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Our view: CMSD Board: A lack of institutional control?




In college athletics, when evidence emerges that a coach has committed serious offenses, the NCAA (the governing body of college athletics) focuses its attention not only on the coach and the athletic department, but on the university's administration as well. The most serious finding that can result in these cases is something the NCAA calls "lack of institutional control," a charge that ensures the harshest of penalties. Clearly, the NCAA expects the university's administration to have oversight of athletic programs and hold its coaches accountable. When a university abdicates that responsibility, it does not escape blame. 


If such a charge existed in the state's educational system, the Columbus Municipal School District Board of Trustees might face a similar charge.  


It appears as though the gravity of the situation, and the board's culpability for it, has finally dawned on board members. The 2012-13 school year ends officially on June 30 and the board has only recently began to cast a serious eye on the grave issues that swirl around the district. This 11th-hour epiphany began at about the time Tommy Prude -- the "See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil" board president -- left the board in March.  


Tonight, the board will hold its fifth special meeting in three months. For the second time in two weeks, the focus of the special meeting will be to address the conduct of its superintendent, Dr. Martha Liddell. For the purposes of sustaining the coach-university analogy, Liddell could be considered the "coach" while the board is cast as the university administration. 


The board will continue to investigate Liddell's use of district funds and personnel for a private party held for "friends, family and business acquaintances" in December. On Monday, The Dispatch reported that Liddell may have violated her contract with the district by performing outside consulting work. 


Those matters, unfortunately, are not the only issues that hang heavy over the district. 


In less than three weeks, the 2013-14 school year officials begins. One of the growing concerns is the state of the district's budget for 2013-14, especially in the wake of the firing of long-time chief financial officer Kenneth Hughes in early May. Since his firing, the CFO duties have been assumed by Felicia Elmore, who had been serving as business office supervisor. In her first appearance before the board on May 15, Elmore appeared ill-prepared and flustered when asked about the basic financial state of the district. When asked, bluntly, if the district had enough money available to pay its bills through the end of the school year, Elmore confessed she did not know. 


Now, she will be in charge of putting together the district's budget for 2013-14, a task that she has no experience in performing. There is every reason to believe Elmore is out of her depths in this vital responsibility. There is also no reason to believe that the board has even considered the consequences if that fear proves justified. The board meekly accepted Liddell's move to install Elmore into the CFO role. It appears it never thought to consider going outside the district to hire someone with experience in the role, even on an interim basis. 


There is also the matter of Liddell's pet project, a drop-out prevention program called Project 2020, a plan that calls for the creation of six e-centers to accommodate drop-outs and put them back on the path to graduation. The program, whose funding comes partially through a grant from the Walmart Foundation, is cloaked in ambiguity and exists as little more than a theory at this point. Project 2020 was to be implemented earlier this month, but has yet to win approval from the Mississippi Department of Education. 


While it is unclear if Project 2020 will create any direct costs for the district, there are other kinds of costs associated with the program that most definitely affect the effectiveness of the district. Project 2020 has emerged as an enormous distraction ¬≠for the district and creates a legitimate question about where Liddell's time and energy is really spent.  


It has also complicated any efforts by the district to sell two of its properties -- Brandon Central office, formerly an elementary school, and Lee Middle School. It's been almost two years since those properties were put on the market. The district has made no discernible progress on selling those properties.  


Then there is Union Academy, another vacated elementary school. The district leased it to a company called RTP Inc., an educational consulting firm, for $900 per month. The board approved Liddell's proposal to rent two rooms in the school for $700 per month for use as an e-center. Essentially, RTP is getting the facility for $200 per month. There are storage units that cost more than that. 


These issues would be troubling in and of themselves. 


But, in context, the issues are even more discouraging. 


The CMSD is on academic watch, receiving a "D" classification and failing to meet growth standards for the third consecutive year. Columbus Middle School earned a "D" grade. Columbus High School, which was on academic watch in 2010-11, dropped to low-performing, receiving an "F" last year. The graduation rate also dropped from 72.4 percent to 69.7 percent.  


Tonight, the board will meet again to figure out what to do with a rogue superintendent. 


The board appears to be trying, at long last, to exercise "institutional control." 


But is it too little, too late?



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