August 13, 2014 10:36:39 AM
Monday afternoon, Philip Hickman, the new superintendent of schools in Columbus, met with The Dispatch editorial board. We left that meeting with a guarded sense of optimism. It was clear through our 45-minute conversation that Hickman is committed to the idea that on every level -- from administration to staff to teachers to students -- standards must be established and regularly monitored and the proper tools, training and coaching must be provided. When those conditions are put in place, what must naturally follow is accountability, again on every level.
It's been a tough few years for the city's schools. We liked what we heard Monday afternoon.
A few hours later, Hickman participated in his first school board meeting as superintendent, and it was then that optimism suffered a blow. Among the 27 positions presented by Hickman for the board's approval was the hiring of Leslie Smith for the position of Director of Schools. Two questions immediately emerged: Who? What?
We know little of Smith other than he is a retired educator from the Chicago area. The Director of Schools position is ambiguous, too. Hickman said only that Smith would work closely with the district's nine principals. At this point, we do not know where the $70,000 salary will come from, either.
There is one other thing about Smith that was revealed to the board after the meeting, and it is the source of our concern: Smith is the uncle of Hickman's wife, something Hickman did not reveal to three of the four board members present at the meeting (Jason Spears did not attend) before the vote was taken to approve Smith for the new position. That vote was unanimous.
Only after the meeting, when approached by the media, did board members Currie Fisher, Glenn Lautzenhister and Greg Lewis learn of Hickman and Smith's relationship. Board president Angela Verdell said she had only known of that relationship for a few hours prior to the meeting. In either event, Verdell did not share that information with her fellow board members.
We are careful not to view the hiring of a relative as necessarily unethical, especially since the practice is not uncommon in many school districts. Nor are we necessarily objecting to the selection of Smith or the creation of the new position. Smith may well a great addition to the district and the new position may meet needs that had been left unattended to previously. We simply do not have enough information to offer an informed opinion on those matters.
What we can say with certainty is that both Hickman and Verdell should have been more forthright in sharing the information on the Hickman/Smith relationship with the board before it voted on the matter.
Was this an act of deliberate subterfuge or simply an unfortunate omission? We hope the latter.
Our optimism is tempered by this disturbing turn of events. It does not bode well when one of a new executive's first acts is to hire a family member and not bother to share that detail with the board he answers to.
We seem to be developing a tradition of public officials, who put personal interests over those of the public they are charged with serving. We wonder where it will all end.