December 22, 2018 11:13:33 AM
The contents of this article have been modified since its original posting.
A former superintendent of Columbus Municipal School District has filed an employment discrimination lawsuit against the district and certain school board members alleging retaliation and racial prejudice factored into his firing.
Philip Hickman, who served as CMSD superintendent from July 2014 until his firing on Feb. 23, filed the lawsuit in federal court Friday. In the suit, he named board president Jason Spears and board members Josie Shumake and Fredrick Sparks.
Spears, Shumake and Sparks are the three board members who voted to fire Hickman, with former board member Angela Verdell voting in opposition.
In a letter filed with the complaint, Hickman alleges multiple occasions when board members threatened or made racially-charged comments toward him. He says at different points in the letter that he felt intimidated, concerned for his career and "sick and afraid to attend board meetings."
"I was constantly under scrutiny based on my race and not my performance, but I stayed to finish my contract out for the best interest of the children," Hickman says in the letter.
Hickman is African-American, as is his replacement, Superintendent Cherie Labat, who the board unanimously voted to hire in June.
Hickman is seeking compensation for the loss of wages and emotional distress, as well as "a public apology to restore my reputation." He specifically requests a trial by jury.
When reached by The Dispatch on Saturday, Hickman declined to comment on the case, saying he was late for a meeting. He does not have an attorney listed in the complaint.
Hickman also filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against the district alleging racial and sex discrimination days before he was fired in February. In a letter dated Sept. 21, an EEOC investigator reported Hickman had the right to file suit but that the EEOC had found no evidence backing Hickman's claims.
A complainant has 90 days to file a federal lawsuit against an employer after receiving a dismissal from the EEOC.
An emailed statement from the district released to The Dispatch Saturday denies Hickman's accusations.
"The federal law suit filed by Dr. Hickman contains the same false allegations that were made in his failed EEOC claim against the Columbus Municipal School Board and District," the statement says. "The EEOC found that the school board did not discriminate against Dr. Hickman and refused to represent him in federal court. School board members did not say the things that Dr. Hickman claims that they said and will vigorously defend the school board and district in federal court."
In his letter filed with the complaint, Hickman said Spears and Shumake both made racist comments to him. He listed several examples of such comments from Spears, among them that Spears once said he would "never send his kids to this all black district" and that "the problem with the district is too many black people in charge."
Hickman's letter also said Shumake talked to him shortly after joining the board in 2015, when she allegedly told him she had been observing him and that he acted "too black."
"She asked that when she is a board member that I do not act urban, it a bad representation (sic)," the letter says.
Spears and Shumake are both white.
When reached by The Dispatch, Spears also denied Hickman's accusations.
"Anyone who knows me realizes I don't make these type of statements and don't have those beliefs," he said.
Shumake declined to comment when reached by The Dispatch.
Hickman also raises separate allegations against Sparks, who is also African-American, saying Sparks voted for Hickman's termination as retaliation after Hickman apparently suspended Sparks' son from school for smoking weed in class. Hickman added Sparks threatened to "show him who was boss" when Hickman asked him once if he was asleep during a board meeting.
Sparks did not answer a message from The Dispatch by press time.
Circumstances around Hickman's firing
Hickman was fired following an investigation by the school board into "financial irregularities" that 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. Hickman 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."
Hickman's firing also prompted a two-day termination hearing at the end of March, wherein Hickman claimed the board members -- particularly Spears -- had been harassing and abusing him since "the first day I was on the job." Before he was fired, Hickman claimed Spears created a hostile workplace in a "letter of grievance" he gave the board in early January.
Controversies during Hickman's three-plus years at CMSD included 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; personal issues Hickman took into the public square to refute; and an investigation into the district's special education program by Mississippi Department of Education.
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