BY JEFF CLARK
Columbus Municipal School District Superintendent Dr. Martha Liddell is quick to point out that she is not an embattled superintendent.
“I’m not embattled,” Liddell on Wednesday said, “I’m a working superintendent.”
In an exclusive one-on-one interview, Liddell tells her side of the numerous stories that have been making headlines for several months. From allegations of misappropriating public funds to her opinion on the performance of former CMSD Superintendent Del Phillips, Liddell gave a candid interview from her office at the former Brandon Elementary school.
Why did you feel that you needed to have your attorney with you at the specially called board meeting last night?
Well, I think it’s always important when you’re in a leadership position, to have, first of all, good people around you, and also people who are looking out for your best interests as I look out for the best interests of our students. So, he was simply there to look out for my best interests.
I received an email yesterday afternoon, saying that this was gonna be a personnel issue and not based on, about job performance. Do you feel that that was accurate or do you feel that your job performance was at question?
Actually, I feel like it was accurate, what was printed, that it was a personnel issue, of course, I was actually on vacation yesterday, doing some things with my family, but certainly, came back into town, looking at the agenda, I did not have a difference of opinion with anything that was printed at all.
Can you tell me, or account for, the district money and the alleged Christmas party?
I can. We actually, and to be honest with you, at the time the Aramark contract was negotiated with the school district, I was actually serving as the assistant superintendent, on the other end of the building, so I wasn’t involved with any of the negotiations, that was our former superintendent. And our standard operating practice, to my understanding, was that they were a private, and are, a private catering company. They could be used by anybody, and are used extensively by school districts and also the City of Columbus and Lowndes County, because they are a company that do those kinds of things. So I didn’t have any issues at all as far as hiring a private company to do private catering. Certainly, I do believe it was blown out of proportion, it was standard operating procedure, to my understanding; previous superintendents, to my understanding, used it as well. So, I wasn’t doing anything out of the ordinary, from the way that it was perceived, I do believe it would have been very important, and I would have liked to have a little more opportunity to talk to the reporter more, we could have had a little more fact finding. In that sense, because I just think it’s important to be fair in reporting, regardless of what you’re doing. And again I say, to my understanding, I wasn’t doing anything out of the ordinary, that wasn’t standard operating procedure for this district.
Do you intend to pay this money back?
Oh, I already have.
I intended to pay at the very beginning. It wasn’t paying the money back, what happened was, I asked a private company, would they do a catering event for a private party, of course, they are a private company, they have no problems with that. [He] said, ‘What would you like for the event?’, and I listed things like, you know, typical party food, hot wings, meatballs, what would be the price, they went down, their company official, Thomas Collins, works for Aramark, he gave me a quote through his department, and the quote was paid as soon as we got back to the school district that first, you know, that first payroll period, it wasn’t any issues to it at all, and to be very honest, as well, as far as employees being used, that goes back to that original negotiation. I didn’t request that any employees be used, never requested that employees be used, I hired a private company to do so, that was the decision that that private company made. And all those completely slandered over on me, that wasn’t the case at all. Every dime that was associated with it, although I didn’t ask for any employees to be used, I said of course, invoice. We were doing a private event, so every invoice that they gave was paid as if it had been day one, it wasn’t a big issue, it was standard operating procedure.
It’s been alleged that Mayor Robert Smith rented the Trotter that night, could you tell me his involvement with that party?
I cannot. I am not aware of any involvement that he had.
Another thing you’ve been getting some criticism for is for your personal business, “Success Makers.” Did you have a discussion with the Board of Trustees on the front end, that you had this business?
I can tell you this, and that’s a very good question, Jeff, I’m really glad you asked that question. Success Makers was incorporated back in 2010. So, it was an existing business prior to my being named as interim superintendent, the business was already established prior to my being named a superintendent. As I said, it was established back in 2010, the Board of Trustees was fully aware, certainly had that discussion with them, I would never try not to disclose anything like that — I am proud of business owners, I am proud of entrepreneurs, I think we need more in our country, I believe in capitalism, I believe that you should be doing what you can to raise the standard of living for yourself, your family, and for the people around you. So, I’m not gonna criticize anyone that owns a business, and I don’t think the board meant to criticize me for being a business owner, and to my understanding, certainly there was no penalty for being a business owner, we had the discussion, and as a matter of fact, even, I talked about it during my interview, the public interview was televised, right down there when I was interviewing, that I’m a business owner, and certainly, nothing I do with my business interferes with my job – I am 150% dedicated to Columbus schools, and continue to be. So, it wasn’t an issue.
Are you writing grants for the school through your company, and getting money for doing so?
Absolutely not, absolutely not. I’m not doing any business with the school district — that’s against state statutes.
Do you feel that some of this press coverage you’ve received has been racially motivated?
I’ll just say it’s been a lot of it and leave it at that.
Do you regret writing an email calling Commercial Dispatch Publisher Biney Imes a ‘racist’, or do you regret that it was made public?
Now let’s talk about the Project 20/20. You’re allegedly getting a little heat because it hadn’t gotten off the mark as you’d planned…
But it is wonderful that I thought about doing something like that for dropout prevention. Instead of heat, I really think it should have been someone saying, ‘Gosh, somebody in this state, in Mississippi, in Columbus, Mississippi, is really doing something about the problem of dropout prevention.’ Let me tell you what I read into that article, to be very honest with you. I read the article, I read it twice, and I then I said, ‘Well, apparently I haven’t communicated as well as I need to on this particular issue.’ Whenever you’re putting together a project or design, the first thing you want to do is ensure that you’ve done due diligence. You want to make sure that you’ve talked to the State Department, or if you’re running a business, you wanna make sure that you’re talking to the appropriate entities, and what we’re doing is making sure that we when we open those centers, that we don’t disappoint kids.
If we say to you, if you go into a Project 20/20 center, it’s a Columbus High School class. Even if it’s at The Point church, it’s still a Columbus High School class. You can complete your credits there, using technology, online teachers that are Skyped, physical teachers, from the high school, and a life coach, who’s just there to make sure you are all right. If you start having problems, they call the parents, they do whatever’s necessary, to enable you to be able to come to that school every day at that center and finish your degree, or your diploma. But, by the same token, if you decide you want to go back to Columbus High School, bravo to that, as well. But, the State Department, the State of Mississippi, all over this country, even, they’ve been so attracted to the model because of this: It shows courage, it shows options, it shows that we understand in Columbus that one size does not fit all, and one size has never fit all. But we are willing to try some different options to get kids to graduate high school.
The Mississippi Department of Education loves it, they are in the process of doing due diligence on their end for it to become a state model. There will be people in Tupelo, and Hattiesburg, and all over this state doing dropout prevention a very different way. We are saying, if they dropped out, guess what — go get ’em, put ’em back in school, help ’em get a job, help ’em go to college, because the bottom line is, if we just invest a little more time, then we have a child who can work, rather than being a welfare child. And to me, that’s important. So, when I read that in the (Dispatch) I said, ‘A phone call would have been great, I could have told them exactly where we were in the process, and that we’re careful, that we’re gonna make sure it’s right, we’re not gonna disappoint kids, they have been disappointed enough.’
Are you disappointed that you weren’t able to get (Project 20/20) launched?
Absolutely not, we’re in the process of launching it. I would be disappointed if we launched it and then it wasn’t ready.
You’ve been criticized for the amount of time you’ve spent traveling, promoting the project. Do you want to address that?
I haven’t been traveling promoting the project, what I have been doing is attending professional development, as any superintendent would do, and let me say this, I wanna be very positive about this, because I really think this is something, it’s an opportunity to one, move forward, and to be positive, when I look at what I inherited when I came into the job of superintendent, I could have sneezed and this district would have been bankrupt. We had just lost, we had just bled out that much funds. [I] was not just gonna sit around complaining about that, worked day and night, [a] whole year, did not take a day of vacation, didn’t get to meet my professional development plan, you realize that by law, as a certified administrator, if I don’t get so many hours of professional development, my license won’t be renewed. So I was able to say, ‘Look, these finances come first, you guys are gonna have to work with us. I not gonna allow this district to go under.’ So I spent a year doing nothing but budgets.
But in addition to going into this year, I had two things I had to do: Number one, catch up on my licensing requirements, that’s required by the State of Mississippi. And number two, which is much more important than number one, learn about new ways to educate these kids. Jeff, we are a ‘D’. If we knew everything that we needed to know in Columbus, Mississippi, we’d be an ‘A’. But because we’ve gotta figure out, what’s working for these other school districts? What does Pearl have, and Bay Christian – Pass Christian on the coast, what are some of the things that they’re doing? And a lot of that, thankfully for us, is pooled, either in the Mississippi Department of Education training, we have very specific training that superintendents have to go to across the state – I can’t apologize for doing my job; I shouldn’t have to. Superintendents who have school districts that are a ‘C’, I’ll just say a ‘C’ and below – a ‘C’, ‘D’, and ‘F’ – how could you sit every day, and not — you’re the head instructional leader, and send you, you, you, and you to learn something this important, and when you get back, tell me your interpretation of it? It gets lost in translation. Our district is a ‘D’. I’m committed to learning what I need to learn.
Now, I was disappointed, that one of the leave forms, by the time it probably arrived at the newspaper or at that point, there was a training I attended, I believe, in Jackson, a lot of these trainings are required, Jeff, let me say that as well, they are required trainings. But, it was a one-day training, I drove down to it that morning and drove back … that afternoon, but, lo and behold, when I looked at their version of the leave form — and maybe it happened when it came out of this office, I can’t be paranoid and realize that — the one day had been changed to eleven days, someone had took a pencil and wrote – I don’t know if they [had the] math work out, or had the headline get bigger, or what, but one day was changed to eleven days, so someone just added ten more days on there for me, make it look good – now that’s disappointing, because that’s corruption.
But other than that, I am completely committed to learning what I need to learn as the chief academic officer – not just the executive officer – but as chief academic officer for this district. And then, I push that down to my troops, and also require them to be trained at various things that affect their job responsibility. This is routine in school districts as far as us learning. Did it build up a little bit this year? Yes, and I explained why – because I couldn’t meet my requirements the year before because we were nearly bankrupt. …They let me have a pass. You know, ‘This is required, Martha, but you’re just about to drop below seven percent, and we’ll have to take your school district over.’ Now do you think that if someone had taken the time to ask me that, I would have been happy to share?
Let me clarify: you’re saying there’s a sheet showing your Leave of Absence that was changed from a one to eleven?
It was changed from one to eleven.
Was that one of the things that was a Public Record Request or a leak?
It was a Public Records Request. But by the time it got to, on the form, gentlemen, there was, it was one day, clearly one day, the date said, one day, and then this happened, beside it. So now we have eleven days, on a trip, and that was disappointing, because I’m an educator.
How do you feel, knowing that one or more of your board members are leaking information?
I don’t know that, sir. I mean, I’ve seen the quotes in the article, but I refuse to believe that board members… that their primary responsibility is to make sure our kids are educated – I choose to believe that’s what they’re doing.
What’s your relationship with the trustees right now?
I don’t have a problem with the trustees at all. The trustees ask a question, they need [to do] some fact finding on particular issues, such as the private catering event, [and] was standard operating procedures to use a private catering company. I think accountability, when you are a leader, you should be held accountable, but you also should make sure that all leaders are held to the same standard because, when you start holding people to different standards, that’s where the problems come in at. So, what I feel is, that our school board has every right – and the community, they’re taxpayers, we are spending taxpayers’ dollars to educate kids – if you have a question, ask it. If you need some fact finding done, due diligence, absolutely. The board has a role and a responsibility to do that. I don’t feel any particular way at all; they’re doing their job, as I work to do mine.
What about the members of the media who will say that they’ve tried to contact you, that claim (CMSD spokesperson) Michael Jackson acts as an intermediary?
They all have my cell phone number, my personal cell. And they call me on it and text me on it, so that just wouldn’t be true in 99% of the cases. One time I was trying to be contacted, I believe on a Saturday, I had my swimsuit on, I was having a great time. I didn’t know I was trying to be contacted. I have a life; every now and then, I have to — my husband just says, ‘Look, I know you do this 100% of your time, but we need a little time, as well,’ and they’re right – two boys, my youngest son is seven, he’s going into the second grade; and my oldest is a music educator, and he is getting ready to get his Music Production degree in Florida – So, I’m a parent, too, and I think that is what is so important about the work that I do.
I see it from so many different lenses, I’m just not that figurehead leading from some throne. I’m willing to get in the trenches, because that’s where change happens. We are a ‘D’ because we haven’t got in the game. I get in the game, and part of getting in that game is learning how to make better plays. And when you’re making better plays, you need to get that information that you need to make a better play. We’re a ‘D’, and I’m not satisfied with that. And we won’t be an ‘A’ overnight, but I wanna be working toward that process every single day, including the weekends, for me.
One thing I haven’t asked you about is the Wal-Mart grant for $75,000 and Geonosis. Can you tell your side of that?
Absolutely. My side is simple. Wal-Mart awarded us $75,000 for Project 20/20. The $75,000 is in this school district for that process. Wal-Mart was happy to give it to us, wanting to give us some more. We are gonna use…and our foundations have been so wonderful – Omnova, on their way out, gave us some money for dropout prevention. When I tell you, people know that this is a problem, 75% of kids sitting in a prison cell today are high school dropouts. So, how do we sit on our behinds and act like it’s not a problem. It’s a problem, and the problem is so important in Columbus, 30% of our kids are dropping out of school. Do you know what that costs? – Billions! Because that cycle of generational poverty just continues. Well, someone asked me once, ‘Well, what if it doesn’t work?’
What if we don’t try? Get off your lazy behinds and try. We are trying in this school district. And like I said, well, sometimes, until you get a win, people are gonna complain. And I accept that as a leader. But that’s not gonna keep me from getting a win.
Have you, at any time, knowingly misappropriated CMSD money, or used your position as Superintendent for personal financial gain?
Absolutely not. Never done that.
Do you have any plans to resign from your position?
Absolutely not. I was given this position to, I said in my interview, time and time again, and I finally said toward the end of the interview, I only have one thing that I wanna do, the next three years, and that’s make a difference for Columbus. When I finish doing that, I’m highly trained, I can do anything else in the world that I wanna do. But what I wanna do this three years is the same thing that I wanted to do thirteen years ago, when I came from different positions – I was a principal when I first came here in 2000, I was principal of Sale Elementary School, and my mission has been the same every day, to make a difference. So, I plan to do that the three years of this contract, and then I plan to be able to walk away, sleep at night, and know I did my part.