June 21, 2013 12:40:51 PM
Sarah Fowler - [email protected]
In unprecedented back-to-back special meetings of the Columbus Municipal School Board Thursday, Edna McGill was named temporary interim superintendent and Currie Fisher was removed from her position as board president.
The tense meetings, which lasted about two-and-a-half hours combined, created a shakeup in leadership within the Columbus Municipal School District. Initially called to address the issue of hiring an interim superintendent, the first special meeting began with a dispute over the agenda, which ultimately passed by a 3-2 vote.
In the wake of Monday's firing of superintendent Dr. Martha Liddell, the district's federal programs director, Anthony Brown, presented an organizational chart of responsibilities currently divided among personnel within the district. Brown said after speaking with officials at Mississippi Department of Education, it was his understanding that someone needed to be in charge of the district, especially where financial matters were concerned.
"In (Liddell's) absence, we have no authority, based on the information we were given, to provide to the state," he said.
Brown told the board he and deputy superintendent Craig Shannon would be willing to share the superintendent's responsibilities until an interim superintendent was appointed. Reading a prepared statement, Brown said that neither he nor Shannon had any desire to serve as superintendent on either an interim on a permanent basis.
"We will not be applicants for interim or for superintendent and this is no attempt to advocate for that position," he said.
Board member Angela Verdell made a motion for Brown and Shannon to split the superintendent duties until an interim superintendent could be appointed. Fisher seconded the motion, but the motion failed with Aubra Turner, Glenn Lautzenhiser and board vice president Jason Spears voting against the motion.
Spears motioned that McGill, who was employed part time with the district as the programs coordinator, serve as temporary interim superintendent until interim superintendent applicants could be vetted through applications provided by the Mississippi School Board Association. Lautzenhiser seconded the motion.
Referencing an email McGill sent to board members noting her interest in serving as interim superintendent, Spears said, "My understanding is -- not by speaking to her but by the information that has been sent -- is that this is temporary while we allow MSBA to bring us candidates to evaluate for the long-term permanent position," Spears said.
Verdell said she would like to confirm that McGill had no interest in serving as superintendent.
"Do we know if Mrs. McGill does not have any intentions of seeking the position?" she asked.
"I would think it would be in our best interest to first confirm that she does not have any intention, as Mr. Brown and Mr. Shannon have stated up front that they have no intention, so there would be no conflict of interest for them to assume responsibility. I think that would be the prudent thing for us to do," Verdell said.
Fisher agreed with Verdell and questioned board members on McGill's intent.
"I think the question is whether she is interested or not, which is what we clarified with Mr. Brown and Mr. Shannon. We need to know whether or not she is interested," she said.
Dunn noted that there would not be a perceived conflict of interest, adding that Liddell served as interim superintendent before her appointment as superintendent.
"From the legal viewpoint, there's no problem," he said.
Turning to Spears, Fisher's tone became increasingly agitated as she asked about McGill's interest in full-time employment as superintendent.
"If we don't consider these two gentlemen because they do not have an interest in permanent employment being named to that position, then we should know if the person who is being recommended for the position has a long-term employment (in mind) and if she does not, then all things being equal, she should not be considered. Do you understand what I'm saying? We need to know."
Spears then read aloud the email he and fellow board members received from McGill expressing interest in the interim position.
"I am labeling it as temporary position until we get all candidates from MSBA," he said.
After several minutes of tense back-and-forth between board members, the motion to hire McGill as interim passed 3-2 with Fisher and Verdell against.
Board to retain legal counsel
The board moved on to the matter of hiring additional legal counsel to handle potential litigation involving Liddell.
Dunn recommended the board hire Jim Keith of Amos and Reed of Jackson to handle any potential legal action involving the former superintendent.
Verdell questioned the need to hire additional council, questioning if the board would be charged twice for the same service.
"How is this any different than your role as an attorney for the board?" she asked
Dunn replied that he expected Liddell to file an appeal on her termination. Given her anticipated appeal and the upcoming public hearing of Kenneth Hughes, the district's former chief financial officer who was fired in May, Dunn said he did not have the experience or time to handle such a heavy work load.
"What I am saying to the board is right now, it is my belief that the board would greatly benefit from the services of Mr. Jim Keith who has been a school board attorney longer than I have and represents many school districts in this state," Dunn said.
"It is a very unusual situation for a school board to terminate the services of a school superintendent. I have not handled one before. Mr. Jim Keith handled one in the last month in south Mississippi. I'm saying that I need his assistance because we're not reinventing the wheel. He's done it multiple times. He's done the research for it.
"I need that assistance because I'm already dealing with another personnel matter and also multiple hours of time that are being required because of this change. I simply do not have the time to devote 100-percent of my practice to this business and so I am making this recommendation because I believe it's necessary."
Spears made the motion to hire Keith with Lautzenhiser seconding. The motion passed 3-2 with Fisher and Verdell opposed.
Board debates 'secret meetings'
Before board members went into executive session, Verdell read a letter expressing her concern with what she referred to as "secret meetings." Verdell alleged that board members had discussed matters without consulting the others. She then asked any outside communication between board members to "cease and desist"
"There have been several times that information has come forward and I don't have a clue (about) or calls have been made and I have not been included," she said. "I do think in moving forward that it would be good if we were inclusive of everybody on the board."
Turner and Spears both spoke up and said they, too, have been left out of emails and phone calls regarding board matters.
Fisher said that while her fellow board members may feel left out, she was left out of communication regarding a special meeting on Dr. Liddell.
Dunn asked to respond, but Fisher did not acknowledge him.
Spears addressed Verdell's complaint and said it was his understanding she would not be in attendance for Thursday night's special meeting and did not intend to exclude her.
"With respect to the communication that is being circulated, at no time was any board member excluded," Spears said, noting that he didn't find it necessary to inform those members who wouldn't attend the meeting of any changes.
Turner again mentioned the special hearing and exchange of information between Spears, Lautzenhiser, Turner and Dunn.
"Madame President, that is a right of the majority of the board," Spears replied.
"But I was not included in that," Fisher said.
Spears disagreed and said although Fisher was repeatedly asked to put the matter of Liddell's mismanagement of funds on the agenda, she refused.
"Madame President, you were included in this and you refused repeatedly to add that to the agenda. That's why a consensus and individual polling of each board member said we wanted this to be requested."
Dunn said board members have the right to communicate with the board attorney. After several more moments of tense debate, the board voted 5-0 to go into executive session.
Fisher ousted as president
When the board emerged from executive session, Fisher announced the board voted, 3-2, to officially inform Liddell and her attorney, Austin Vollor of Starkville, that the former superintendent had been officially terminated and was no longer permitted on CMSD property. Dunn reminded Fisher that two matters had been discussed in executive session.
Moments after the meeting adjourned, Spears stood and announced his desire for a second special meeting to be held just 15 minutes after the first one ended. Fisher announced that she would not stay for the second meeting, citing a conflict.
Verdell also voiced her concern with a second meeting, reminding fellow board members that she would be driving to Jackson for training after the meeting. Verdell stayed for the second meeting.
Before Fisher left, she spent several moments in the hall conferring with Columbus Mayor Robert Smith in hushed conversation. Councilmen Joseph Mickens and Kabir Karriem were also in attendance at Thursday night's meeting.
When the second meeting convened, Spears noted the single item on the agenda: the removal of Fisher as board president. The motion to approve the agenda passed 3-1, with Verdell opposing.
Turner then made a motion to remove Fisher as board president. Lautzenhiser seconded the motion. It passed 3-1, with Verdell again the lone opposed.
Friday, Spears, who will serve as the board's new president, explained the board's decision to remove Fisher from the president's position.
"We as a board are working to move forward to ensure that the district can grow and prosper," Spears said. "It has become increasingly difficult, as of late, to cast emotional and personal differences aside. While no one doubts Mrs. Fisher's intention is to work for the children of CMSD, she has allowed her friendship with various individuals to constrain her ability to serve as leader of our board."
The board will elect a new vice president during their July 17 meeting.
Sarah Fowler covered crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch.