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Rants, Raves and Circumstance

Column

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

In which I ruminate about the Columbus Municipal School District’s FY14 budget, and also question some personnel decisions and the board’s officers.

No school millage hike this year
I rarely get the chance to say good things about the CMSD – and I’m going to say plenty of bad things shortly – so I wanted to start off this time with some praise.  For the last several months I’ve heard lots of speculation that the CMSD was going to ask for more money this year.  The mills have held steady for the past several years, but everyone knows that the district has been grappling with crippling financial issues and it seemed only a matter of time until they dug a little deeper into everyone’s pocket.
At a sparsely attended hearing Saturday morning, financial consultant Frances Goldmon announced that the mills would be unchanged again for the upcoming FY.  This is very good news, and I want to commend the trustees for holding the line on the levy.  I was also delighted to hear Ms. Goldmon say that, as debt service rolls off, the millage may actually go down.  I hope everyone in Columbus will help me remind the board of that next year, and the next.
I also want to praise Currie Fisher for her suggestion that Ms. Goldmon’s PowerPoint presentation be put on line.  Ms. Fisher also asked why citizens were only allowed to ask questions via writing.  I think this is a good point.  In the past citizens have been free to verbally ask questions, and I hate to see that right taken away.  As I have said before, I am very suspicious of any attempt by a government body to put an insulating layer between itself and the people it purports to serve, and I applaud Ms. Fisher for trying to tear that wall down.  I often criticize her and the CMSD board in general for talking about transparency while not actually doing very much to promote it, and it was inspiring to see deeds, not just words.
However, I also have to chastise the public for once again staying away from an important event in droves.  While I agree that Saturday morning is not the most intuitive time in the world to have a public hearing, the fact remains that this is the one time the public can directly hold the trustees accountable for their spending and almost nobody chose to do so.  There weren’t even 10 members of the public present.  It was disheartening.  You want to know why the school board doesn’t listen, doesn’t watch its dollars, doesn’t care what you think?  That empty room is why.

The Curious Case of Michael Jackson
And now on to the bad, or at least the questionable.  The board met Tuesday for well over five hours.  The primary sticking point seemed to be personnel, and five positions were specifically discussed.  Four of them I describe in some detail in my story in this week’s Packet, but one of them I think bears more scrutiny.
Temporary Interim Superintendent Edna McGill recommended that Michael Jackson, currently the special assistant for public affairs and parental involvement – and also choir teacher at Columbus High School – be promoted to director of public affairs and parent involvement.  The promotion comes with a hefty $12,000 raise.  At first glance this seems like just more bureaucratic dreck at the central office, but there’s more going on here than is readily apparent.  (Whether or not the district needs a public information officer is a discussion for another day.)
After retiring from her post at the Lowndes County School District, Ms. McGill was hired by the CMSD as the public information and professional development coordinator.  According to the job description, the position’s “other functions” include “parental involvement coordinator and district webmaster.”  The description states that the employee will, among other things, “serve as a liaison between the district and the community, supervise the preparation of all district publications including brochures for recruitment and orientation…and information brochures for parents, develop and direct the marketing program of the school district, and coordinate parent involvement and volunteer efforts between schools and the community.”
For the past year, Mr. Jackson has been handling most, if not all, of these public information and parent involvement duties.  He has been the one to respond to my information requests, and he is the one who I see representing the district at public functions.  Mr. Jackson’s own job description lists many of the same duties as Ms. McGill’s, as well as “serves as the district’s webmaster designer and serves as organizational contact for adding events to the district’s web page…assists with production, delivery and distribution of district publications such as class schedules, college catalogs, printed programs and brochures…assists with writing and distributing press releases announcing important district events…”
Mr. Jackson was elevated to his current position soon after Ms. McGill was hired.  Simply from reading the job descriptions and from my own observations, Mr. Jackson seems to be pulling the majority of the load when it comes to public information and parental involvement duties.
The district paid Ms. McGill about $35,000 a year.  This represents half of the actual salary for this position; Ms. McGill is retired, and drawing more of a salary than that would jeopardize her retirement benefits.  The actual salary, therefore, would be in the neighborhood of $70,000.  For doing a similar job –  less the professional development duties, of course – Mr. Jackson was paid $44,335 plus a $5,000 supplement for teaching a couple of choir classes.
Ms. McGill recommended paying him $54,250 with a $7,000 supplement (he would also be taking on an additional choir class.)  I don’t think this is unreasonable.  Mr. Jackson is essentially taking on a fair number of Ms. McGill’s former duties.  Under federal law, doing a similar job means receiving similar pay.
Why, then, did the district vote this down?
Ms. Fisher, after one of that day’s executive sessions, accused the other trustees of applying a double standard.  I think she’s right.  When asked why they oppose the promotion, neither Jason Spears nor Glenn Lautzenhiser were able to convincingly answer.  Mr. Spears seemed to say that he didn’t think the position was advancing academic achievement, and Mr. Lautzenhiser said he had said everything he had to say during the executive session.  Aubra Turner made no statement at all.
By refusing Mr. Jackson’s promotion – a promotion endorsed by Ms. McGill – the trustees are opening a very dangerous door.  It seems to me that Mr. Jackson has the makings of a convincing EEOC complaint.  Does the district really need yet another lawsuit by yet another disgruntled employee?
I’ll be real curious to see if this comes up again at the board’s regular meeting on August 19.  I hope the trustees will reconsider.  After all the finger-pointing and infighting following Dr. Liddell’s termination, the last thing this board needs is another crisis.

President?
At the end of Tuesday’s meeting Ms. Fisher and Board Attorney David Dunn exchanged volleys for a while about the board presidency.  Ms. Fisher was removed from that position on a 3-1 vote earlier this summer during the fallout from Dr. Liddell’s firing.  Mr. Spears, who was vice president, took the gavel.
This seems entirely correct to me.  What else is a vice president for, if not to take over if the president is removed or otherwise rendered incapable of holding the post?  Ms. Fisher feels otherwise.  She argues that the president must be elected, and simply rising to the post is insufficient.  It is obvious that she is going to beat that dead horse until nothing but jelly is left.
In the past I have explained why I think Ms. Fisher is being more than a little ridiculous.  I am not going to do so again.  Instead I am going to say this: For the love of God, just vote for new officers already.  Mr. Spears said he is more than willing to have a fresh election.  Do it and move on.

Brian Jones is a staff writer for The Packet. He can be contacted at brian.jones@test.columbuspacket.com/packet

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