The Columbus Municipal School District Board of Trustees voted to begin a search for a new superintendent Monday after two failed motions to extend the tenure of current superintendent, Philip Hickman, whose contract expires at the end of June.
Board member Josie Shumake moved to begin the search for a superintendent, which Fredrick Sparks seconded. Shumake, Sparks and board president Jason Spears voted for the motion with board members Angela Verdell and Currie Fisher opposing.
Spears will now identify search firms to conduct the search. He said he expects to present the names of the firms to the board at its next meeting in December.
Before the action, the board had met in executive session for 1-1/2 hours, discussing two personnel matters, but took no action in closed session.
Spears presented the question of the future of the superintendent’s position soon after the board returned to regular session.
“We don’t have any plan in place after June 30, 2018,” Spears said. “We took up the matter earlier this year, and I put it back on the agenda for discussion based on the fact that we have been able to get the other part of the information that we didn’t have earlier. Now that we have the test scores back, I’m asking the board what its pleasure is.”
The board voted against extending Hickman’s contract in May, before the results of the state’s accountability scores were released. Those scores, released in October, rate CMSD as a “D” or underperforming district for the sixth consecutive year.
A split decision
Monday’s decision not to retain Hickman, who was hired on July 11, 2014, came after two separate motions to extend his contract failed earlier in the meeting, both by 3-2 margins with Verdell and Fisher casting the only votes for an extension.
“I’m going to ask my three colleagues what it is that we are looking for,” Verdell said. “What is it we’re trying to do that we’re not already moving in that direction? Help me understand. Help the community understand.”
Sparks said he believes a new superintendent is necessary to create a better climate within the school system.
“My reason for not wanting the extend the contract is the culture in our school system the way it is,” he said. “We’re losing teachers year after year. Several students have removed (themselves) from our district based upon the grade of the district itself. You guys talk about consistency and leadership. How many high school principals have we had in the last three years?
“Let’s be consistent,” he added. “If we’re going to talk about the good things, we also have to talk about the things where we’re up short. It’s about the whole community.
“When I travel around in my job and people find out I’m from Columbus, they bring up the scandals that have been going on, the lawsuits and other things. We have to address those things, which is something we haven’t done since I’ve been on this board. For me, it’s not one reason. There are a lot of reasons, which we discussed in executive session, that I feel like we need to go in another direction.”
Fisher hotly contested the board’s decision not to retain Hickman, challenging Spears personally.
“Mr. Spears, I don’t believe you have any intentions of making the school district better,” Fisher said. “I don’t. I think that there has been and continues to be a design for this district to fail. And that design is working perfectly. If you have any questions about that, I can elaborate.”
Asked after the meeting to elaborate, Fisher said, “No comment.”
Hickman was philosophical in the wake of the board’s decision, answering questions about his reaction to the board’s decision, whether he would reapply for the job and what he planned to do next with same response.
“I count it for all joy,” he said, referring to a Bible verse. “It’s part of God’s perfect plan and I believe I have served the students of the district well.”
Hickman came to Columbus from Houston, Texas, where he served as an assistant superintendent. At the time of his hiring, Hickman became CMSD’s third superintendent in three years, replacing Edna McGill, who served as interim superintendent after the firing of Martha Liddell in June 2013.
Hickman’s three-plus years as superintendent was plagued by controversy, missteps and confusion, including disputes over hiring family members and a resulting lawsuit tied to one aborted hiring of an uncle, purchase of school books that led to the district losing money on books that had been purchased shortly before his arrival, personal issues Hickman took into the public square to refute and, finally, the firing of Randal Montgomery, the popular football coach at Columbus High School, a decision Hickman made last week without consulting or notifying the board.
While graduation rates have improved during his tenure, the academic progress he vowed to produce has been marginal. The district has continued to be rated as under-performing in the state’s accountability ratings in each of the three academic years since his arrival.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is email@example.com.
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