Wednesday, I fielded a call from an upset reader.
He accused the paper of trying to keep black people out of significant local leadership positions and cited its “attacks” on Columbus schools” Interim Superintendent Martha Liddell as the latest attempt to support the “good old Southern Mississippi white boys trying to maintain a position of leadership.”
Maxwell Barnes said he has lived in Columbus for more than 30 years and has a son who graduated from Columbus High and Mississippi State.
Not a single bad word was printed about Del Phillips, a white man, during his tenure as superintendent, he said, even though Phillips failed to achieve great gains in test scores.
Here, I thought, Mr. Barnes had a point.
The truth is Phillips wasn”t around long enough to oversee a district transformation or even a significant increase in test scores.
And, let”s be realistic, none of us, Phillips included, thought he would be. We got him pretty early in his career for an educator — with 13 years of experience under his belt. Phillips made it clear he had bigger aspirations, being named state superintendent among them.
During his time here, he mostly tried to change perceptions. And in some aspects, it worked. He sang the praises of the district and got community members to rally around it enough to pass a $22 million bond issue with a near 80-percent approval rate. Columbus High added the International Baccalaureate program and had begun regaining some of the population the district lost to private schools.
There were no dramatic gains in test scores. That”s the truth.
There was no overwhelming increase in the graduation rate. That”s the truth.
But let”s face reality. Columbus has a huge elephant in the room.
No one wants to talk about it, but it”s ever there — race.
We pull the race card for everything, but then we conveniently want to hush it away.
Even Phillips, who headed a district famous locally as an illustration of white flight, didn”t want to get too close to the subject.
He thought if we made the schools the best they could be, gradually, without saying a word about it, attitudes would change, and the district wouldn”t face such a huge racial disparity.
Barnes said, “We need to change our attitudes,” and I agree, though I don”t agree that The Dispatch is discouraging black leadership. I, personally, think we need more of it — dynamic and unifying black leadership.
Can Dr. Liddell be one of the leaders playing a part in that? It”s yet to be seen.
And an outside consulting firm will make the recommendation on whether or not to hire Liddell to the superintendent”s seat full time. I know Martha. She”s sharp, professional, knows her stuff. And someone has apparently been advising her poorly on how to handle these public and media events.
Local attorney Scott Colom made the point that the situation has become a “classic lose-lose”: If the search firm recommends someone other than Liddell, this “will obviously upset the people she”s mobilized to support her,” Colom wrote in an e-mail. “When the school board selects someone else for that position, (there”ll) be an uproar.”
He also notes the firm has a $15,000 incentive not to recommend someone already doing the job; “people would complain about that being a waste of money.”
The Tuesday editorial that lit Barnes” fire was meant to illustrate these ideas and had nothing to do with the color of Liddell”s skin.
“Your paper likes to create people, and it likes to tell us who our heroes are,” Barnes said.
The paper may celebrate heroes, but it does not make them. Heroes seem to rise from the rest, able to create unity where there is divide.
Perhaps one day a hero can help us overcome the elephant in the room and focus on issues that matter to us all, black, white or otherwise.
Until then, maybe we can focus on one of the issues at hand — naming a superintendent, not based on race or popularity, but based on who will do the best job for our children, who just so happen to come in many colors.
And whether anyone else has a bias about the color of the next superintendent, the children won”t care if he or she is black or white.
Garthia Elena Burnett is news editor for The Dispatch. E-mail reaches her at [email protected]