By a one-vote margin, the Columbus Municipal School District Board of Trustees declined to extend the contract of the superintendent of schools during Monday’s regular board meeting.
The move came after a two-hour executive session.
The board voted 3-2 against an extension for Superintendent Philip Hickman, with board president Jason Spears and members Josie Shumake and Frederick Sparks forming the majority. Currie Fisher and Angela Verdell favored extending the contract.
In a special-called meeting on April 18, the board unanimously approved drafting an amendment that would have extended Hickman’s contract, which is set to expire on June 30, 2018. He was hired in July 2014.
Hickman shrugged off the decision not to extend the contract shortly after the board meeting ended.
“I’m fine with it,” Hickman told The Dispatch. “What (the board) talked about is they want to wait until the end of my contract to see the results again and discuss this then. It was early anyway, so, really, it’s fine.”
Spears said the consensus of the board was to take a “wait-and-see” approach during the remaining year of Hickman’s contract.
“I can’t give specific details of what was discussed during executive session, but overall the consensus is that while we are seeing some improvements in different things, there is still a lot of progress that we have yet to fully realize,” Spears said. “We want to see some of those things bear out in the results, such as continued improvement among the morale of people working in the district, students’ test scores and improvement in the relationship between the superintendent’s office and the board in areas like communication.”
If Monday’s motion had passed, Hickman’s contract would have been extended to run through June 30, 2021, a three-year extension. By state law, state employee contracts cannot extend beyond four years.
Hickman’s track record
Since Hickman’s tenure began, graduation rates in the district have steadily increased, from 62 percent during the 2013-14 school year to a projected 81 percent this year. Graduation is May 20.
The district’s overall “D” accountability rating with the state, however, has not improved since Hickman began. Hickman indicated earlier this year that individual schools in the district have had increasing grades. He said the Mississippi Department of Education has changed how it derives letter grades and that those changes have kept CMSD from improving to a “C” rating.
But Hickman’s tenure has not been without its share of public scandals. When first hired, he created the position of director of schools and recommended his wife’s uncle, Leslie Smith, for the position, which would have paid $70,000 per year.
The board voted to hire Smith, but once controversy erupted over Hickman’s relation to him, the board received a letter reportedly signed by Smith declining the position. Smith later said he never sent the letter and that the district denied him the position.
Smith filed suit in 2015, and the case was settled last fall when the district agreed to pay Smith $17,500 through an insurance policy.
Also in Hickman’s first board meeting as superintendent, he recommended the purchase of $600,000 worth of textbooks just a few months after the district had spent $500,000 on textbooks.
Hickman assured the board and public the supplier of the old books would refund the full value of those books to the district. The book supplier disputed that claim and the district ultimately lost about $180,000 in that exchange.
Hickman also became involved in a scandal when he issued a press release last April claiming someone had created false text messages alleging he had been having an affair, and that the intention of the created texts was to hurt the school district.
In July, former Columbus High student LaVuntae Lashley claimed he and Hickman had an affair and that the texts were real. The Dispatch obtained copies of a recording of a phone conversation in which a man asks Lashley why he attempted to make their relationship public. Lashley identified the other man in the recording as Hickman.
Most of the regular board meeting dealt with routine end-of-year matters in what was the last regular board meeting while school was in session.
Much of that time was spent discussing a plan to add 15 new school buses to its fleet, 10 from a state’s master lease program and five additional buses from the charter bus company, Ecco Ride.
Under the separate agreements, the district would lease 10 buses through the state program at a cost of $892,000.
The Ecco Ride buses would be leased for a one-year period, which could be renewed annually, at a cost of $79,355.
The board voted unanimously to table both measures after Spears expressed concern about a stipulation in the Ecco Ride agreement that the company could rent the buses to outside parties during hours in which they were not in use by the school district.
“I’m just not comfortable with that arrangement,” Spears said. “This is a contract Ecco Ride put together, so my question would be why there is a need for this, if there’s not a better way to do this.”
The board will again take up the matter in its next regular board meeting on May 22.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is email@example.com.