Columbus Mayor Robert Smith told the Rotary Club on Tuesday he believes city’s school district needs leadership changes.
Smith’s remarks came during a question-and-answer session, after one Rotarian asked for his thoughts on the condition of the Columbus Municipal School District.
“For the education system in Columbus to improve, there’s going to have to be some changes made,” Smith said.
Though Smith steered clear of saying whether he thinks change needs to happen at the superintendent or board level, he offered a critique of Superintendent Philip Hickman.
Smith didn’t mention Hickman by name, but his remarks specifically referred to the superintendent repeatedly saying many of the problems his district faces originated under previous administrations.
“It’s easy to make excuses and pass the buck,” Smith said. “…For me to say the prior administration is the fault for this, that’s a scapegoat. When I accept a leadership role, I accept the responsibility whether it’s good or bad. It’s up to me from a leadership (perspective) … to make sure I do whatever it takes to make it better.
“But as far as making excuses — that’s not going to solve anything,” he added.
Hickman did not attend Tuesday’s Rotary meeting. When contacted by The Dispatch, he said Smith was entitled to his opinion.
“We value the mayor and the mayor’s opinion,” he said. “Everybody has an opinion.”
After Tuesday’s meeting, Smith told The Dispatch he believes it’s incumbent on any leaders — whether city or school district and whether elected or appointed — to make positive changes whenever needed.
He acknowledged there’s always room for any organization — including city government — to improve, but he said he wants to see better, faster change in Columbus’ D-rated school district. Whatever changes occur, he said, need to occur so “the kids, the teachers, the staff and administration all feel good about the district.”
Hickman, however, said administration is already proud of the progress CMSD has seen in the two years since he was hired.
“We’re very proud of the district and very proud of the students and faculty within our district,” he said. “We’ve made a substantial amount of progress and it shows.”
City leaders engaged in public disagreement with Hickman and the CMSD board earlier this year when school officials discussed raising taxes by more than seven mills to cover a budget deficit for 2016-17 created by debt service obligations. Ultimately, the district opted to use reserve funds to cover the nearly $700,000 deficit.
The council appoints CMSD board members, and the board appoints the superintendent.
CMSD Board President Angela Verdell said the school board is pleased with the district’s leadership at the board level and in the district’s administration. She said CMSD is already experiencing changes for the better. She pointed to the district’s rising graduation rate, increased student and teacher attendance, increased dual enrollment and strengthened college partnerships, as well as a decline in discipline issues and a rise in third grade reading scores.
“One of the things we spend a lot of time on is looking at data,” Verdell said. “All of our indicators are moving in the right direction. Prior to two years ago, we couldn’t say that. …When we look at hard data and see what we’re doing, we know that we’re moving in the right direction.
“Progress is difficult,” she added. “Anyone in leadership knows that. It takes time. Fortunately, CMSD is seeing that in as short as two years’ time.”
Other board members declined to respond to Smith’s comments. Currie Fisher cited a board policy that only the president can speak publicly on behalf of the board.
“As a standard, our school board has agreed to speak through the president,” she said. “I have no idea what the mayor meant by his comment.”
Board member Josie Shumake declined to comment, saying she wasn’t at the meeting to hear the mayor’s comments, and Jason Spears declined to comment on record. The Dispatch could not reach Fredrick Sparks by press time.
Smith said he hopes changes do occur, because a strong school district is good for Columbus.
“If the district is doing good, then that’s a plus for the city of Columbus,” he said. “If the district is not doing good, that’s a reflection on the mayor and the council. Hopefully, whatever it needs to make those necessary changes, hopefully that will take place.”
In Smith’s speech to Rotary, he also highlighted city capital improvement projects as well as enumerated what he called the city’s successes over the past year.
Alex Holloway was formerly a reporter with The Dispatch.
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