February 24, 2018 10:00:13 PM
The contents of this article have been modified since its original posting.
Columbus Municipal School District Superintendent Philip Hickman is out of a job.
The district's board of trustees voted 3-1 in a special-call meeting Friday morning to fire Hickman, more than four months before his contract was to expire on June 30.
Trustees also, on a 3-0 vote with one abstention, promoted deputy superintendent Craig Shannon to interim superintendent. Shannon's interim tag also comes with a $4,583 per month pay raise.
Assistant Superintendent of Federal and Special Programs Pam Lenoir received a $2,500 per month raise to take on some of Shannon's former duties. Her title will not change, however.
Board president Jason Spears said both Shannon and Lenoir will revert to their previous statuses and pay after a new superintendent is in place.
Hickman's firing follows a board-led investigation of "financial irregularities" that have appeared on the district's claims docket. One of those involved Hickman paying $15,000 in district funds between June 2016 and June 2017 to a California-based reputation management firm. The superintendent, who did not attend Friday's meeting, previously told The Dispatch he hired the firm, ReputationDefender, to help "clean up" search engine results on the web "to change the outlook if someone searches for the district or me."
The board opted in November not to extend Hickman's contract beyond June 30. It has since hired the Mississippi School Boards Association to conduct a search for candidates for a new superintendent.
Spears would not elaborate on the board's decision to fire Hickman.
"It is confidential because it's a personnel matter, but I can tell you that we went through our evaluation in detail and the board made the decision to terminate his contract," he said.
Hickman did not returns calls for comment.
Shannon said he was caught off-guard by Tuesday's developments.
"It was a total surprise," Shannon said. "I know that our district has been going through somewhat of a transition. I'll continue to pray for Dr. Hickman and his family."
Shannon has worked with the district for 10 years, including six as deputy superintendent.
"I'll meet with our administrators and school staff members and just discuss the direction for the few months for our district, with the main priority being student safety and concentrating on student achievement," he said of his first steps as interim superintendent. "We'll focus on making sure our students get the resources and support they need to be successful."
Hickman has five days from when he is notified of his termination to file an appeal with the board, Spears said.
Spears, along with board members Josie Shumake and Frederick Sparks, voted for the termination. Outgoing board member Angela Verdell, whose term expires in March, opposed it.
Verdell also abstained from the votes on Shannon and Lenoir.
Hickman's troubled tenure
Hickman joined CMSD in 2014, and his tenure since has been riddled with controversy.
In his first board meeting as superintendent, he recommended his wife for a district job, and also convinced the board to hire his wife's uncle -- Leslie Smith -- for a new director of schools position. After board members learned Smith was Hickman's relative, the hiring was aborted, and the district later settled an unfair termination lawsuit Smith filed against it.
Shortly into Hickman's tenure, he said $505,000 in textbooks the district purchased before his arrival had to be replaced. The textbooks brought only $159,000 from resale, leaving CMSD with a net loss of almost $350,000.
In 2016, amid rumors Hickman had a relationship with a former student (who was an adult at the time) he issued a pre-emptive press release denying the relationship -- effectively bringing his private life into the public square.
Most recently, parents of special education students filed myriad complaints with the Mississippi Department of Education claiming their children weren't receiving necessary services in a timely manner or at all. The complaints sparked an investigation, and then-SPED coordinator Donna Jones has since resigned.
Prior to coming to CMSD, Hickman was the assistant superintendent of academic support services in Houston, Texas. Before that, he served as assistant superintendent/director of education at a charter school in Kansas City, Missouri, from July 2012 to August 2013.
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