Slimantics: Decorating a sinking ship?

November 30, 2012 10:00:23 AM

Slim Smith - [email protected]


There was some belief that more attention was given to the Titanic's choice of china than its supply of lifeboats. It was a hard point to refute, given the way things turned out. 


Likewise, I am beginning to wonder if the Columbus Municipal School District, under the leadership of superintendent Dr. Martha Liddell, is a bit preoccupied with non-essentials as it navigates its own troubled waters. 


Last week, The Dispatch reported that the grant which was to have funded Liddell's Project 2020 dropout prevention program was rejected by the school board, mainly over concerns that the $75,000 Walmart Foundation grant was issued to an outside source, something called Ginomai Ministries, rather than the district itself. Board members rightly refused to vote on the matter, uncertain over the liability issues that might arise from the funding arrangement.  


Thursday, however, whatever kinks existed in the arrangement had apparently been worked out. The district will take the $75,000 and hope that the funding for future years will take care of itself in the form of grants. 


When a project is funded by free money (free as far as the district is concerned), it doesn't run into many official barriers. So Project 2020 will proceed as planned. 


After hearing Liddell talk about the project at a recent Rotary Club meeting, and from reading about the plans, I am more than a little skeptical about how effective the program will be. In fact, I wonder, really, if the project isn't simply a duplication of services already provided by the Greater Columbus Learning Center and various G.E.D. programs. A skeptic might argue that the only compelling reason for the new program is that it means the district could recapture the $5,200 that the state allots for each enrolled public school student it woos back into the system. That is assuming it's effective. 


While I doubt the district is that cold and calculating, I fear the program is a serious misuse of the kinds of resources that aren't calculated in dollars. 


Liddell has been a crusader for the program, which she maintains could be a model for dropout prevention programs all over the country. She has traveled extensively to talk about the program, too. My fear is that so much energy and attention will be devoted to an unproven program whose benefits lie several years down the road that the more pressing issues will suffer from neglect. 


By all accounts, the Columbus Municipal School District, can ill afford to give short shrift to those matters. For the past three years, the district has been on academic watch, receiving a "D" classification. Columbus High School, which was on academic watch last year, dropped to low-performing, receiving an "F" this year. 


In other words, the district is staring down an immediate crisis at the same time it is doing back-flips over an experimental program whose success is far from assured. 


I question whether the district really has the luxury of focusing on experimental programs, given the grim reality of the present crisis. 


It may be argued that those pressing issues are not being ignored. But it has been my experience that people talk most about what they care about most. And what Liddell talks about most is a program whose benefits lie somewhere in the murky future. 


A starving man doesn't worry about what's for dinner next Thursday, you know. 


Well, the clock is ticking. It's ticking on Liddell. It's ticking on the school board. 


The stated goal of Project 2020 is to increase the district's 69.7 percent graduation rate to 85 percent by 2020. The district should be coming out of state conservatorship about then, I figure.

Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]