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CMSD Trustees Kill Liddell’s Early Release Plan, Then Approve It After Parents Leave

Liddell’s contract signed

Board rejects bid for Lee, refuses to disclose identity of bidder

Dr. Martha Liddell

The Columbus Municipal School District, after some dissention, approved early release on Wednesdays for the 2012-13 school year. The board also approved a contract with Superintendent Martha Liddell, heard a report on ad valorem tax collection and refused a bid for the purchase of Lee Middle School.

Early Release Wednesday schedule
[Although part of this discussion took place before executive session and part of it after, I’m going to write it all in one piece to cut down on the confusion. – Brian Jones]
During her interview, Liddell stated that she would re-implement early release Wednesday, a schedule that was discontinued under then-superintendent Del Phillips. She successfully convinced the board to approve her request, but not without a fight. The original motion to pass the school calendar died without a second the first time it came up. It was brought up again after executive session, sparking a contentious argument that ended in a 3-1-1 approval. [While there were quite a few parents and community members at the meeting, nearly all of them had left before the board came out of executive session. Its subsequent approval played to a mostly empty room. More on that below. – Brian Jones]

Wednesdays will now end at 12:45 p.m. for elementary and 12:15 p.m. for middle and high school students.

The tumult began early in the meeting, when parent Lori Pearce, who is also a teacher at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, addressed the board during open forum. [Members of the public may sign up at the beginning of the meeting for “Open Forum” if they want to address the board. This is the first time in years I can remember anyone actually doing so. In fact, I can’t remember the last time it happened. – Brian Jones]

“You have five minutes,” said President Tommy Prude.

“Well, I know what happens if I go over,” Pierce joked, referring to Liddell’s fifteen-minute presentation allotment stretching to an hour during her interview several weeks ago. “I don’t have an opinion on early release Wednesdays. I don’t know if it’s a good idea or a bad idea. I want to talk about the process. My concern is that the implementation is rushed and that there has not been sufficient input from teachers and parents and all the stakeholders in the district in making that decision. If you recall two years ago when we made the change to go to the Success schedule at Stokes-Beard and Sale, that was a huge change. Before that happened, we went to the community with a survey and invited all the stakeholders to give an opinion and we implemented that where the support was the greatest. [Under then-Superintendent Del Phillips, the district attempted to extend the school year. The so-called “Success Calendar” was put to a vote within the district, and was only implemented at Stokes-Beard and Sale for the 2009-10 school year. The program has since been discontinued as a cost-cutting measure. – Brian Jones] I would like to think we would do the same thing this time. It’s a big change, and a lot of people are just finding out about this today and are concerned about it and would like input.

“While we all want what’s best for our children, we also have to weigh other considerations as parents,” Pierce said. “Even though the primary concern is what is best for our children and the education they receive, I’m concerned about what happens after school and what about all the after-school activities and what about the special needs students. I’m not saying these are reasons that should torpedo the idea, I’m just saying we need to think about them.

“From a personal perspective, my biggest issue is that I want quality teachers to want to be happy where they are and to feel that they are a part of the process and have control over what happens in the classroom,” Pierce said. “My personal feeling is that teachers and parents feel left out of this process. Please include us.”

Liddell responded at length to Pierce’s concerns.

“We can do much better than Academic Watch as a school district,” Liddell said. “I completely understand what Ms. Pierce was saying. We need to make exponential gains and achieve. We have been At Risk of Failing recently. Our district has been on Academic Watch for two years, and I cannot accept that. I know our students can do so much better than that. We used to have the early release system. We did it for several years, and we worked very closely with parents because we don’t want to send a child home to an unsafe and unsupervised environment. What we did and we will continue to do is make sure our parents know early that the process is underway and what time schools will be dismissed. For example, this school year elementary schools in the CMSD released students at 2:25 p.m. every day. What we propose is releasing kids at 3. An extra half hour of instruction makes a lot of difference when kids are behind, and so many of kids are behind because we have an 81 percent free and reduced lunch rate. Research tells us that it’s very important to insure that kids get quality instructional time. By releasing at 12:45 kids will get home an hour and a half earlier than they normally do.

“We’re also going to give teachers more time to work together during the day in collaborative periods,” Liddell said. “We’re also going to have a boost schedule where we take kids that are working on a certain level and assign them to high-quality teachers for help. We’re going to take the data we have on our students and use that to make decisions. With Common Core standards coming, they are very difficult. If we are on Academic Watch on the old system, and the Common Core is ten times harder, if we don’t do something we’re going to be At Risk of Failing or Failing.
“We’re going to have to go back to grass roots for our kids to achieve,” Liddell said. “I would love for our child to get out at 3 or 3:30, that helps me as a parent, but I also know that if I can make a sacrifice and have someone pick up my child or have the buses deliver my child to a location of my choice, I’m willing to do that. If we keep doing things the way we are, we will go down the drain with Common Core.”

The early release calendar is based closely on the Lowndes County School District calendar, she said.
“We tried to keep the schedules very close together so all the kids in the county will be released at the same time,” Liddell said.

The extra time will be used for staff development and planning, she said.
“I have been a principal in this school district,” Liddell said. “I was a principal at Sale. The only time I had to plan was from 3 to 3:30. That’s not enough time. The teachers are telling me that they’re running around like a chicken with their head cut off because we have so much to do to get ready for Common Core and we don’t have time to do it.
“As I said before, our district is on Academic Watch,” she said. “Our Quality Distribution Point average is 143. That is low, low, low for the state. Our kids are smarter than that, our administrators know what to do, our teachers are fabulous. What’s happening is that we don’t have the time that we need every single week to train them to teach in a Common Core way. When the Common Core tests come in 2014 we will be ready so our kids won’t continue to have these low test scores.”

“The statement was made that the stakeholders were not given the opportunity to give sufficient input,” said Glenn Lautzenhiser. “I’m just wondering…I know we are supposed to take action tonight, but we could take action at some point later in the month. Do we need an opportunity to dialog with stakeholders before we take action on this?”
“I’m thinking about the Success calendar,” Liddell said. “Ms. Pierce mentioned that earlier. We made sure that we talked to parents, and we took surveys and we did all of that. Ultimately what happened was we put success days at only two schools. The rest of our schools did not. I cannot tell you how much grief Dr. Phillips had to endure because he stepped out and tried to do something different. We’ve looked at the research, we have great parents who are willing to do whatever they can. Adopting this schedule would put us on the trail to getting the achievement we deserve. We want parents to be involved in writing what we’re going to be doing as far as Common Core implementation. Parents were never left out of this process. They were left out, I guess if you look at it that way, of whether we should go to early release. We need to have the courage to do this because it’s the right thing to do.”

“I have some questions I received via email from parents,” Currie Fisher said. “In terms of early release, how will this affect negatively the children who can’t stay composed on a short day?”

“We never released our kids before 3 across the state of Mississippi,” Liddell said. “Most schools go between 3 and 3:15. Last year we moved it to 2:25 to try to accommodate the buses. We don’t want to make decisions to accommodate the buses when we’re on Academic Watch. Why don’t we do like the other school districts? That’s 35 more minutes. With a quality teacher an additional 30 minutes is the difference between basic and proficient.”

“One of the other concerns with later release is how it will affect the safety of the children once it starts to get darker early?” Fisher asked.

“All of our kids will be going home at 3 or 3:15,” Liddell said. “After-school programs release at 4 or 4:30. Parents have been very happy at that. To answer your question, it’s really not that late. It’s a regular school day for most schools.”
“What about special needs children who have therapy on Wednesday?” Fisher asked.

“We run special buses for them,” Liddell said. “Their education is driven by an Individual Education Plan, and we will be following that IEP.”

Fisher made a motion to approve Liddell’s calendar, but it died with no second.

The board then handled the rest of its business and went into an hour-long executive session. When they emerged, Aubra Turner asked if the issue could be brought up again. Board Attorney David Dunn said it could, and Turner made a motion to approve. Fisher seconded the motion, and the debate was on for the second time.

[It was very difficult to hear exactly what was said during this portion of the meeting. The board members’ microphones were off, and much of the debate was drowned out by the air conditioning. What follows is what I could definitively make out. – Brian Jones]
Trustee Jason Spears, visibly angered, objected to taking action after the community had left.

“As far as the action that’s been taken tonight, I’m very straightforward about my belief in raising student achievement,” Spears said. “But there is a reason why this city does not believe in anything this board does. It’s very much because you can’t take a hard-line action on anything. You reverse your stand and tread water…the bottom line for me is, in the handout Dr Liddell gave us, it stresses the importance of community involvement. We’re never going to get involvement by backtracking and doing exactly what we said earlier we wouldn’t do. We need to give the people who are stakeholders in this district time to come forward and express their feelings about what’s going on. I make a motion we lay this on the table until the next meeting to give ample time to have a discussion with the stakeholders about what’s going on here.”
“You already have a motion and a second,” Dunn said. “You can’t have another motion unless the prior motion is withdrawn.”

“This is not fair,” Spears said. “This is the same time of clandestine activity we should not be a part of. We have to avoid this kind of thing if we want to build credibility. We must adhere to what we decided earlier. This board cannot continue to do things in this manner.” Turner refused to withdraw her motion, and Fisher refused to withdraw her second.
“I think it’s a sound motion,” Lautzenhiser said, “but I share [Spears’s] concerns. The stakeholders had no opportunity to have input. I want them to have an opportunity to dialog with us.”
Liddell urged the board to make a decision now.

“We have to report our schedule to the Mississippi Department of Education and we have to get our handbooks printed,” Liddell said. “I’ve gotten one letter about this, and no phone calls. I have no problem with parent input, but I saw the process with the Success Calendar. We backed off of that because principals didn’t want it. You have to have the courage to approve a process that works.”

“I understand the urgency, but what if we were to just wait for a week or two weeks to give time for stakeholder input?” Lautzenhiser asked. “The majority of the parents and community members who were here left the meeting thinking we had made a decision. If we come back now and do something, I think there is going to be a credibility question.”
Fisher angrily retorted to Spears.

“I would be less than honest if I didn’t say that your remarks offended me,” Fisher said. “I think everything we’ve done as board members has been open. I know that I have been open. Painting with such a broad brush is offensive.”

“I’m not trying to be inflammatory and were not directed at one person,” Spears said. “This is not just me, many people say that. We need to make sure everything we do is in the best interests of children and that it’s as transparent as possible. If you act the way this board is moving tonight, you are setting a precedent. We’re not going to get any support because people are going to see that we take one action when people are here, then go behind closed doors and do something else when people are gone.” The board voted to approve Liddell’s plan 3-1-1, with Spears voting no and Lautzenhiser abstaining.
[I think Mr. Spears hits the nail on the head. When Mr. Prude took the gavel in March, he had this to say: “We will be open, we will not be secret. We will be available. We will be aboveboard and open, and will restore our image and remove the distrust that many have of us. We will work hard to restore what we’ve lost.” Now we have Ms. Fisher insisting “everything we’ve done as board members has been open.” The trustees certainly have a peculiar definition of “open”, do they not? Reversing yourself as soon as parents and teachers leave and repeatedly calling special meetings without informing the public or the news media is “open”? Refusing to disclose the name of a bidder on a publicly opened bid is “open”? While I commend Messrs. Lautzenhiser and Spears for attempting to avert the flip-flop, I’m afraid this incident is going to do nothing to make the public view the school board more trustingly. – Brian Jones]

After the meeting, Liddell sent out a mass email about the new schedule. Her statement read, in part: “I respect the parent that spoke tonight and all the community members who came out to the meeting to hear actions on the agenda tonight. After we returned from Executive Session tonight, I provided additional discussion to the Board as to why I believe our school district is on ‘Academic Watch’ and why I believe leaders have a responsibility to do something about it-even if it means doing some things differently. I explained how re-instating ERW will give us the dedicated professional development time principals and teachers need for systemic professional development. The Board of Trustees voted (3, yea, 1 Nay & 1 Abstain) after we returned from Executive Session to re-instate Early Release Wednesdays under ‘Such Other Matters That May Come Before the Board.’ My intention was not to hide anything from our parents and community. I was prepared to discuss the matter in more detail after Executive Session for the same number of persons present before E/S that had they been present earlier. The future achievement of our school district is at stake. As much as I would have liked to taken the easy way out tonight, my commitment to students made me advocate for them even harder. They deserve our best. The question was asked why parents weren’t allowed to have input on the process in which I replied my experience as an Asst. Superintendent with the Success Calendar process a few years ago confirmed that regardless sometimes of the input mechanisms districts make available for the community, it doesn’t always work in the best interest of students. Success Calendar received significant back lash that ultimately led to only 2 schools having an extended summer calendar. Even with the best of intentions regarding the success calendar, many students were not afforded the opportunity to extend their learning using this process. My question became what about the rest of the schools. I proposed ERWs because it will allow the district to address the achievement needs at all schools and for all students.”

Ad valorem collections
Business Manager Ken Hughes reported on tax collections to date.

“With two months of collections remaining – May and June – there is $476,399 to be collected,” Hughes said. “I spoke with [Tax Assessor Greg Andrews] earlier today, and he has collected for the month of May $301,049. That leaves $175,350 to collect for the current fiscal year. In June of 2011 he collected $201,370. If he collects the same amount this June, we will be about $25,000 over our request.”

Lee Middle School
Lee Middle School has sat vacant since the opening of Columbus Middle School. Monday night the board announced that they had received a bid for the school. The bid was opened during the open session of the meeting, but the bidder and bid amount were not disclosed. The bid was discussed in executive session, and afterwards Prude announced that it had been rejected.

Prude refused to disclose the bidder or the amount. [I’m a little concerned about this. The bid was opened in regular session. It is my understanding that any bids received are public record, yet the board refused to disclose anything about their sole bidder. I’ve also heard, but have not yet confirmed, that the request for bids was only run once – and in Sunday’s Dispatch, at that. If the district wanted to sell a surplus piece of equipment, they’d have to advertise for more than once, and for a certain period of time. Yet one ad for the historic Lee Middle School is run, and then a bid is opened the next day? Seems fishy, to say the least. – Brian Jones]

A number of other district properties have been sold off in recent years. Mitchell Elementary was sold in August 2009 to Greater Pentecostal Temple Church of God in Christ for $85,000. That school was sold with a reverter clause that stated that the building would return to the school district if it was ever used for anything other than its stated purpose; it also gave the CMSD right of first refusal if the church decided to sell the property or transfer ownership. Mitchell School was closed at the end of the 2007-08 school year. Genesis Church bought Hughes Alternative School in January 2010 for $50,000, with no reverter clause. Hughes had been dormant since the 2004-05 school year. Both Lee Middle School and Brandon Central Services are currently for sale.

Liddell’s contract
The board approved a contract with Liddell, making her officially the new superintendent. Liddell was offered the post at a May 31 special meeting, contingent on a contract being approved.



  1. JohnnyPhillipMorris

    Great piece over at the CD on CMSD Spears’ “conduct” at the board meeting. Worthy of a Monty Python skit, but only Rob Sanderson could see editor Slim’s syrupy sweet sarcasm.

    Check it out.

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