After an initially tepid volunteer response, Columbus Municipal School District’s special education advisory committee has a full roster and has already met.
Superintendent Philip Hickman provided The Dispatch copies of the nine members’ applications for the committee. He said he and Donna Jones, CMSD’s director of special education, selected the volunteer applicants on a first-come, first-served basis. No qualifications were required. The only stipulation was members have to live within the school district boundaries.
“We wanted it to be fair,” Hickman said. “We valued the background of everyone who applied so we didn’t rank one person over another. Also, we wanted to get started. Therefore, once the number was reached, we called the first nine and set a meeting time and met.”
However, the first-come, first-served aspect of the process didn’t sit well with some applicants who received rejection letters from CMSD. Hickman told The Dispatch he is unsure how many applicants were turned away, and he did not provide copies of applications for those rejected.
Committee and first meeting
The nine-member committee, tasked with identifying barriers and any unmet special education needs and advising the school board about those needs, first met Nov. 9. Members agreed to meet monthly but haven’t set dates for future meetings, which will be open to the public.
The committee includes: Josie Pippins Moore, Rosemarie Prater, Jacqualine Cotton, James Fowler, Tabitha Rozzell, James Wilson, LaTwanya Miller, Angie McCoy and Shelenia Henry.
According to their applications, Moore is a special education teacher with the school district, and Wilson is a children’s pastor who oversees his church’s special needs ministry; Prater, Fowler, Rozzell, Miller and McCoy are parents of children with disabilities; Cotton is a parent of a district student who said she was applying for “any and all” committees; Henry works for the State of Mississippi. Her application does not state her title.
Fowler said the main topic of the first meeting was trying to “promote efforts that the district is making toward special education (and) getting greater visibility for those efforts.”
“I would like to know more about what the eventual goal of the committee is going to evolve into,” he added. “Right now, I think it’s not necessarily an advisory committee but a way for people outside the special education department in the district to kind of see what’s going on inside the department. Exactly the level of advising we’re going to do is unclear at this point.”
But Fowler said if the committee is going to be truly advisory, he thinks members should be voted on by the community rather than selected by the administration.
Rozzell said she wasn’t concerned with the selection process as long as she was given the opportunity to be involved in her child’s education.
“I wanted to be involved and know what’s going on with my kid,” she said. “There needs to be more parents involved in what their kids have going on. The more we can be educated on stuff, the more we can help them learn and grow up to be productive citizens in the world.”
The school board established the advisory committee and permitted Hickman and Jones to appoint its members in September, following a state audit of the district’s special education program and parental outcry regarding its effectiveness.
After a month, CMSD saw only three applicants. But following an Oct. 12 article The Dispatch published calling for more volunteers, Hickman said applications exceeded the number the committee needed.
Hickman added, since the committee’s meetings are open to the public, those who were turned away during the selection process can still attend.
The application asked for basic personal information, why applicants want to be on the committee, educational background, job experience and other experience.
School board president Angela Verdell said the board of trustees did not set any criteria for the application, nor was it involved in the process.
Jim Wilson (not the same as the James Wilson appointed to the committee), the father of a child with disabilities at Columbus Middle School, along with multiple other candidates, received rejection letters in the mail thanking them for their interest and informing them that the committee had been filled.
Other rejected applicants — including Terri Doumit, a former CMSD employee who also has a child with disabilities; and Heather Ford, who has been an educator for 21 years — said it’s hard to believe that the committee wasn’t created to appease complaints because of the selection process.
Doumit, Wilson and Ford all said they think the applicants should have gone through a vetting process, and qualifications should have been required.
“That’s nonsensical. Why would you form a committee without assessing the applicants? I’m disappointed that the approach was just to simply accept the first (nine) applicants,” Wilson said. “It doesn’t make good sense to me that they would have chosen that method to formulate this important committee.”
Doumit said she hopes the committee is “not just for show.”
Hickman said the school district has long been advocating for special education improvements, and the formation of the committee had nothing to do with complaints.
“The committee was formed because that’s what school districts do” to create a two-way symmetrical relationship between the community and the school district so the community can provide input, he said. “It’s a meaningful way to give voice to an underrepresented population. It wasn’t in response to anything.”
School district Trustee Jason Spears said his wife, who has secondhand experience with special education, also applied but was rejected.
Spears said he was not aware of how the selection process worked, but he thinks the applicants should have been vetted.
“I don’t agree with (a first-come, first-served selection process),” he said. “I would think there would need to be a more formalized way of selecting individuals to be on that committee.”