Liddell Fired on
Fisher Tries to Bar People from Entering or Leaving Boardroom
Spears Asks for Another Charge to be Investigated
BY BRIAN JONES
The Columbus Municipal School Board terminated Superintendent Martha Liddell on a 3-2 vote at their June 17 meeting. Trustee Jason Spears also asked that a charge to a print shop be investigated before the district pays it.
The firing came during an unusually tense, topsy-turvy meeting that began with an increasingly hostile exchange between board president Currie Fisher and Glenn Lautzenhiser, and ended with a speed run through the open session agenda after more than four hours behind closed doors.
When the meeting began, about 25-30 members of the public and several Columbus Police Department officers were present. [One of the officers told me that they were there in case there was a disturbance. – Brian Jones] Although not as heavily attended as last week’s special meeting, a number of influential African-Americans were there, including Leonard Dickerson, Kamal Karriem, Pastor Steve Jamison, Pastor Darren Leach and Lavonne Harris of the NAACP. A number of citizens, including several teachers, also showed up, but attendance waxed and waned as the night drew on.
The board had barely finished the invocation and pledge to the flag when Lautzenhiser asked to be recognized, sparking a battle of wills with Fisher.
“We have a quorum present, all board members are present—” Fisher said.
“Excuse me, Madame President, I’d like to say something,” Lautzenhiser said.
“Excuse me,” Fisher said. “You do not have the floor.”
“Well, I’m asking for the floor,” he said.
“Let me go ahead and have open forum since I’ve started—” Fisher said.
“Well, I would like to make a motion,” Lautzenhiser said, interrupting her. “I would like to make a motion before we go into open forum,” Lautzenhiser said.
“The floor is not open for a motion,” Fisher said.
“I have asked to be recognized,” Lautzenhiser said. “We have not started anything, and I am asking to be recognized.”
“I’d like to go ahead with the open forum,” Fisher said.
“Ma’am, since we haven’t started anything, I think I should be allowed to make my motion,” Lautzenhiser said.
“I’d like to second his motion,” Spears said. [Of course, at this time Mr. Lautzenhiser had not even explained his motion, so I’m not sure that Mr. Spears’s second was appropriate. – Brian Jones] Fisher again denied his attempt to make a motion. [Throughout much of the exchange, Ms. Fisher spoke off mic and it was very difficult to make out what she was saying. – Brian Jones] “I would like (Board Attorney David Dunn) to weigh in on this,” Lautzenhiser said.
“Would you please explain whether it is appropriate for him to make a motion at this time, since I was in the midst of saying we are going to do the open forum?” Fisher said.
“I believe he has the right under Robert’s Rules of Order to make a motion and you’re obligated to ask for a second,” Dunn said.
“Can you reference that statute?” Fisher asked.
“I don’t have it right now, but Robert’s Rules says any member may make a motion and that the president is obligated to recognize it and go forward,” Dunn said.
“I don’t think he has the ability to make that motion,” Fisher said. [Again, it was very hard to hear her so I’m not sure these were her exact words, but it was certainly the gist. – Brian Jones] “I beg to differ,” Dunn said.
“Our board attorney has said I do have the authority to make a motion,” Lautzenhiser said. “You don’t even know what my motion is. I would like an opportunity to make a motion. It may not even get a second.”
Fisher pounded the gavel.
“The floor is not open,” she said. “As soon as we go through open forum I will be happy to entertain it.”
Fisher and Lautzenhiser began talking over each other.
“I seconded his motion,” Spears said, once they paused for breath. “You have a motion and a second on the floor.”
“The motion is not recognized,” Fisher said. “I was in the process of saying we’re about to start open forum.”
“We have not gone into open forum,” Lautzenhiser said.
“I have said we are going into open forum,” Fisher insisted.
“You’re out of order,” Spears said.
“The floor is not open,” Fisher said.
“I have made a motion, Mr. Spears has seconded, and our board attorney has said I have a right to make that motion,” Lautzenhiser said. “I think you need to recognize that motion.”
“In the interest of keeping some kind of civility here, go ahead and make your motion,” Fisher said.
“I make a motion that we amend the agenda and move the executive session before open forum,” Lautzenhiser said.
“I second that motion,” Spears said.
“How can you amend an agenda when we haven’t gotten to that point?” Fisher asked. “We haven’t approved the agenda yet.”
“Our policy BCBD says that we can amend the agenda my by (or [sic] as appropriate) consent of the members present,” Lautzenhiser said. “We can amend the agenda at any time.”
“That is correct,” Dunn said. “That policy says the board shall follow the agenda unless altered by consent of the board members present.”
Fisher called for a vote, and the motion passed 3-2, with Fisher and Angela Verdell voting no.
The board immediately went into executive session, where they discussed personnel, potential sale of property and pending litigation. The vast majority of the nearly five-hour-long executive session was taken up with Liddell. Liddell and her attorney, Austin Vollor of Starkville, shuttled back and forth between the boardroom and her office until, at 10:35 p.m., she exited the closed session for the final time. [Dr. Liddell apparently fled the building through a side door opening from her office directly into the staff parking lot. After what was her final interview with the board, she and her attorney entered her office together. A few minutes later Mr. Vollor emerged alone. He stayed for the remainder of the meeting, sitting with Pastor Jamison on the front row. – Brian Jones] The executive session lasted for another 25 minutes before, at exactly 11 p.m., the trustees finally reopened the meeting to the public.
“There were three matters we discussed,” Fisher said. Commercial Dispatch Luisa Porter walked to the front of the room to take a picture, and Fisher paused and then said, “You want to take your picture and have a seat?”
Fisher then continued.
“Those matters were potential litigation, possible sale or lease or real property and a personnel matter regarding Dr. Liddell,” Fisher said. “In regards to action taken, the board by a 3-2 vote voted to terminate Dr. Liddell’s services.”
Lautzenhiser, Spears and Aubra Turner voted in favor, and Fisher and Verdell voted against the measure.
The board then moved into the agenda, whizzing through it in around half an hour.
Several citizens asked to speak to the board, either signing up for open forum or by actually getting on the agenda. The first to speak was citizen Berry Hinds.
As Hinds approached the podium, Fisher – bizarrely – asked CMSD security personnel to lock the doors to the boardroom.
“Chief, could you please secure the doors so we don’t have an in-and-out disturbance?” Fisher asked. [Yes, that’s right, during an “open” meeting the president of a government board instructed law enforcement personnel to bar people from entering or leaving. Let’s all just think about that for a moment. – Brian Jones] Hinds was given the nod to continue and – hilariously, given what Fisher had just done – began to talk about the board’s violation of open meetings law.
“During the May 28 special meeting, when the board returned to open session after executive session, President Fisher announced that she would entertain a motion to amend the agenda to take up a personnel matter and a resolution to contract for transportation,” Hinds said. “The personnel item had been removed from the agenda previously in the meeting. Was there a discussion among board members about putting these items back on the agenda during that closed session?”
Hinds paused, clearly expecting an answer.
“In keeping with the protocol that we use we will document your question and the board will respond in a timely fashion,” Fisher said.
“In a special meeting on May 28 the board decided to discuss a student matter to allow the board to understand the complaint behind a federal decree,” Hinds said. “During the executive session the board voted to approve the resolution. This action was not reported to the public when the board returned to open session. The board obviously had a discussion in executive session at the May 28 meeting on the need for a resolution for transportation. This became apparent when the question came up again in the open session. Which portion of the open meetings law applied to this discussion? My last question is during the same meeting the board rejected the bids for food service and maintenance. Did the board have an analysis they used to compare startup costs that was not included in the public’s package?
“I’m not trying to attack this board,” Hinds said. “Anybody who knows me knows that I’m looking for transparency. I think you have some very strong violations of the open meetings laws at your May 28 meeting. I’m just trying to understand the dynamics of the board’s decision-making process. I appreciate you putting yourself out here to be our board members, I’d just like to make sure you’re following the law in the closed sessions.”
Next was Lavonne Harris, president of the local NAACP.
“We applaud Ms. Fisher and Ms. Verdell for their attempt to try to allow the community to come before this board,” she said. “We are appalled at the flagrant and belabored disregard that other members of this board have shown to others in the community. It appears that the board is deliberately ignoring part of the community that you have been appointed to serve. As a matter of recourse, we intend to take this matter up with your respectable city council.”
Parent Yolandra Beck complained that her daughter was denied her place as salutatorian because she was graduating a year early.
“My daughter was informed that she was entitled to be class salutatorian,” she said. “She was denied that right later on the basis that she was graduating a year early. I asked for documentation (of that policy), and the district did not provide any. Not to take anything from anyone else, but I have asked that she be allowed to be co-salutatorian but it was not entertained any further. I was told that the district would go with the other two candidates for valedictorian and salutatorian and that my daughter would be number three. I realize graduation is over but she has not entered college yet, and for the sake of loans and scholarships I ask that she gets at least co-salutatorian.”
Alfred Walker, who owns a food service company, addressed the board about providing food services if the district sticks with its decision to take food service back in house.
After Walker spoke, Fisher again attempted to bar people from entering or leaving the room.
“Would anyone else please refrain from moving while we are trying to conduct business?” Fisher said. “Chief, if you would please keep the door closed. Nor in or out.”
Chief Bonner locked the door, but then Dunn intervened and told Fisher she couldn’t do that.
“After instructions from our attorney, please unlock the door,” Fisher said.
[Ms. Fisher’s actions were made even more bizarre by the fact that the audience really was not acting out. I was sitting on the front row, mere feet away from the bulk of the audience, and hardly noticed anything going on at all until Ms. Fisher began trying to lock doors and forbid people from moving. – Brian Jones] The board then sprinted through the agenda, covering the remaining routine business in about 12 minutes.
Most of it was routine, but Spears asked that a $160 charge to MJ’s Publishing and Design be pulled until it could be investigated further. His request was approved 3-2, with Fisher and Verdell voting no. It was not clear whether or not the charge was related to Liddell’s termination. [But it certainly seems a good bet. – Brian Jones] 0