Our view: School board must move quickly, choose wisely

June 20, 2013 10:35:35 AM



Less than a day after the Columbus Municipal School District Board of Trustees made the decision to fire superintendent Dr. Martha Liddell, the board met again Tuesday to officially begin the process of finding an interim superintendent. The board also set in motion a search for a new chief financial officer to replace Kenneth Hughes, who was fired by Liddell on May 3. The board has contacted the Mississippi Department of Education to obtain resum├ęs of qualified candidates for both positions. 


In the immediate aftermath of Liddell's firing, her supporters are still pressing the matter. Lavonne Harris of the local NAACP chapter even solicited the Columbus City Council's help only to be informed that the CMSD board is an autonomous body and does not fall under the Council's authority. 


What Liddell's supporters and those who agree with the decision to terminate Liddell agree on is that the focus of the board's attention should be on what best serves the interests of the district's students. 


The best thing the board can do at this point is to put aside its differences -- the vote to fire Liddell was 3-2 and came after two special board meetings that lasted almost nine hours combined -- and focus on finding the best candidates for interim superintendent and a CFO. The board must choose wisely, but it must also approach these searches with a sense of urgency. Although school may be out, there are many pressing concerns that require the attention and leadership only a superintendent and a CFO can provide. 


As of the moment, it is unclear "who's minding the store."  


Probably the most obvious priority is putting together the district's budget for 2013-14 school year. Although the MDE's deadline is Aug. 15, most districts have already started the budget process and have held hearings. Last week, Liddell said the district would hold its first budget hearing before July 15. Finding a CFO with experience in school budgeting is something that requires immediate attention. 


As for the interim superintendent's position, there are some obvious qualifications that should be demanded -- experience, integrity, work ethic, teamwork. 


Along with those qualities, other criteria should be required. 


We strongly urge the board to choose a candidate who has had no connection with the district. In some cases, such familiarity might be considered an asset in that the superintendent would already have some working knowledge of the district. This is not one of those cases, however. Because of the divisive nature of what has transpired in the course of the firing of Liddell, it is critical that the interim superintendent have no natural alliances. The interim superintendent should be able to work independently, making the decisions based solely on what is best for the district. 


Also of utmost importance if finding a superintendent who has no ambition to retain the job permanently. This is not a time to implement grand plans or make sweeping proclamations designed to win votes.  


The interim superintendent should be content to simply tackle the task at hand with a single-minded focus on performing the unglamorous work that lies ahead. This is most definitely a "shirt-sleeve" job.  


Given the serious problems that have long afflicted the district, the job will not be an easy one. 


That is why making the right choice for an interim superintendent is critically important. 


We urge the board to move quickly and choose wisely. 


Much is at stake.