The continuing saga of the Columbus Municipal School District’s textbook fiasco has raised unsettling questions about the performance, methods and accountability of Dr. Philip Hickman, the district’s superintendent of schools.
Shortly after his arrival as the new CMSD superintendent in late July, Hickman appealed to the school board for permission to replace the textbooks ordered by the previous interim superintendent with books he thought better suited for the district’s children.
It was no small (nor inexpensive) matter for the board to resolve — the district had just committed roughly $500,000 to textbooks and was now being asked to spend $600,000 to purchase textbooks Hickman preferred. The understanding between the superintendent and the board was the “old” new textbooks could be returned or resold so that the district could recoup much of the money spent on the first batch of textbooks.
The board’s decision to approve Hickman’s request was a sign it was prepared to give Hickman everything needed to move the district forward.
It was a profound vote of confidence. In the intervening months, however, Hickman has done little to demonstrate that the board’s confidence was well-placed.
As far back as October, the board has been pressing Hickman to resolve the matter of the old textbooks. During the board’s October meeting, when asked why virtually nothing had been done about the matter, Hickman struck a conciliatory tone, saying that he heard the board’s “marching orders” and that he would take immediate steps to resolve the issue.
Those steps have been anything but immediate. It wasn’t until Friday — 51 days after the board pressed Hickman to move on the matter — that the district returned some books to the supplier. The timing is interesting, to say the least. The books were returned just three days before Hickman would appear again before the board, where he was certain to face questions about the progress of the effort to recoup the money spent on those books.
Yet even during that board meeting, Hickman’s responses to the board’s inquiries about the books appeared evasive, incomplete and thoroughly unsatisfying.
Hickman could not even provide an answer to a most basic question: How many books had been returned?
Furthermore, Hickman told the board the head of the school book company had called the district and “promised us that we will get a 100 percent return on whatever it is School Book Supply deemed acceptable. They will make every effort to give us 100-percent return on that. Their promise to us is that we’re going to get full credit for those items.”
Yet David Jeffreys, the general manager of School Book Supply Company of Mississippi, the company that sold the books to the district, when contacted by The Dispatch said he had not spoken with the district and that a full refund was “not likely.”
Clearly, Hickman and Jeffreys give very different accounts of what is going on in this matter, a fact we find disturbing.
What is also clear is that Hickman has failed to resolve the matter in a timely manner and that efforts to get answers on the status of the textbooks had been met with, at best, ambiguous responses from the superintendent.
Hickman’s handling of the textbook issue raises serious questions about his willingness to be accountable, not only to the board, but to the public whose interests the board represents.
He steadfastly refuses to talk to the media, which leaves board meetings as the only opportunity for the public to hear Hickman address district matters. And, as we have seen, his appearances before the board have been less than illuminating.
The taxpayers who support the district have every right to have some clarity on these issues.
Hickman’s foot dragging and reluctance to provide that clarity undermines public confidence not only in Hickman, but in the state of our schools under his leadership.
The public has a right to clear answers. And Hickman has a responsibility to provide them. To date, he is either unwilling or unable to provide those answers.
This speaks much about Hickman’s performance, we fear. And it does not speak well.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.
You can help your community
Quality, in-depth journalism is essential to a healthy community. The Dispatch brings you the most complete reporting and insightful commentary in the Golden Triangle, but we need your help to continue our efforts. Please consider subscribing to our website for only $2.30 per week to help support local journalism and our community.