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Rants, Raves and Circumstance

Column

BY BRIAN JONES
Staff Writer
brian.jones@test.columbuspacket.com/packet

I had intended this week to focus on non-school-board-related issues.  Instead, I’m right back where I started as I look back on the Columbus City Council’s schools-related political theater and the CMSD board’s leadership shakeup.  Really, you just can’t make this stuff up.

City council is shocked – shocked! – by executive sessions
As I was attending the June 18 special meeting of the Columbus Municipal School District, supporters of Dr. Martha Liddell addressed the city council across town.  The school board meeting was mercifully and uncharacteristically brief, and I considered popping by the council meeting to see what our city fathers had to say.  Instead I opted to go home and go to sleep and so missed what, by all accounts, was a mesmerizing display of hypocrisy.
A coterie of Dr. Liddell’s partisans appeared before the council and asked that august body to stop the school board from running amok.  One of their chief complaints was that – gasp! – the school board goes into executive sessions!  Mayor Robert Smith and Ward 5 Councilman Kabir Karriem apparently engaged in a good deal of public pearl-clutching about the very idea that a government body would have the audacity, the discourtesy, the base uncouthness to take action out of the public view.  I also understand that the mayor – presumably after retrieving his monocle from his champagne glass – clucked that he had no idea why Dr. Liddell had been terminated.  I suppose Mr. Smith hasn’t seen a newspaper, watched television, been on the internet or had a conversation with anyone in Columbus for most of the past month.  Curious.
Ron Williams covered this already in his column last week, and I don’t want to spend much time recapitulating what he said, but this was side-splitting on many levels, not the least of which is the council’s own love of hiding behind closed doors.  I hope someone reminds Messrs. Karriem and Smith of their anti-executive-session remarks when next they attempt to scurry away from public view.
I also found NAACP head Lavonne Harris, Pastor Darren Leach and Kamal Karriem’s request that the council inject itself into school board affairs a bit baffling.  You’re upset.  You think the school district is behaving illegally.  And so your response is…to ask the city council to illegally intervene?  Puzzling.
I’m not sure which is the more unintentionally hilarious: the council’s outrage at the school board stealing a page from their playbook or the outraged citizens demanding the council DO SOMETHING, even if that something is itself illegal.  I am, however, sure that behavior like this is why I drink.

CMSD trustees oust Fisher
Last week the CMSD, fresh from firing Dr. Liddell, continued cleaning house by stripping Currie Fisher of her presidency.  While I think removing Ms. Fisher as chairperson was an excellent idea, I am very troubled by the way it was accomplished.
My initial impressions of Ms. Fisher as a trustee were very favorable.  She was obviously intelligent, she asked pointed questions and she seemed like an excellent candidate to help change the board from a mere rubber stamp into an actual deliberative body.  However, a funny thing happened over the past year or so, and accelerated once she became president: She started turning into Tommy Prude.
Mr. Prude was well known for his dictatorial manner, his obvious contempt for the law, especially where open meetings were concerned, and his rudeness to anyone who attempted to question him.  I breathed an immense sigh of relief when the city council appointed Angela Verdell instead of reappointing him.
Now, however, it seems the bad old days are back.  Ms. Fisher has done her utmost since taking the gavel to hide, to dodge questions, to insulate the board – and the superintendent – from scrutiny.  Last week several trustees charged that Ms. Fisher flatly refused to add items regarding disciplining Dr. Liddell to the agenda, in spite of the fact that the majority of the board asked her to do so.  If Ms. Fisher was obstructing the other trustees, she needs to go.  A board chairperson must give all requests equal weight and cannot shirk her duties just because the target is someone she herself supports.
All that being said, I must take exception to the way Ms. Fisher was removed.  Following the stormy June 20 call meeting – during which Ms. Fisher indulged in some pearl-clutching of her own, charging the other trustees with violating open meetings laws she herself routinely ignored – Vice-President Jason Spears rose and announced that a second meeting would be called immediately, to begin in 15 minutes.  The sole item of business was the removal of Ms. Fisher.
I have to question the legality – or, barring that, the ethics – of this meeting.  Fifteen minutes of notice?  Are you kidding?  It is bad enough that lately the trustees can’t make it through the day without a special meeting.  The CMSD board has held six regular meetings and, by my count, 14 special meetings so far this year: Jan. 18, a Jan. 19 board retreat, Jan. 26 for the superintendent’s regular performance review, Feb. 23 for a budget workshop, April 17, May 1, May 28, June 5, June 11, June 18, twice on June 20, June 25 and June 26.  Nearly half of the total number of special meetings this year have been called in June.  Now we’re calling meetings with fifteen (15) minutes of notice?
Even more disturbingly Ms. Verdell claimed that she had not been informed of the second special meeting.  Forgive me if I sound like I’m talking down to the trustees here, but the way to become transparent is not by hiding stuff.  This action is especially odious considering the number of times Mr. Spears and Ms. Turner alleged that they were the ones being cut out.
As Ms. Verdell herself said, she needs to be included no matter how she chooses to vote.  I disagree with Ms. Verdell’s support of Dr. Liddell, and I do not agree with some of her votes in other matters, but she is a member of that board and needs to be informed of everything.  To do anything less is to make a mockery of the democratic process itself.

Administrator salaries
After several years of reductions, the CMSD voted this week to restore cuts to administrator salaries.  [For a list of the salaries and specific numbers, see my related story in this week’s Packet. – Brian Jones]  Principals and some central office administrators had their contract term reduced by 10 days back in the 2010-11 school year in an attempt to reduce costs.  At her first meeting, newly minted Temporary Interim Superintendent Edna McGill recommended that the cuts be restored, an added total cost of about $36,000.
I’m a little surprised by this.  The district is quick to remind everyone how cash-strapped it is, and the watchword for the past several years has been “cuts.”  The knife was out a few weeks ago when, at a May 28 special meeting, the board awarded the transportation contract to Ecco Ride.  The major motivation was, according to Deputy Superintendent Craig Shannon (whose salary is one of those affected), that Ecco Ride was substantially cheaper and the district would save money.  And saving money is the name of the game, right?
Of course Ecco Ride was cheaper mostly because they reduced bus driver wages and benefits, but asking the employees to tighten their belts is just part of the price we have to pay to make the district financially secure.  It’s best for everyone.  Yep, everybody’s going to have to make some sacrifices.
Just not the administrators.

Next time I will, once again, attempt to turn my attention to other things.  Let’s all wait and see how well that works out for me.

The views and opinions expressed in Brian Jones’ columns are the author’s and are not necessarily those of The Columbus Packet or Packet Media, LLC.
Brian Jones can be reached at brian.jones@test.columbuspacket.com/packet

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