Squabbles dominate school board meeting

April 15, 2014 11:07:10 AM

Sarah Fowler - [email protected]


Monday night's six-hour meeting of the Columbus Municipal School Board began with a 10-minute debate on where the superintendent should sit and included one board member walking out over the discussion of a superintendent search firm. 


When board members arrived at the meeting, interim superintendent Edna McGill was sitting at a table with the district's management staff. McGill normally sits at the dais, along with board members and the board attorney. After the board established a quorum, board member Jason Spears asked McGill why she was not sitting in her regular seat. 


McGill said that she moved at the request of newly elected board president Angela Verdell. Verdell said she sent the request via email to board secretary Jan Ballard and copied the email to McGill. 


Spears noted that the board did not take action on the seating arrangement and asked David Dunn, the board's attorney, if Verdell's request was a violation of rule and state law as well as jeopardizing the district's accreditation. 


Dunn responded that, to his knowledge, the district's accreditation was not in danger, but one board member does not have the authority to tell the superintendent what to do. Dunn added that in his 25 years of serving as the board attorney, the superintendent has always sat with the board. 


Speaking to Verdell, Dunn said, "The board did not act but if you directed her to do that, the majority of the board decides. This is their meeting. The board has to decide how the room will be arranged, when you're going to meet, how you're going to meet, that sort of thing." 


The board attorney announced earlier this year that he is resigning his post after 25 years of service. 


Verdell asked fellow board members if they would like to take any action regarding McGill's seating arrangements. When no one made a motion, Spears said McGill should move back to her regular seat. McGill then asked Verdell why she was asked to move in the first place. Verdell said it was a matter of "logistics." 


After 10 minutes of back and forth, McGill returned to sit with the board. Then, after another 20 minutes spent rearranging the agenda, the board began addressing board business at 6:45 p.m. 




Superintendent search 


Three hours into the meeting, during which the board took extensive time discussing field trips, fundraising and a possible clerical error the school board addressed the matter of hiring a permanent superintendent. 


Three search teams were called in and each was asked to give an eight-to-10 minute presentation. Ray and Associates and the Mississippi School Board Association each kept their presentation to the allotted time. Dr. Louise Coleman of Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates, spoke for 20 minutes. While the first two candidates recommended a six-week application time-table and a lengthy interview process, Coleman said her firm could have a superintendent in place by July 1. At the end of Coleman's presentation, Spears made a motion to table voting on a search team until the board's May meeting. Glenn Lautzenhiser seconded the motion but the motion failed, 3-2, with Verdell, Currie Fisher and Greg Lewis opposed. 


Verdell said she felt the board should proceed with a vote. Spears said he needed time to review the three search firms as well as get community input. 


"There have been many times when I was sitting in that chair that you're sitting in and we had to defer so we could do our due diligence and this is certainly one of the more important decisions this board will need to make, not only the process and the hiring but the expenditure of the money from the taxpayers, and I think it would only be prudent that we afford our stakeholders as well as others who want to be part of that process the opportunity to review the companies that have been presented," Spears told Verdell. 


Verdell said the information on the firms had been available for a month. Spears said the presentations produced new information that needed to be considered. 


The board began another protracted disagreement that ended with Spears packing up his belongings. When he rose from his seat, Verdell asked where he was going. 


"If you want to run the board without people's input and run it this way, I'm out," he answered. 


Fisher asked if he was resigning and Spears said something that could not be heard by audience members. 


This morning, Spears said he was not immediately resigning, but he is considering whether to stay on the board. 


"I'm tired of people serving themselves and not the best interest of the school district," Spears said. "While it was out of character for me to leave the meeting, I knew to keep my composure I could no longer stay. I'm not resigning at this very moment but thinking through it over the next few days." 


The board continued with the meeting, tabling the search firm discussion before going into executive session just before 11 p.m.  


The board had eight matters to discuss in executive session, four of which involved students. The parents who had been waiting for almost five hours said they were frustrated with the length of the meeting. 


"It's ridiculous," said one mother, who asked not to be identified because her son was up for disciplinary action by the board. "They want people to come to the meetings and then they act like this? You know there's always going to be an argument. This week it's where the superintendent is going to sit. What's it going to be next week? It's always going to be something with this board."

Sarah Fowler covered crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch.