Article Comment 

Our View: Content, not color




Tuesday's special meeting of the Columbus Municipal School Board ended in much the same fashion as the special meeting held last week: Nothing was done. 


But much happened. 


Over the past two weeks, the board's attention has turned to the professional conduct of the CMSD superintendent Dr. Martha Liddell. On May 30, The Dispatch reported records indicating Liddell had used district funds and personnel for a private party she held at the Trotter Center in December. On Monday, The Dispatch reported that Liddell had performed outside work in an apparent violation of her contract with the district. In each case, along with our reporting, The Dispatch shared with readers the records that were the basis of that reporting. 


Last week, in announcing its special meeting, the board announced it would be discussing Liddell's job performance. The board met in an often-heated, three-hour executive session, but took no action.  


According to a CMSD email, Tuesday's special meeting was called to discuss a personnel matter. Again, the board met for almost four hours. Again, the board emerged to announce it had taken no action. 


That is not to say that the dynamics of Tuesday's meeting did not raise another issue that cannot be ignored. 


On hand, were numerous prominent leaders from the black community. The tenor of the group strongly suggested that they were there to show support for the embattled superintendent, who is black. Although it would be unfair to say that everyone who turned out for the meeting holds the view that the controversy surrounding Liddell has been created by racially-motivated reporting by The Dispatch, one did not have to go far to hear that criticism. 


It is a charge we reject categorically. As any attorney or judge will tell you, a charge is only as good as the evidence supports it. While there appears to be no shortage of assumptions, accusations and theories among those who level this charge, what we have not heard -- and do not expect to hear -- is any fact to support that claim. 


This is a topic worthy of discussion. It serves no one to pretend the claim does not exist. For too long, we have avoided these types of frank discussions, and to our collective detriment. Silence cultivates suspicions and assumptions. Dialogue promotes honesty and understanding 


It's time we had the latter, as uncomfortable as that exercise may be at first. 


In the case of Liddell's conduct as superintendent, our reporting has not relied on rumor or speculation. In each story, we have substantiated our reporting by documentation, records that we have shared with the public. To suggest we should somehow ignore these instances of possible misconduct in the interest of promoting racial harmony is to perpetrate injustice, abdicate our responsibility to hold our officials accountable and seriously undermine our credibility.  


In this instance, as so often is the case, there will be those who, having no basis to attack the message, attack the motives of the messenger instead. 


Again, The Dispatch stands on firm footing on this point.  


Our previous reporting reflects no pattern of behavior that would justifiably lead any fair-minded reader to make an assumption that The Dispatch is somehow "anti-black." We have routinely challenged the conduct, policies and actions of leaders, regardless of race. Lowndes County Superintendent of Schools Lynn Wright has not escaped our pointed criticism. Neither has CVB director Nancy Carpenter. We have taken on white judges, attorneys, law enforcement officials, county supervisors and a long list of other public officials. Readers will recall that in a column prior to the municipal elections, managing editor Slim Smith endorsed the black incumbent over his white challengers in the Columbus mayor's race.  


It should be noted that Liddell is not the CMSD's first black superintendent. Reuben Dilworth served in that role with great success in the 1990s. Dilworth enjoyed broad community support; during his tenure Columbus passed a bond issue to fund a school reorganization and the creation of a single high school. 


Ultimately, it is the school board's decision alone to determine Liddell's fate in light of the evidence. In executing that responsibility, the board undoubtedly faces an enormous amount of pressure. This is especially true for the three black members of the board, who must by now feel the full weight of the judgment emanating from part of the black community, many of whom are in positions of authority.  


God grant the board members the courage of their convictions. Public opinion ebbs and flows. It is the truth that remains a fixed point.  


It is a disturbing thing that some misguided members of the black community would demand that black members of the school board sacrifice integrity on the alter of black unity, that truth be ignored for the sake of status.  


Our reporting on Liddell's performance as superintendent is just that. It is a performance issue alone.  


We make no apologies for that, nor should we.



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