In a meeting Thursday morning, the Columbus City Council expressed frustration over the city school board”s refusal to bring its entire board of trustees to the table to discuss the 2012 budget.
Thursday evening in a phone interview, Columbus Municipal School District Board President Glenn Lautzenhiser revealed the reason: The board of trustees has been advised by four people, including three lawyers, not to comply with the council”s request.
Lautzenhiser, speaking with the permission of Board Attorney David Dunn, said the board first consulted Dunn”s counsel on the issue, along with an opinion from Michael Waldrop, executive director of the Mississippi School Boards Association, and both Dunn and Waldrop advised them against bringing the entire five-member board of trustees to meet with the council. Lautzenhiser said Dunn then consulted Jackson attorneys Jim Young, of Young Law Group, and Jim Keith, of Adams and Reese LLP.
“All four advised us not to have a joint meeting,” Lautzenhiser said. “Their rationale is there”s supposed to be an arm”s-length relationship between the school board and the city government. They appoint us and then charge us with the responsibility of doing the very best job that we can.”
Lautzenhiser said the board became concerned by “the tone of the letters” in the council”s meeting requests.
Mayor Robert Smith said Thursday that he has requested a joint meeting four times to discuss CMSD”s budget, but his requests have been ignored. Various representatives of CMSD — including Lautzenhiser, Interim Superintendent Dr. Martha Liddell and Chief Financial Officer Kenneth Hughes — have met with the council on three occasions since May, but Lautzenhiser confirmed Smith”s assertion that the board has not complied with Smith”s request for a fully staffed meeting.
“Looking at the tone of the letters, the language said all parties need to meet and formulate a strategy for a plan as to where to go from here … The concern the board has is when they say they want to jointly meet to formulate a strategy for a plan, that sort of leads us to believe they may want to have some input as to what goes into the budget,” Lautzenhiser said.
He added that in most school districts, the superintendent, business manager and management team would formulate a budget, then inform the school board of their needs, hold a public hearing, then approve a final budget.
“We feel we have done what we are required to do,” Lautzenhiser said.
But Ward 5 Councilman Kabir Karriem, who twice made motions calling for the school board members” resignations at a council meeting Thursday morning, said this morning he was not aware that they had been advised to ignore the council”s requests.
“If that”s the case, that needed to be expressed to the full council,” Karriem said. “For a board we appoint to just ignore our correspondence and not tell us anything, that”s a total disregard of protocol.”
Ward 3 Councilman Charlie Box said in light of the new information, he plans to seek the state attorney general”s advice on what the school board”s responsibility is in regards to responding to meeting requests from a governing authority.
“I know they”re autonomous, and I want them to be autonomous, but when there”s a problem between the school board and the City Council, they need to be willing to meet with us and discuss it,” Box said. “They have got to be accountable to somebody.”
Karriem said when he made the motions requesting the school board”s resignation, he did not act “haphazardly.”
His decision, he said, was based on CMSD”s previous meetings with the council, including a July 18 meeting attended by Lautzenhiser, Liddell, Hughes, board member Tommy Prude and financial adviser Bonnie Grainger.
“There was a lot of finger pointing in that meeting that led me to believe the school board … just rubber-stamped everything that came before them from (former superintendent) Dr. (Del) Phillips,” Karriem said. “From my observation, a lot of concerns came to mind that the school board didn”t have a handle on the situation with the school system. Whether it was Phillips” fault, the deal was this: The buck stops at the school board, because they are the stewards.”
CMSD is required to submit a final budget request to the city council by Aug. 15.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.