The Columbus Municipal School Board approved the hiring of a legal consultant during a special call meeting Friday, a day after an attorney for former superintendent Phillip Hickman requested a termination hearing.
The board terminated Hickman’s contract, which was set to expire June 30, during a special call meeting on Feb. 23.
By statute, the hearing, which will be conducted by Starkville attorney Dolton McAlpin, must be scheduled no sooner than five days after the request and within 30 days of the request.
“There hasn’t been a hearing date set yet,” said Jackson attorney Jeff Rimes, who is representing Hickman in the termination proceedings. “It’s something we’ll have to work out with the board attorney. Usually, it’s sooner rather than later. It’s really more of a matter of finding a time when it works out with everyone’s schedules.”
At board attorney David Dunn’s request, the board approved the hiring of Jim Keith of the Jackson law firm Adams and Reese to help with the termination proceedings.
“In the state of Mississippi, Mr. Keith and Adams and Reece is considered to be the premier school law firm,” Dunn told the board. “I’ve practiced school law for 30 years now, almost, and this will be my second termination of employment that I’ve handled. So I don’t have the experience that Mr. Keys does. He handles several a year.”
Dunn said Keith and his firm would be used for consulting purposes only.
“I’m not asking you to hire him and his firm to handle this,” Dunn said. “I just want to have the resource to be able to consult with them. There are some technical issues that I just want to be able to consult with Mr. Keith or somebody at his firm from time to time. I don’t anticipate that being hours and hours, but I do feel like I do need to be able to do that. It’s wonderful to have that backstop with somebody that deals with this all time.”
Though the board did not specify the reasons for Hickman’s termination, the decision followed a board-led investigation into “financial irregularities” in the district’s claims docket, including $15,000 to California-based reputation management firm ReputationDefenders. Hickman previously told The Dispatch he hired the fire to “clean up” search engine results online and “change the outlook if someone searches for the district or me.”
Controversies during Hickman’s three-plus years at CMSD included 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 an investigation into the district’s special education program by Mississippi Department of Education.
Lee Middle School property
Friday, the board also approved contracts for interim superintendent Craig Shannon and assistant superintendent Pamela Lenoir, who will assume some of Shannon’s duties he held under his previous role as deputy superintendent.
In an unrelated item, the board also approved an agreement with the Columbus Redevelopment Authority to change the zoning of the Lee Middle School property. The school district-owned property is being marketed by the CRA and Dunn advised the board a change in zoning is necessary to facilitate a sale of the property.
“Mr. Turnage, the attorney for the city, came to our office and let us know that the CRA is going to petition or has petitioned to have the zoning changed from R-1 residential to C-1 Commercial,” Dunn told the board. “By default, all schools are zone R-1, but in looking at the statute that allows public entities to sell property, it specifically provides for industrial and commercial only. It can’t be sold for residential purposes. Even if the option with the CRA expires, you cannot sell the property as long as it’s zoned residential. You would have to have it rezoned anyway so my advice is to join with the CRA in this petition.”
The board approved the motion, 3-1, with Angela Verdell, in her last meeting as a trustee, voting against the motion.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is email@example.com.
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