Here we go again.
On Tuesday, Cherie Labat resigned as the Columbus Municipal School District superintendent of schools, which means the district will be looking for its sixth superintendent in 11 years. Edna McGill filled the position on an interim basis in 2014.
Two of those superintendents were fired — Martha Liddell and Phillip Hickman — and two resigned — Del Phillips in 2011 and now, Labat, who was hired for the post in 2018 and had her contract renewed until June 2024 just two years into her contract, a sign that the Board of Trustees were at the time pleased with her performance.
We are unlikely to learn most of the details that led to Labat’s resignation, though the board discussed her employment in executive session Monday and already had a special-call meeting scheduled for last night. Speculation was strong that the board intended to again take up the issue of her employment at that meeting.
Instead, the board used the meeting to accept her resignation letter, which was sent to media just 45 minutes before the meeting was scheduled to begin. The board accepted her resignation unanimously and spent an hour and a half in executive session, discussing the letter and potential legal matters that could be associated with it.
The relationship between the board and a superintendent is not unlike a marriage. A successful board/superintendent relationship, like a successful marriage, relies on trust, communication, compromise and respect. Those qualities sometimes deteriorate, and there has been some indication that the relationship between the board and Labat had begun to unravel during the past year or so.
Last May, the board rejected Labat’s plans to adopt a modified school calendar similar to the one implemented this year by Starkville schools. Initially, the board had been supportive of the change, but reversed course when some parents and teachers protested the move. It was a bitter pill for Labat, who felt the board didn’t have her back on a plan she felt would benefit the students.
Further indicators of friction between the board and Labat surfaced in July, when the board rejected two travel requests from the superintendent to attend national conferences in Washington D.C. and Arizona.
Given those board actions, we can understand if Labat believed she did not have the support of the board. A divorce seemed inevitable.
Although not entirely unexpected, Labat’s resignation could not have come at a worse time. Just three days into the school year, the district will have to scramble to make sure the duties of the superintendent are carried out while searching for someone to fill the position on an interim basis and then, for the sixth time in 11 years, find a permanent superintendent.
In any organization, stability in leadership is important, something that has eluded the school district for more than a decade now. The district’s state rating has never risen above a D grade. No one, including Labat, ever suggested that trend could be quickly reversed. The district still labors to meet academic standards.
What we do know is that Labat leaves the district better than she found it. No scandals or embarrassing situations are attached to her tenure which is something that could not be said of the two previous permanent superintendents. She was also a dynamic, forceful advocate for the district’s students, particularly those most at risk.
Labat’s resignation, on balance, is a blow, and it’s hard to muster much enthusiasm for what lies ahead.
We’ve been down this hard road before and all too often at that.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.
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