October 24, 2013 8:43:18 AM
It's a sad state of affairs, an institution so bitterly divided that problems aren't solved; they are simply kicked down the road. It has created a landscape dominated by obstructionists who, lacking the votes necessary to impose their will on the issues, can do nothing but delay, distract and seek to destroy.
But we are not talking about our government in Washington.
Instead, this scenario is playing out much closer to home.
Welcome to the Columbus Municipal School District Board of Trustees.
It has been pretty much open warfare since board president Tommy Prude left the board seven months ago.
As president, Prude had insulated CMSD superintendent Dr. Martha Liddell from any real board oversight. Upon his departure, Liddell's conduct began to draw board scrutiny. With each passing month, the more the board saw, the less it liked. When it was revealed that Liddell had used district funds to throw a private Christmas party and that she had continued to do consulting work in violation of the terms of her contract, the board voted 3-2 to terminate Liddell. Board members Jason Spears, Glen Lautzenhiser and Aubra Turner voted to fire Liddell. Angela Verdell, who was Prude's replacement, and then-board president Currie Fisher, voted against the firing.
There is a saying in sports you should never lose the same game more than once. In other words, when you lose a game do not become so fixated on that loss that it affects your ability to perform in the next game. That's true in sports, and true in life, too. It is absolutely true when it comes to the CMSD board.
In the three months since Liddell was fired, Fisher has fought almost every effort to move on. She has become the Ted Cruz of the CMSD Board, raising obstructionism to an art form. Board meetings have become marathon sessions, routinely lasting four or more hours, often including long executive sessions, where the discussions are concealed from the public.
Monday night's meeting was no exception.
The board was supposed to finally resolve some of the issues surrounding Edna McGill's status as interim superintendent. Since replacing Liddell in June, much confusion has persisted over McGill's pay and contract status. It was expected that those issues would be put to rest Monday night. Instead, thanks in large part to Fisher's stubborn refusal to settle the matter and move ahead with more important business, Monday's meeting disintegrated into a five-hour bickering session.
Since taking over, McGill, a veteran school administrator, has proven to be an able administrator and by all accounts has done an good job restoring order to a district that became deeply divided and dysfunctional in the waning months of Liddell's tenure. There was supposed to be a proposal Monday to extend McGill's contract to allow for a careful, thorough search for a permanent superintendent.
Fisher, who has repeatedly challenged McGill's status since her arrival, suggested that McGill continue to serve on a month-to-month basis, a move that would only serve to make the infighting over McGill's role a monthly debate, which seriously undermines the continuity of the district. Staff and teachers have a reasonable expectation to know who will be in charge beyond the next 30 days. No reputable business would operate under such conditions. Yet Fisher advocates renewing a search for an interim superintendent, even though McGill seems equal to the task.
The idea makes no sense. How does the district benefit from a situation where it is simultaneously searching for not one, but two, superintendents? The only logical course of action would be to approve McGill as the interim superintendent until a permanent superintendent can be hired.
Fisher's insistence on looking for an interim superintendent while it already has one is yet another needless distraction. Fisher voted against hiring McGill in June and her conduct since strongly suggests that she wants McGill out. The problem is that she doesn't have the votes, at least not until the end of February.
Much like the national budget and default standoff, what we have at the CMSD is a game of political brinkmanship. In Washington, the endgame is to ensnarl the business of government until next year's mid-term elections when Republicans hope for a shift in the balance of power in the Senate. Similarly, with the CMSD board, it is a matter of keeping the district immobile until February, when Turner's term ends.
It is very unlikely that Turner will ask to be retained for another term and even more unlikely that the request would be granted by the city council, whose influence on what is happening on the school board has the character of cockroaches; they act boldly under the cover of darkness, but scurry for cover when the lights go on.
Rest assured, Fisher has powerful allies in city government, who will proclaim before the public that the school board is an autonomous body, but privately have exerted an enormous amount of pressure on the board.
In the meantime, the CMSD Board battles and bickers and achieves little of anything.
The very real problems facing the city's schools go unresolved because the CMSD Board, thanks largely to Fisher's willful obstructionist tactics, continues to lose the same game over and over again.
And every student, parent, staff member, teacher, administrator and city taxpayer loses, too.