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Our view: After the storm, challenges remain for CMSD

 

 

The storm is over. Now the clean-up begins. 

 

The Columbus Municipal School District Board of Trustees fired superintendent Dr. Martha Liddell Monday, whose bid to retain her seat by the only means apparently available -- turning the issue into a matter of race and gender -- failed in light of the facts that demonstrated clear examples of misconduct. 

 

After weeks of mounting evidence that showed Liddell had used district funds and personnel to hold a private Christmas party in December and had done outside work in violation of her contract, the Board voted, 3-2, to remove Liddell from the superintendent's position.  

 

Because the vote was taken during executive session (permissible because it was a personnel matter), how each of the five board members voted is not a matter of public record. However, it should be noted that Liddell's removal could not have happened without the vote of at least one black female board member. That's an important factor to consider, given that Liddell supporters had characterized the growing concern over Liddell's conduct -- reported on exclusively by The Dispatch-- as simply a matter of a vendetta against a black female in a position of authority. 

 

Liddell's primary advocate -- aside from Liddell herself -- has been board president Currie Fisher. In addition to that role, Fisher is also president of the local 100 Black Women chapter, a volunteer organization. According to an email from Fisher that was posted on the 100 Black Women website (www.nems100blackwomen.org), Fisher urged members to not only attend Monday's meeting, but sign up to participate in the open forum. 

 

In that email, Fisher wrote: "As part of our advocacy for equity in opportunity and rights for African-American females, we are asked to show our support for equal rights and advancement. We must also hold anyone who would attempt to diminish those rights accountable. To that end, you are asked to show your support for the Superintendent of the Columbus Municipal School District with your presence at the June 17th meeting of the Board of Trustees." 

 

That Fisher would solicit an outside group to exert pressure on the board she presides over is not illegal, but it is certainly a breach of ethics to anyone who ascribes to theory that the school board is an autonomous governing body and should make decisions independently, based solely on what is good for the district. In the email, Fisher didn't simply ask for members of the group to attend to express their views; she informed them which views they should have. That is a step far over the line. 

 

Liddell may be gone, but the conduct of the board's president invites scrutiny.  

 

During Monday's meeting, the orchestrated effort to apply more pressure on the board was circumvented when board member Glenn Lautzenhiser asked for the floor to make a motion to go into executive session prior to the open forum part of the meeting. 

 

Fisher protested the change, relenting only when board attorney David Dunn informed the board that Lautzenhiser's request to make a motion to change the order of the agenda to allow for an immediate executive session was within in the rules.  

 

The board met in executive session for 4-1/2 hours. At some point during the meeting, the board voted to terminate Liddell, who left undetected, presumably through a side exit. 

 

Much as it is with a storm, the full extent of the damage may not be known immediately. 

 

Without question, the board faces some real challenges going forward, not the least of which is the conduct of its president. 

 

Of immediate concern is the budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year which, by law, must be submitted by Aug. 15.  

 

Liddell fired chief financial officer Kenneth Hughes on May 3. Business office manager Felicia Elmore has been the acting CFO since, but has no experience with budgeting. Asked during the board's May 15 meeting if the district had enough money to pay its bills through the end of the school year, Elmore said she didn't know. 

 

There is also the matter of Liddell's dropout prevention program, Project 2020, which never received adequate funding and has not been approved by the Mississippi Department of Education. Liddell had obtained a $75,000 grant from The Walmart Foundation for the program. Where is that money? What is left of it? What happens to the program now? Will the grant have to be repaid? All those questions remain. 

 

In retrospect, it appears more and more likely that Liddell's dropout program was little more than a tool for self-promotion (she traveled extensively, never missing an opportunity to tout the program) and a means of solidifying her support in the community through patronage. Liddell proposed six Project 2020 "e-centers" that would be funded through the district. The organizations that were selected for those e-centers stood to profit from that arrangement. In fact, the district rented one of its closed schools -- Union Academy -- to RTP, an educational consulting firm, for $900, then rented two rooms in the school for use as an e-center for $700 per month. Again, there is ample cause for suspicion. 

 

The board should be applauded for making the difficult, but necessary, decision to terminate Liddell's contract in the face of an orchestrated effort to obscure the decision with unsubstantiated claims of racism and gender prejudice.  

 

But the work is not finished. How the board handles the aftermath is, in some respects, just as important as the decision it made Monday evening.  

 

We can only hope that the board responds with the clarity and courage it displayed Monday. We hope that Fisher, if conscience permits her to remain as board president, redeems herself by joining in that effort.

 

 

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