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Rants, Raves and Circumstance – All schools, all the time.

OPINION
Rants, Raves and Circumstance
BY BRIAN JONES
brian.jones@packet-media.com

All schools, all the time.

CMSD Meets Three Times in One Week
Over the past year, the Columbus Municipal School District Board of Trustees has sunk to lows that, frankly, have to be seen to be believed.  I have written about their meetings at a level of detail that I am the first to admit is tedious.  This is because I cannot think of any other way to communicate the magnitude of the disaster.  I know people still don’t get it.  Every day people talk to me about it, and they laugh and play the whole thing off like it’s a joke or some kind of humorous exaggeration on my part.  The few stakeholders who bother to show up roll in at 6 p.m. to see the show, thinking they know what they’re in for, and then shamble out hours later, visibly shocked.
After the staggering six-hour-and-thirty-seven-minute calamity in April, I thought there was nowhere left to go.  As usual, the trustees found new ways to scrape the bottom of the barrel.  I thought the distance afforded by waiting a week to write about this month’s regular meeting would give me perspective.  I was wrong.  I still don’t even know where to start.
This month a group of concerned parents asked the board to support an indoor hitting facility for the baseball and softball teams at Columbus High School.  The request for a new building was part of Interim Superintendent Edna McGill’s grab bag of projects to be funded out of the cash reserves.  It was voted down in March, and again in April.  I guess the parents decided the third time would be the charm.  The board heard them out and then, after the executive session, voted the request down.
So here we’ve got a group of passionate, involved parents who have spent the last six years trying to get this thing off the ground.  How does the board pay them back?  By putting the decision off until after the closed session – when they could be sure they would have a minimal audience, in other words – and then voting no.
In a district already crippled by apathy, what kind of message does that send?  After that slap in the face, how many parents do you think are going to be willing to participate in much of anything?
The board then attempted to approve the minutes of the previous month’s meetings.  Secretary Currie Fisher wanted them to state that Trustee Jason Spears left the April regular meeting “abruptly.”  Board Attorney David Dunn said he thought that was “color commentary” and didn’t belong, triggering a jaw-dropping 10-minute argument over an adverb.  While I agree Mr. Spears’ exit should have been noted in the minutes, this is absurd.
Then there were the time limits.  Last month the board established time limits for each section of the agenda in hopes of bringing the meeting times under control.  I said at the time I thought it was a bad idea.  A friend told me he expected they would end up being used to quash debate, and that’s exactly what happened.  On several occasions President Angela Verdell used time limits to cut off valid questions.  (One wonders where these time limits were during the 10 minutes spent on adverbs.)  At one point Ms. Verdell, showing all the leadership skills of the average 10-year-old, spoke over Trustee Jason Spears, telling him he had 15 seconds and then counting down while he spoke.  “Fourteen, thirteen, come on, let’s go,” she said while he struggled to make himself heard.
Seriously?  Is this how adults behave?
As bad as Monday night was, the board still had a couple of heapin’ helpings of what-the-$#!@ yet to come.  Among the many items voted down Monday night was the salary scale.  New contracts for teachers and administrators cannot go out without a valid salary scale.  The failure to approve one meant the board would need one of its inevitable special meetings.
And so the trustees met at 8 a.m. on Wednesday to approve it.  The vote was 2-2-1, with Glenn Lautzenhiser and Mr. Spears voting yes, Ms. Fisher and Greg Lewis voting no, and Ms. Verdell abstaining.  The board adjourned, believing that Ms. Verdell’s abstention would count as a ‘yes’ vote.  In fact, it did not, which meant the salary scales failed again, and another special meeting – this time at 1:30 that afternoon – was needed.  That time a different action was taken, with raises for the assistant superintendent and the assistant personnel director taken out.
Yeah, you read that right.  It took three meetings to pass the salary scale, without which the district cannot function.
Three meetings.
This cannot go on.
I’m not sure how to fix the problem, though.  I have written about the district’s disintegration for years, and more often than not been ignored.  Unless there are awards being given out, or athletics being discussed, people stay away from the school board meetings in droves.  Sure, when something really outrageous happens – the superintendent being fired, teachers being laid off – people turn out, but in a month or two they’re gone.  Meanwhile seemingly everyone I talk to wants to posture and hold forth about the importance of children, yet when the decisions actually affecting those precious little darlings are being made, they’re nowhere to be found.  You want to see what happens when you ignore something for years, Columbus?  Take a good, long look.  This is the school district you deserve.  This is what your apathy bought.

Brown Resigns, Superintendent Search
In the wake of the salary scale debacle longtime Assistant Superintendent Anthony Brown announced his retirement.  It saddens me to see a veteran administrator leave, especially as the district will soon be facing a transition to new leadership.  I can’t help but wonder how much of a role the board’s antics played in his departure.
Which brings me to the current superintendent search.  The board held yet another special meeting Monday morning to discuss the process.  During a conference call with Ray and Associates, Mr. Lautzenhiser and Mr. Spears again questioned the speed with which the search is being conducted.  The flier that will be distributed to candidates was only approved Monday morning (May 19).  The timeline still calls for the application process to be cut off at the end of the month.  Messrs. Lautzenhiser and Spears are justifiably concerned about what even Ray and Associates itself is calling a “fast-track” search.
I think it’s foolish to be in such a hurry, especially when an interim superintendent is in place until June of next year.  I’m afraid politics – and Ms. Fisher and Ms. Verdell’s palpable dislike for Ms. McGill – are the primary driver here.  Once again the trustees seem intent on putting personal politics and pettiness above the smooth functioning of the district.
Ray and Associates said they thought they could deliver “35-40 candidates in good shape” during the truncated search period.  How many of those do you reckon will stick it out once they do a Google search and see the board’s recent track record?  It’s looking more and more like history’s going to repeat itself, with a shoddy process producing a shoddy candidate.

State Holds Charter School Hearing
Speaking of parents who actually give a damn, the state held a public hearing Tuesday night for the charter school proposed by the Columbus Coalition for Educational Options.  CCEO Vice President Darren Leach gave a brief presentation about the school’s plans, and a few members of the public commented.  Although the number of comments was low, the turnout was pretty good.  It was a far cry from the vastly under-attended meetings early in the process.
When I first started writing about the CCEO, I had very mixed feelings about charter schools.  Over time my misgivings have evaporated.  It’s obvious that the city school board is not interested in addressing the district’s needs.  When textbooks need to be bought and you’d rather argue about abbreviations and adverbs, that sends a powerful message.  When parents do bother to come to the meetings and they’re more concerned with athletics than textbooks, that sends a powerful message, too.
I am very pleased to see parents and community members trying to take charge of their own destiny.  I am impressed that the focus is on classrooms and students, rather than who gets to sit where.  I hope the state approves this charter school, and I wish it well.

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