Board fails to hold Liddell to same time limits as other candidates
The Columbus Municipal School Board interviewed Interim Superintendent Martha Liddell for the position of superintendent May 25, throwing the rules of the interview process out the window along the way.
While previous candidates were given about 15 minutes to make a presentation, followed by an hour-long question-and-answer session, that was not the case with Liddell. Although she was told of the time limit at the beginning of the interview, Liddell’s presentation lasted a full hour. Neither President Tommy Prude nor any other trustee attempted to stop her. [By contrast, Isaac Haynes spoke for almost exactly 15 minutes and Pamela Taylor Henson spoke for about 20. – Brian Jones]
Liddell gave an hour-long PowerPoint presentation in which she addressed the district’s strengths and weaknesses and her proposed solutions.
“It’s one thing to talk, but it’s another to do it,” Liddell said. “I want to tell you how I think we can become a high-performing school district. We can become high performing, we can become a star district. But it’s going to take work. It’s not going to just happen.
“What are we going to do other than talk and drink coffee?” Liddell asked. “When I was a teacher, I used to say that. What do central office people do other than talk and drink coffee? Some days I start with a cup of coffee and it’s ice before I even look at it again. Let’s look at our strengths. We are doing many things well. We have great leaders. We have great teachers. We have great administrators. We are not all great. Some of us need to get better. But we’re not going to get better without a push and some help. We have advanced education right here in this district. Most districts in this state don’t have [International Baccalaureate.] Most of them don’t. Advanced placement. Some have a few courses, we have 20. We have magnet schools. That’s fantastic. We are an innovative school district.
“Now let’s look at the weaknesses,” Liddell said. “Innovation has to translate into results. Otherwise it’s just a wheel running down the road. That’s where we’re missing the boat. Another weakness is becoming a district of champions academically and athletically. We’re making a lot of progress, but we still have a lot of work to do.
“Now let’s go to opportunities,” she said. “Columbus magnet schools, and becoming a high performing or star district. I want to be great. I want this school district to be great. Nothing is stopping us, we have everything we need. Parent support, community support. We have everything we need to be great, but we’ve done a lot of talking. Let’s get to work.
“The biggest threat that I see that’s hurting us is belief,” Liddell said. “Do you believe that all kids can achieve? You’ve got to come to work and say that you believe that all kids can achieve, and what can I do to help? Instead we complain and we throw darts. We do everything we can to keep from doing our part. The next superintendent has to rally the troops and put it in the rearview mirror. Put all that that happened with the budget in the rearview mirror. All that happened because we don’t want to be bankrupt. This is too great of a school district to have Jackson telling us what to do. We had to do what was right, even though it was painful to do it. Another threat we face is our future financial stability. It’s not over. We’re on top of that every day.
“Now I want to talk about my plan,” Liddell said. “What are we going to do to move this district to the next level? Let’s start with short-term goals. We have to face the facts. We are a D according to the Mississippi Department of Education. That ‘Academic Watch’ in the new grade system is equal to a D. When my two boys come home with a D I’m not too happy. I’m not satisfied, and I don’t think anybody in this room is satisfied to have a school district on academic watch. I can tell you that our principals and our teachers made tremendous progress last school year, but we closed some schools and we took some students who were very used to being at a certain place and put them in another place. Those fifth-graders struggled because they weren’t accustomed to being at that new middle school. Our fifth-grade scores is what stopped us, for the most part, from making growth. After we identified the problem, we started putting an extra push in fifth grade.
“I have a research-based plan that looks at what Star districts are doing all across the state and across the country, and I put that research into a plan,” Liddell said. “I called that plan Believe and Achieve. If I can get teachers and students to believe that they can achieve…I don’t play the race card. I didn’t go into education to love certain kids. I love all kids. You have to convince teachers to show the kids that they love them. Speak to them, shake their hands. Don’t act like you don’t know they when you see them in the grocery store.
“We have got to execute our plan every day at every school, and that means we have to do things differently,” Liddell said. “Right now every school kind of does its own thing, and so we have pockets of excellence. Pockets are good, but that doesn’t mean that all kids are learning. We need to do things in a systematic way and have a district professional development plan in addition to what we’re doing at the school. People at the central office have to get our behinds out of this building and get in those schools. We are being paid with taxpayers dollars, and there is nothing wrong with us doing what our degrees are. I’m a teacher. I have a degree in curriculum. Why am I not out at Fairview helping raise their test scores? I advocate that we need to repurpose the central office. We need more people in the kitchen.
“We have to monitor progress,” Liddell said. “I want your boots on the ground. I’m sick of all the talk. I am sick of going to conferences and hearing people talk about raising test scores until you ask for a plan. They don’t have one. How are we going to get there? Everything that sounds good isn’t a plan. Most leaders start with pie in the sky and then go to enjoying success. There’s no foundation.
“We ought to be putting students first in everything that we do,” she said. “If you’re not putting students first, then you’re not educating kids. We have to do what’s best for kids, and not what’s best for me or what’s best for teachers. Teachers don’t want to stay past 3:30, but their contract ends at 4. Principals don’t want to come in on Saturday and work. When you know that something needs to be done to make the school district better, you insist on it being done. That’s what good superintendents do. They lead from the front. There has to be accountability all up the ladder.
“If we are going to transform into a high-performing school district, we have to look at where we are now,” Liddell said. “The department of education gives us a score called a Quality Distribution Index. To be High Performing, I need at least a 200. We have a QDI of 143. We’re making progress, but we’re not there yet. I think we can get there a lot faster if we start doing things according to a research-based plan. Sale is our first high-performing school. If they can do it, the rest of us can do it. We have the same kids from the same community. Our graduation rate is 72.4 percent. How are you going to educate kids on the street? You’ve got to get them in school. What I would do is implement in-school suspension in every school. We need those kids in school. They need to have their work sent down there to them. We need to figure out a way to keep these kids in school. When the state is coming up with our QDI score, they look at the number of kids who scored proficient and advanced. They look at the kids who scored basic. They don’t give any points for a kid scoring minimal. For basic you get one point. How do you get to High Performing if kids are scoring basic and minimal? We want them scoring at least proficient. If I can get them to advanced, it’s three points.
“Teachers have to have good training,” Liddell said. “Sometimes you get in a rut. Kids eat up on you emotionally, and you get in a rut. What I advocate is a Columbus leadership academy for principals so we can spend some time learning what we need to do for the next school year. We can bring in professionals to help us with the Common Core standards. If we’re scoring 147 and 143 on the old standards, and Common Core standards are three times as hard, there is a lot of work in there.”
Liddell wrapped up her presentation by discussing the district’s finances.
“We are moving toward financial health,” Liddell said. “We discovered that the district was spending $3 million more than it was taking in. When this kind of stuff happens, a business is going out of business. In June or July  I began cutting budgets. I went through line item by line item. You read in the paper that I got down to toilet tissue, and I really did. We cut $750,000. In August the management team and I went to every school and met with the staff and showed them where we are financially and told them we were going to have to reduce personnel because if we don’t we’re going to drop below 5 percent and go into conservatorship. We had to cut costs drastically. Personnel is 76 percent of our budget. I can’t lay you off for a little while and let you come back when things get better. If I don’t lay you off by a certain time, you automatically have your job back. It broke my heart, it hurt me so bad to let people go. It would have hurt us worse to have the district shut down and somebody else make the cuts. If you had less than two years in the district, we reduced you. It saved this district from going bankrupt.
“For next year we have already cut $1.5 million from other stuff,” Liddell said. “We expect to be further along than that by the time we finish. If we don’t get that budget now, what’s going to happen when charter schools come to town? If the budget isn’t healthy, we’re going out of business because the money follows the child. When the reductions were going on, I took the blame. That’s what leaders do. I took the blame. If you don’t take the blame and go on, people get stuck in the same rut. We need to go on.”
At the end of her presentation, Prude joked about the amount of time Liddell took.
“That’s a new way of keeping time,” he said. “But we needed that profile of our district. I would not interrupt you because we needed that.”
Question and answer
[As there was a lot of overlap with Liddell’s presentation, I’m going to try to just hit the high points rather than indulge in repetition. – Brian Jones]
Aubra Turner asked Liddell if teachers who taught in the district should be allowed to send their children to non-district schools.
“I want Columbus schools to be a district that is so outstanding that you’re knocking our doors down to get in,” Liddell said. “I don’t care what school you’re going to, be it public or private. I want to be so good that you’re knocking our doors down. When that happens, we don’t have to worry about people going to other schools. If this is a private school question, this is a free country. I’m glad I can send my child anywhere I want. I send my child to Columbus school district. If I want to send him somewhere else, I have that right. That’s something we don’t need to be abridging that. If they’re sending them somewhere else because of hate, let God deal with that.”
“I know you have worked with more oversight from the board than possibly any superintendent in our history,” said Currie Fisher. “You mentioned one of your greatest concerns is fiscal management. My question is when? When can the citizens expect the changes to be implemented?”
“June 2012,” Liddell said. “We’re already behind the mark. A transparent budget means I know where my cash flow is. I know where the money’s going, I know where the leaks are and I know where I need to plug up. I don’t know that if I’m not in the district, if I’m downtown all the time. We want to make sure that everybody in this room knows my door is open, but the bottom line is that if the finances fall out like they just did, you need fire whoever your superintendent is. That does not make any sense. Due diligence was not being done. Somebody was doing something other than what they were hired to do. When we went out into the community last summer to talk about the budget, I was always asked how it got in that shape. I took the blame, and I told them how I was going to fix it. I think you as a board need to always be able to look at the budget and get the facts. I think you need to hold the superintendent, or whoever it is, accountable.”
“How will you hold people accountable?” Fisher asked.
“We’ve got too many kids whose lives are at stake for teachers to just ride it out,” Liddell said. “I can’t let you ride it out. Those teachers will go on improvement plans immediately, and their principals will be held accountable. Keep in mind we have data that allows us to track longitudinally. I can tell you what a third-grade teacher has done with her students over the last five years. I can tell you the ones who are doing great, and I can tell you who’s riding it out. We’ve allowed them to ride it out, and I’m here to tell you that that’s got to stop. If we had had more teachers on improvement plans, I would have had more options other than a RIF. I would have been able to look and see that these teachers at these schools are having problems, and let’s have that conversation. Improvement plants have to be started early. Principals have got to tell me what teachers need to be on an improvement plan so we can hold each other accountable. When the first teacher walks out the door because she’s not doing her job, folks will get to work. Teachers need to get to work, and I want you to fire your next superintendent who doesn’t make sure that happens.”
“How do you intend to increase parental involvement?” asked Jason Spears.
“School by school, principal by principal, teacher by teacher,” Liddell said. “If I’m having a PTO meeting at Sunshine Elementary School, I don’t need to be trying to send 300 letters home to these parents about the meeting. That’s what we’ve been doing for the last 30 years, and the bus driver is tired of picking them up and putting them in the trash. Here’s the difference. If you want to have parents coming to school, the teachers need to pick up the phone and call the parents. That’s the way I’d approach it. Call parents. Be personal. When you ask people to do something, you need to check on it. I would give those teachers a calling log to document the calls. If you want parents to come, call them. Make it personal. Involve their children. If the child is involved, the people will come. Teachers have a 45-minute planning period and an hour after school. Why can’t they call you?”
“There are nearby counties that operate on less money than the Columbus Municipal School District,” Spears said. “If selected, what will you do to cut down our budget and cut taxes?”
“I’ve already gotten started,” Liddell said. “I can tell you that for FY11-12 and 12-13 the budget will be $2 million less than it was. It’s due diligence. You’ve got to do the work. You won’t have to worry about me being out in the parking lot at 4:01 cranking up the car and leaving. If you’ve got people that are out in the parking lot at 4:01 like clockwork, you need to start looking at those folks. You need to come on Saturday, you need to come on Sunday, you need to get to it. We will look at that budget every week and every month. I’ve already saved you $2 million and I’m going to save you more.”
“You said we needed to repurpose the central office,” said Glenn Lautzenhiser. “I’d like you to expand on that.”
“Everybody in central office has a degree,” Liddell said. “Most of us have a curriculum degree, yet we spend most of our time in our offices. You can work on minutiae all day long, but you’ve got to walk away and deal with the rest of the aspects. I’m going to ask for early release Wednesday back, because then the $25 and $30 an hour we’re having to pay our teachers to stay at school for professional development comes back to us. They can do professional development on Wednesday. I just saved you $450,000 right there. On those early release Wednesdays central office folks go to the schools, conduct training, do professional development. That’s how we repurpose central office.”
“Next to financial accountability, my biggest concern is the high school,” Prude said. “Security, culture, achievement, safety. What are your plans to improve the high school?”
“We had a difficult year this year,” Liddell said. “When we did the RIF, there were 26 people at the high school who had less than two years of experience. That was more than any other school in the district. You’ve got a built-in problem right there. [The CMSD non-renewed 69 employees who had been in the district for less than two years: one central office position; one alternative school position; nine positions at Cook Elementary; three positions at Fairview Elementary; eight positions at Franklin Elementary; three positions at Sale Elementary; five positions at Stokes-Beard Elementary; ten positions at Columbus Middle School; 27 positions at Columbus High School; and two positions at McKellar Technology Center. – Brian Jones] You’ve got a morale problem. I have a morale problem. As much as I would have loved to hire every one of those folks back, the money just wasn’t there to do it. Yet, in that building, I was disappointed in some things. I saw teachers leave their classroom and leave their kids to go out in the hall and talk about things that had nothing to do with student achievement. Regardless of how you felt about it, that was not putting students first. I saw people that I had all the respect in the world for get on phones and make everything a race situation. I was disappointed, but I put it in the rearview mirror because it was not racial at all. It was about doing what was right for the school district. I had one person tell me they didn’t care what we did with the teachers, but make sure we get the principal back. That wasn’t putting students first. I want to have every last one of them back, but the numbers aren’t there. If I am your next superintendent I will personally go to the high school and talk to every single teacher, every coach and every paraprofessional and say what happened. If you can’t see past skin, we don’t need you. You’re not putting students first.”
“Many superintendents are put under a lot of pressure by the community,” Turner said. “How would you make sound judgments without giving one group influence over another?”
“If someone’s trying to influence you, they have a reason,” Liddell said. “The first thing I need to figure out as a superintendent is what you want. The only way I’m going to figure out that is to sit down and talk to you. Then I’m going to ask if that is in the best interests of the students, or is it in your best interests? My job is to take care of the students, and that is what I’m going to be doing.”
“What do you feel is most important when it comes to creating a fair and equal school environment, and how would you do away with the buddy-buddy system?” Turner said.
“I believe in following policy,” Liddell said. “That’s what we need to be doing. If the policy isn’t there, we need to create one. The buddy-buddy system means we’re not being fair. We need to follow the policy.”
“How would you strengthen the bonds between the city and county school districts?” Spears asked.
“I have two examples that are already going on,” Spears said. “We have an advanced placement incentive grant that is shared between the city and the county. We wanted to have more kids able to enroll in AP courses. We decided that we not only needed to provide that opportunity in the city, we needed to provide it in the county. I called [Lowndes County School District Assistant Superintendent Edna McGill] and we got to together and shared that $4.3 million. We increased our AP by 25 percent. The other example is Project 2020. When we get ready to recover dropouts, the state department of education is going to give us waivers so dropouts from West Point or Starkville or wherever can go to a Project 2020 e-center. We will take their dropouts.”
“If you had to choose between expanding pre-kindergarten programs throughout the district or continuing the alternative school, what would you choose?” Spears asked.
“Pre-k,” Liddell said. “We need to start early. I would invest my money in pre-k. That’s why we expanded it this year. I can now serve 140 kids. They are coming to us from all the colors of the rainbow, and I am so proud of that. Alternative education in this district, and in most districts, the way we do it, you may as well just flush it down the toilet. We don’t do anything different for the kids, and they get out and they go back again. And they get out they go back again. We’re going to have to do some things differently. We need to take alternative and add behavior modification so these kids have some strategies to do better in their home schools.”
“In the event that teachers and personnel take a pay cut, will you take the same percentage reduction in your pay?” Spears asked.
“Yes,” Liddell said. “Absolutely. I live by example. If I’m asking administrators to take a 10-day cut, what kind of leader would I be if I didn’t do the same? What I ask them to do, I will do the same.”