January 18, 2013 1:05:52 PM
Tommy Prude's term on the Columbus Municipal School District's Board of Trustees will end March 2. While there is some reason to believe Prude will ask to be re-appointed for another five-year term, we do not believe it is in the best interests of the district for Prude to return.
In fact, Prude's departure creates not just one, but three opportunities for the city council to dramatically improve the city's schools. It is no exaggeration to say the city's schools are languishing: The district has been on academic watch for the past two years. Columbus High School, which received an "F" in the Mississippi Department of Education's accountability rankings last year, has seen its graduation rate drop by more than 13 percent since the 2009-10 school year. Given that grim reality, we should not have to stress to the council that every appointment it makes to the board is of critical importance.
First, Prude's departure would give the council an opportunity to select a qualified replacement through a thorough, public process where all candidates are afforded the chance to make their case before the citizens. For too long, this council has made its appointments in private, denying each candidate the opportunity to be heard and denying the public an opportunity to judge for themselves the merits of those who seek to serve on our boards. There is a potential cost for holding the citizens in such disdain: All council positions are up for election this year. The voters may have something to say about being ignored when these important decisions are made.
Second, Prude's departure opens the door for a qualified candidate to join a board that seems to have become nothing more than a rubber-stamp committee for Superintendent Dr. Martha Liddell. We are not advocating that board members should have an adversarial relationship with the superintendent. But we do believe it is imperative for the board to understand that the superintendent answers to the board and not the other way around. It is the responsibility of every board member to be an advocate for all of the schools' stakeholders, whether they are students, teachers, staff, administrators or the taxpaying public.
The ideal board member must be an independent thinker and a courageous advocate for the schools. We need the kind of board member who will challenge those who come before the board by asking the kinds of questions stakeholders have a right to have answered. We need a board member who will not be bullied or coerced, one who is not afraid to stand alone on conviction if necessary. We find too little of this on the current board.
Finally, because Prude served as board president this school year, there is an opportunity to select a new board president. Quite frankly, Prude has proven to be the antithesis of what the ideal board president should be. In his tenure as board president, Prude discouraged open and candid discussions among board members. He famously informed a new board member to hold his peace by announcing that -- as board president -- he alone was to speak for the board. His domineering style served to silence those who would speak and deprived the public of hearing dissenting views. The next board president should facilitate discussion and promote a healthy dialogue in a public forum. The ideal board president is not a despot, but a leader.
We also need a board president who is accessible to the media and, by extension, the public. Prude's performance was deplorable in this area. The board president should be accountable to the stakeholders. Through his conduct, Prude exhibited no interest in that kind of accountability.
Prude's departure presents three wonderful opportunities to substantially improve both the make-up and the conduct of the school board.
The city council has the first opportunity in conducting a thorough, fair and open search for Prude's replacement.
The citizens -- or voters, if you prefer -- will be watching.