January 17, 2013 12:33:04 PM
Carmen K. Sisson - [email protected]
For more than a decade, Tommy Prude has been a fixture of the Columbus Municipal School District's board of trustees. As current board president, he is both the man who presents achievement certificates to shyly grinning school children and the one who holds the power to open discussion -- or silence it.
With his five-year term slated to end March 2, he has not yet announced his intent to reapply, but sources say despite initially indicating he would step down, he now appears to be weighing his options and gauging the support of the Columbus City Council, which will make the appointment Feb. 19.
Prude did not return repeated phone calls Tuesday and Wednesday.
Each of the five board members serve five-year, staggered terms, with the council making a new appointment each year.
Though no one had applied for the vacancy as of Wednesday afternoon, Columbus Chief Operations Officer David Armstrong said it tends to draw interest and he doesn't anticipate problems finding applicants for the paid position.
There are few requirements outlined by the Mississippi Code. Board members must be "a bona fide resident and a qualified elector" of the district, and neither they nor their spouses can be employed by the district in which they serve.
School board members are paid a per diem of $67 per meeting, not to exceed 36 meetings, or $2,400 per fiscal year. They are not eligible for state employee group insurance, retirement or other fringe benefits.
A fine line
Being a school board member is not an easy job, Ward 6 councilman Bill Gavin said Wednesday evening. First, there are the critics, and then -- there are more critics.
But with a board that controls a $40.5 million budget -- nearly twice what it takes to run the City of Columbus -- it's important for the council to choose board members who have not only the best interests of the children, but also the taxpayers, at heart, Gavin said.
Though the perennially cash-strapped school district is on a more stable financial footing this year, board members must remain vigilant in keeping costs in check, he said. Of particular concern to Gavin is the district's payroll, which makes up nearly 70 percent of the annual budget.
Monday night, the board of trustees voted to create a new position -- a school board clerk and assistant to the deputy superintendent -- with a price tag of nearly $38,000.
Gavin cited the board's decision last year to not renew contracts for 69 certified teachers and a subsequent reversal which resulted in most of those positions being reinstated.
"How much money did (they) really save?" Gavin asked. "I'm not saying they spend money frivolously, but can we do without some of these positions?"
Of equal concern is the delicate balance between experience and innovation.
Prude has been on the board since 2001 and served previously from 1988 to 1991. Fellow board member Glenn Lautzenhiser has served more than 21 years.
"There are two sides to the coin," Gavin said. "Prude and Lautzenhiser have the experience to draw from. When someone has not been on the board a long time, a lot of times they will make mistakes, and sometimes those mistakes are costly. There's a fine line to bringing in new blood with new ideas, which can be helpful, and retaining older wisdom and expertise."
A critical decision
A lot hinges upon this particular board appointment, Ward 5 Councilman Kabir Karriem said Wednesday. Charter schools loom on the horizon, and academic woes and financial concerns are ever-present worries.
Like Gavin, he wants a board member who will be fiscally responsible and have a vested interest in the district's success.
"All these sacred cows -- they want to be on the board or in the position, but they don't want to do what it takes to make the necessary tough decisions to move the district forward," Karriem said. "I have a tremendous amount of respect for our superintendent, but I think this next school board appointment is going to be critical."
One of the main things Karriem will be looking for is an applicant with children currently in the district. Of the five board members, only Aubra Turner fits that criteria, with one daughter at Cook Elementary Fine Arts Magnet School and another at Columbus Middle School.
Karriem, who has two children at Stokes-Beard Elementary Communication and Technology Magnet School and one child at Columbus High School, said he would like to see board members who have "skin in the game."
"A parent, somebody that has children in the district, won't be so quick to make decisions about things if it affects them directly or their children," he said. "We need to really look at the school board appointments. I don't think it needs to be on the buddy system or the good ol' boy system or 'me and you went to school together.'"
Both he and Gavin declined to say whether they will support Prude if he decides to apply for a new term.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.