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Spears snags CMSD board presidency in narrow 3-2 vote


Jason Spears

Jason Spears



Isabelle Altman



A 3-2 vote on Thursday made Jason Spears the new president of the Columbus Municipal School District board of trustees. 


But circumstances nearly kept Spears from casting what proved to be the deciding vote on the matter. 


Board members Josie Shumake and Fredrick Sparks also supported Spears for president toward the end of a four-hour meeting. Former board president Angela Verdell and former board secretary Currie Fisher voted against Spears. 


Spears, who participated in the board meeting by phone while waiting to board an airplane for a work trip, unsuccessfully attempted to move the election of new officers to earlier in the meeting because he feared his travel schedule would keep him from voting if the matter remained slated for the end of the agenda. 


However, Fisher, who also phoned in to Thursday's meeting, blocked Spears' attempt to amend the agenda, citing that sitting president Verdell needed to preside over the meeting because a new president, once elected, would not be prepared to do so. 


"The CMSD Board of Trustees officer elections is done so that the leadership who is currently leading the meeting and is prepared for the meeting is able to conduct that meeting efficiently and effectively," Fisher said. 


Spears was still participating in the meeting by phone when the board went into executive session to take up student matters a little after 10 a.m., but he was no longer in the meeting when executive session was over. He called back in at 11:45 a.m., just before officer elections. 


At the election, Fisher moved to re-elect Verdell, and Verdell seconded. Shumake then entered a substitute motion to elect Spears, which Sparks seconded. 


After being elected, Spears nominated Fisher to continue her role as board secretary, but she declined. 


Spears then nominated Shumake, who was unanimously elected. 


"I'm excited for the opportunity to serve (as president) with the board and working with the other board members to strengthen the board as well as the school district," Spears said by phone after the meeting. "I'm very happy the majority of the board wanted me to serve as their president, and for other board members, I look forward to continuing to work with them going forward as well." 


Verdell, who was first elected board president three years ago, said she voted the way she did because she wanted to make sure the president was someone who fostered a team environment. 


"I think for this board, it's really important that we stay focused on what the main issues are, and that's students and student achievement," Verdell said. "And so I don't think that we have a lot of time to play around with having a lot of chaos, a lot of confusion. We need harmony on the board, and we need to make sure that we have people who are helping to create that sort of atmosphere with our board. So that would be the reason why I voted why I did." 




Attendance issues 


During the meeting, Lori Cargile, principal of Columbus High School, told board members attendance at the school fell below 91 percent for the months January and February, a decrease from about 93 percent in December and from about 96 percent in August. 


Through the whole school year thus far, 307 CHS students have missed 10 or more days. A total of 762 students have missed 10 or more days district wide.  


Cargile said her team of administrators is determined to bring the chronic absence problem under control. One thing that will help, she said, is the compulsory attendance age changing from 17 to 18 this summer. 


Currently in Mississippi, students may legally drop out of school at the age of 17. Now that the law has changed and will go into effect this summer, Cargile said, parents will be held legally accountable for getting their children to school until those children are 18. 


"Once a student reaches the age of 17, parents are no longer accountable," Cargile said. "So a parent that does not push for attendance, and you call and say, 'John has missed three days,' and she's like, 'Well, nothing I can do. He won't get out of bed.' So it holds the parents accountable." 


Administrators will also make sure parents are notified when students do not make it to class. Cargile said many parents have given schools phone numbers that don't work, are blocked or are incorrect. Administrators want to update phone numbers as needed and implement policies to ensure students who come on late buses are marked as present. 


"We are hoping with some of these that we're going to be able to decrease the number of absences," Cargile said. "But we do realize that we're going to need parent support. We're going to need parents to say, 'Yes, it's important.'" 


It's also important, as CMSD business administrator Tammie Holmes pointed out, because the district gets funding from the Mississippi Adequate Education Program based not on the total number of students enrolled in the district -- currently 4,001 -- but the number of students who attend daily. 


At a request from Fisher, Cargile said she would try to generate a report correlating attendance with grades.




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