BY BRIAN JONES
With the election out of the way the crazy is coming back again, and there was a whole lot of it to go around in the last couple of weeks. The big news, however, is the continuing disintegration of the city school district, so that’s what I’m going to look at this week. Superintendent Martha Liddell is out, Ken Hughes is still on the payroll and the board’s president still doesn’t understand how to conduct an open meeting.
Let’s get started.
The Decline and Fall of Martha Liddell
After weeks of grueling special meetings and executive sessions, the Columbus Municipal School Board fired Superintendent Martha Liddell Monday night on a 3-2 vote. She had held the post for about a year, and had served as interim superintendent for about a year before that.
Allegations surfaced about Dr. Liddell’s alleged misappropriation of funds and violations of her contract in late May. By my count, the board spent nearly 13 hours behind closed doors before making a decision. I’m not sure whether I should be pleased by the board’s due diligence or exasperated by their inability to act. Either way, I am glad that it is over.
I knew Dr. Liddell for many years in her various capacities throughout the district. I always liked her personally, but was uneasy with the idea of her being superintendent. Dr. Liddell had been in the central office for years. She had been Dr. Del Phillips’s chief lieutenant, and so had been at or near the top while test scores declined, spending grew and the fund balance plummeted. She did nothing that I could see to speak out about any of it until the encroaching rot was impossible to hide. Why should the City of Columbus reward failure with promotion?
I became even more uneasy when she breezily ignored the limits placed upon her during her interview, speaking for four times more than her allotted time. If she declines to follow even modest constraints, what will happen when she holds high public office?
As she took the helm, my misgivings became justified. Despite loud, frequent self praise about transparency, the district seemed to be entering a new age of opacity. For every beneficial step – putting agendas and information packets on-line, creating a web portal – the district took two back. Decisions were made in open session and then remade after executive session, when there were no disapproving parental eyes. Executive sessions were obviously used to revisit decisions made in open session, in violation of the Open Meetings Law. Special meetings were held without adequate notice to the public, a violation of the spirit if not the letter of the law. In recent days, special meetings called for one purpose, only see a host of unrelated issues shoehorned in at the last minute, a clear violation of state statute. By the time the Board of Trustees began questioning her spending and her obvious violation of her contract, I was no longer surprised, just tired.
Last week this paper afforded Dr. Liddell a chance to clear the air. Managing Editor Jeff Clark sat down with her and let her respond at length to the issues surrounding her stewardship. Rather than be forthright, Dr. Liddell merely talked around issues and gave vague non-answers to direct questions. While hardly surprising, it was greatly disappointing.
Equally disappointing are the efforts of some within our community to paint this whole ugly affair as racially motivated. Part of being equal is being equally open to scrutiny, to criticism and to attack. I don’t see how anyone who looks at the facts surrounding Dr. Liddell’s administration can cry prejudice and still remain honest. Part of a public official’s charge is to avoid not just impropriety, but the appearance of impropriety. Dr. Liddell, from her initial interview until her last board meeting, was surrounded by deception, obfuscation and dishonesty. She needed to go.
Now the city schools are without leadership at a critical juncture, and there is no clear heir apparent. The trustees are charging forward, seeking to get an interim superintendent in place by next month. I’m not sure haste will serve us well with so important a decision, but going through the budget process with nobody at the helm is hardly an attractive alternative, either. As we spin the wheel, I wonder what we’ll end up with: Another tired bureaucrat looking for a few more years before hanging up his spurs, or another young turk who’s just looking to pad his résumé? After Owen Bush, Therrell Myers, Lester Beason, Del Phillips and now Martha Liddell, I don’t really expect anything better.
During the superintendent interviews last summer, one candidate repeated his mantra “we do not accept mediocrity” in response to several questions. Me, I’d be delighted with mediocrity. It’d be a pleasant change.
Business manager and putting the “open” in “open meetings”
Aside from the drama surrounding Dr. Liddell’s crash and burn, the district still faces several other serious issues. One of them is what to do about the termination of longtime Business Manager Ken Hughes.
Dr. Liddell summarily fired Mr. Hughes last month, with no explanation and, apparently, little input from the board. Since that time the waters have gotten progressively murkier. Under state law superintendents may fire certified personnel – ie teachers and building-level administrators – at will. They may not, however, fire district-level personnel. Only the school board has that authority. The school board did not, as far as I can tell, fire Mr. Hughes. In fact, he remains on the district payroll.
That being said, at their special meeting Tuesday afternoon the board voted to begin searching for an interim business manager. So what’s going on?
I also have to wonder what the board is thinking when it comes to open meetings. At Monday’s board meeting, President Currie Fisher seemed not to fully grasp what the “public” in “public meeting” means. First she called out a Dispatch photographer for taking pictures. The photographer was standing in the open area in front of the trustees, and was trying to get a picture of Ms. Fisher, who basically told her to take her picture and then sit down. Members of the news media and of the public – myself included – routinely get up and walk around to take photographs. I don’t ever remember any of us getting called out for it, and I’ve been going to these meetings for over 10 years. It’s not disruptive, and it’s not threatening. Federal courts have ruled over and over that the public and the media have every right to photograph and record whatever they like at public meetings, making Ms. Fisher’s actions even more inexplicable.
But it gets worse. A few minutes later Ms. Fisher told CMSD security personnel to prevent people from entering or leaving the boardroom. When this didn’t have the desired response, she doubled down and explicitly ordered the door locked. Luckily, Board Attorney David Dunn told her she couldn’t do that. Let’s think about this for a moment: The chair of a public board, a servant of the taxpayers of the City of Columbus, attempted to prevent those same taxpayers from entering or leaving a public meeting. How much longer are we as citizens going to accept this kind of obvious contempt from our purported representatives? Somebody needs to remind Ms. Fisher who she works for.
I’m not sure how they’d do it, though. After the meeting was over, the trustees scattered like cockroaches. They couldn’t get out of there fast enough. Granted, it was nearly midnight, and granted, they had just made an obviously difficult decision. But you know what? This is exactly what you were appointed to do, guys. Fleeing from the news media and the public is not acceptable behavior. You keep saying you’re public servants, you love the children, you just can’t wait to spring out of bed and serve, serve, serve. Your actions say otherwise. If you can’t make hard decisions and then explain yourself to your constituents afterwards, resign and let us find somebody who can.
There was a lot more I wanted to talk about, but I am out of time. Next week I’ll turn my attention to Caledonia and the CVB, among other things. The way things look now, I’ll likely have more grist for the CMSD mill, as well.
The views and opinions expressed in Brian Jones’ columns are the author’s and are not necessarily those of The Packet or Packet Media, LLC.
Brian Jones can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org/packet