May 15, 2013 10:34:02 AM
The defining moment in Dr. Martha Liddell's first year as superintendent for the Columbus Municipal School District came Monday during the district's regular board meeting.
Felicia Elmore, who is now serving as the interim chief financial officer, was being asked by board members about the district's budget. With each question, Elmore fumbled through the various stacks of papers she had brought with her to the meeting, finally admitting she did not have the answers to the questions she was being asked.
Frustrated by Elmore's inability to answer even the most benign of inquiries, board member Jason Spears asked, bluntly, if the district had enough money to pay its bills this month, a question that again sent Elmore ruffling through the sea of papers, again to no avail.
"I don't know," she answered sheepishly.
If ever an epitaph is written for the era of Martha Liddell and this board, it will be defined by the sad, simple phrase, "I don't know."
It is important to note that of all of the players in this tragic comedy, Elmore bears the least amount of responsibility. She was merely in the unenviable role of delivering the punchline in this year-long farce. Elmore, who had been serving as the district's business manager, was thrust into the role of acting CFO after Liddell fired longtime CFO Kenneth Hughes on May 3.
That Elmore was not able to answer even the most basic questions, disturbing as it may be, should not be a surprise. On those rare occasions when school board members have expressed even a mild curiosity about the financial standing of the district, they have been met with evasive answers, incomplete answers or even, "it's none of your business."
With each passing day, the district seems to be spiraling toward new depths of dysfunction. It should be obvious to anyone who has been paying attention that Liddell's tenure has been an unmitigated disaster. In every board meeting, it seems, new evidence emerges to support that view.
This month, it is the firing of Hughes and the chaos that has resulted.
Last month, the school board dealt with what was deemed a "very rare occurrence" of $13,000 worth of mis-directed school supplies.
In March, pastors from Kingdom Vision International and Point of Grace Church appeared before the board in the ongoing saga of the Lee Middle School property. The pastors also each appeared before the board in February. During Monday night's board meeting, Point of Grace Pastor Shane Cruse appeared before the board for "the 12th meeting in a row" to question the status of the property. To date, the future of the school remains uncertain.
In February, it was the lack of detailed information regarding travel that plagued the board as board members repeatedly asked for a new system to track who was traveling where and how much it cost the district.
Granted, school board meetings everywhere can be contentious from time to time. What makes the CMSD unique is that in other districts, those inevitable disputes are staged before the public eye and discussed thoroughly there. The public is aware and informed.
Liddell's crowing about transparency notwithstanding, the CMSD during her tenure has operated under the cover of secrecy.
With each crisis, Liddell has grown more and more secretive. By now, it has reached the point where even basic information, such as employee salaries and travel costs, is not provided unless a Freedom of Information Act public records request is filed.
In the past two months alone, The Dispatch has filed a half-dozen FOIA requests for information the public has every right to know.
Liddell seems to consider every attempt to hold her accountable for the millions of taxpayer dollars that constitutes the CMSD budget as some personal vendetta.
Ultimately, of course, that information will emerge, not because Liddell has suddenly seen the light, but because taxpayers have every right to that information.
Of course, it is the school board's responsibility to hold Liddell accountable, to demand information on what is happening in the district and to hold school personnel accountable. At the top of that list is the superintendent.
To date, the board has been inconsistent in that duty and therefore will not escape culpability when the district spirals to its collapse, which by now seems inevitable.
In the meantime, The Dispatch will continue to pursue the information citizens have every right to know and be the people's advocate for clear, consistent leadership in our schools, something we are sadly lacking at present.