January 26, 2018 1:44:59 PM
The contents of this article have been modified since its original posting.
Amid a board investigation of school district finances, Columbus superintendent Philip Hickman publicly lashed out against the board president Friday.
Hickman, during a special-call Columbus Municipal School District board meeting, read a letter aloud, specifically accusing board president Jason Spears of circumventing the superintendent's authority and creating a hostile work environment.
Among Hickman's allegations, he said Spears had directed CMSD employees to complete tasks without the superintendent's consent, which he said is a violation of board policy. Hickman said Spears contacted via email or phone several employees "demanding or commanding" them.
"This has created anxiety amongst my staff and myself and has disrupted our work environment," Hickman's letter states.
The letter further alleges Spears engaged in "bullying and retaliatory behavior" toward Hickman.
Spears, who denied the allegations as "inaccurate and untruthful," said he only spoke directly with district employees when Hickman was repeatedly unreachable, and he cleared it with board attorney David Dunn beforehand.
Further, Spears confirmed to The Dispatch Thursday the board is investigating some of the district's past transactions. He said the board has ordered Hickman to produce documents related to some of those transactions and is "still waiting" for him to do so.
Hickman told The Dispatch Friday he had provided the board with those documents.
Spears would not comment further on the investigation.
The board late last year decided not to renew Hickman's contract, which is set to expire June 30, and instead has hired a search firm to recruit his replacement. Hickman's oft-controversial tenure -- including disputes over hiring family members and a resulting lawsuit tied to one aborted hiring of an uncle; purchase of school books that led to the district losing money on books that had been purchased shortly before his arrival; an accusation he had an inappropriate relationship with a former student that Hickman took into the public square to refute; and a state investigation of the district's special education program deficiencies -- began in July 2014.
Spears did confirm that among the irregularities are two separate payments of $7,500 -- totaling $15,000 over the last two years -- to Reputation.com, a California-based company that works with businesses and organizations to manage online reputations. The first payment appeared in the June 2016 CMSD claims docket, while the second payment appeared in June 2017. Both claims are listed as consulting services as part of district maintenance.
However, a spokesperson from Reputation.com said CMSD is not listed as one of its clients, though he said the company has worked with school districts. He said a subsidiary of the company, ReputationDefender, works with individuals rather than organizations. ReputationDefender is a business specifically geared to helping individuals remove negative or private information online.
In response to a public records request, the district provided The Dispatch receipts from ReputationDefender for both $7,500 transactions as well as terms of service with the company signed by Hickman. The agreement was for "consulting services for strategic search engine optimization for CMSD."
The account is in Hickman's name but was billed to the school district. The 12-month contract that started in June 2016 automatically renewed the following year.
Hickman said he entered a service agreement with Reputation.com for consulting on how to "clean up" search engine results on the web "to change the outlook if someone searches for the district or me."
When asked after Friday's meeting if Reputation.com's work was on behalf of the district or Hickman himself, he said: "I am the district as the CEO."
Hickman elaborated on the issue in a subsequent interview Friday.
"It was for creating content that was favorable for the district and myself," he said. "As the CEO of the school district, part of my job is to make the district look favorable for teacher recruiting and things like that.
"Every time I search, it doesn't look like it's working," he added.
Hickman said former board president and current board member Angela Verdell granted him permission to pursue the agreement with Reputation.com. He also said the state auditor's office cleared the agreement.
Verdell did not answer calls from The Dispatch requesting comment. A spokesperson from the state auditor's office confirmed it was the sort of question the office deals with but could not confirm by press time whether Hickman specifically contacted them with regards to Reputation.com. He said his office would look into it.
Hickman's complaint letter
After Hickman read the letter of his complaints, Spears challenged the allegations.
"It's certainly riddled with a great deal of lies," Spears said. "I would ask you to show documentation of these allegations that you have levied."
Spears brought up several examples of times he had reached out to district employees after attempting to communicate with Hickman and getting no response.
When Hickman said those instances were not the ones he was referencing, Dunn told both it would be better to continue the conversation outside of public view.
"To the extent you need to contradict him, that's probably a personnel matter," Dunn told Spears. "He (Hickman) gets to say what he wants in public. You don't."
The board then directed Dunn to review Hickman's letter and provide the board with a legal opinion regarding the appropriate response.
Dunn said he could provide that information at the board's next meeting on Feb. 12.
'I become the Incredible Hulk'
Hickman leveled more shots at Spears during the interview after the meeting, accusing the board president of "trying to constructively terminate" him. He said the rift between him and Spears had even made some district employees scared to come to work.
"It definitely takes a toll ... when a board member tells you he's coming for you and that board member then becomes president," Hickman said. "Everybody has seen what happens in the board meetings. Imagine what happens behind closed doors.
"Do you know what (Spears) said to me?" the superintendent later added. "He said 'I become the Incredible Hulk when I'm in board meetings and I'm talking to you. I can't control myself.'"
Spears denies those conversations ever occurred and offered no further comment.
After Hickman's contract expires June 30, he said he was "praying to do God's will." He said he's been offered positions, though his time in Columbus has made him "disillusioned with the role of a superintendent, period" since he believes the board has not let him do his job.
"I've never been reprimanded, I've never been placed on administrative leave and I've had nothing but good evaluations," he said.
News editor Isabelle Altman, managing editor Zack Plair and reporter Slim Smith contributed to this article.
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