Media relations, criticism are hot topics at school board retreat

January 19, 2013 9:00:19 PM

Carmen K. Sisson - [email protected]


The Columbus Municipal School District's board of trustees held its annual retreat Saturday morning at the Wingate by Wyndham hotel.  


Sequestered in a tiny side room dominated by a long conference table, the board discussed the events of the past year and brainstormed ways to make the upcoming year better.  


In other words, they had a good old-fashioned gripe session, Board President Tommy Prude joked.  


Discussion ranged from ways to get the students and community more involved in the schools to ways the board can raise the district's visibility -- and improve its stature -- through speaking engagements and other activities.  


Prude said the annual meeting is important because it gives board members the opportunity to come together and discuss things they might not get time to discuss on a regular basis. Though the retreats are open to the public, as required by the state's open meetings law, they are not attended by the superintendent, board attorney or other district personnel.  


One of the most pressing things on board members' minds was mending their relationship with the media, which have been critical of both their conduct and their transparency.  


"Our focus needs to be on the fact that we all have a vested interest (in the district), whether a person has children in the district or not," board member Glenn Lautzenhiser said, responding to recent comments by Columbus City Councilman Kabir Karriem, who told The Dispatch Wednesday that he felt board members should have children in the district so they will have "skin in the game." 


Board members Jason Spears and Currie Fisher agreed with Lautzenhiser, saying as taxpayers, they already have a vested interest in the district's success, even though the only board member with school-aged children is Aubra Turner. 


Fisher, who later read a "thank you" letter from a student, said she considers herself to have 5,000 children -- each and every child attending the district's schools.  


"It may not be our children we affect, but we need to affect somebody's children," Fisher said.  


Part of streamlining the district's public image may involve adopting a formal code of ethics for board members. The board reviewed the Mississippi School Board Association's handbook, "So You Want to be a School Board Member," which details the qualifications and responsibilities of board members, along with the role of the superintendent and administrative staff, legal ramifications and other rules and regulations. 


In the section, "What Effective Board Members Know," they are cautioned to understand that change comes slowly and they must fulfill their duties without "micro-managing." 


The handbook says that no matter what new members believe they know when they come on board, they have much to learn, and as individuals they have no power to fix problems -- only the board as a whole can enact policies.  


The handbook also states board members must learn how to respond appropriately to the complaints and concerns of citizens, school staff and others.  


New members Spears and Turner have both taken criticism from longtime board members this year for their outspoken stances and tough questioning of board policy.  


Prude said the board will use the MSBA handbook as a guideline to craft their own code of ethics, which each board member will be expected to sign.  


"These are the rules of the road," Prude said, adding that the new code of ethics is expected to be quickly drawn up and presented to board members soon. 


"It's just a common understanding, and that's always good," Fisher said.

Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.