the information it requested.
School board member Angela Verdell said as a new board member, she was not familiar with Liddell's travel expenses but said a review of the entire budget will take place at the end of the fiscal year.
"I do know at the end of the year there will be some analysis for all expense requests across the board," Verdell said.
For her part, Liddell makes no apologies for her time away from the district.
"Professional development is a form of continuous improvement with the goal of achieving appropriate professional growth for teachers and administrators," she said.
Sarah Fowler covered crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch.
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