Columbus Municipal School District

Articles written exclusively by one member of our staff are notated accordingly. Articles in which more than one person contributed are marked as The Real Story Staff Report, while ones taken from press releases provided to us are referred to as Special to the Real Story.

Welcome to the Party that Never Was — The CMSD Announces Dr. Liddell as the New Superintendent

“There’ll be peace in the valley for me some way,
There’ll be peace in the valley for me.
I pray no more sorrow and sadness or trouble will be,
There’ll be peace in the valley for me.”

Tommy Dorsey

or maybe not–



Rarely does a situation arise in which the process is more important than the people involved.   Regrettably, however, it is becoming commonplace in Columbus.  No matter what local entity is involved, whether it is the city council or the school board or CCVB, the dysfunction in the governance of that entity is what steals the spotlight, when it should be focused on the person that has been chosen.

There is no greater example of this than what occurred, Thursday night, with the Columbus Municipal School District.  In what should have been a shining moment for Dr. Martha Liddell, the evening turned into a three-and-a-half-hour nightmare, endured by no one except a few sadomasochistic media types, who were willing to waste a perfectly good evening to be told what they already knew four days prior.

In a scenario straight from the Marquis de Sade’s playbook, the media sat, paced the floor and ate snacks (paid for by themselves) and waited for over three hours.  And guess what, boys and girls – happy campers of all ages – Dr. Liddell was named CMSD Superintendent.

In one of the great “What the $#@^ moments in journalism, the announcement was made in front of………. (drum roll, please) …..NO ONE.

Not her family, not her friends, not her supporters, and not even her enemies.  The only people present, for what is undoubtedly the crowning achievement of her career, so far, were the media and a few school employees.

The building was as empty as a Justin Bieber concert will be, five years from now.   There was no fanfare, no trumpets and no glitter.  No – just an announcement from School Broad Trustee President Tommy Prude that Dr. Liddell was their only choice and, after a 5-0 vote, it was done. Oh, except for one very small detail – there is no contract!!!

Yes – the only thing missing from this misbegotten coronation was for Dr. Liddell to murmur, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.”

In the wild, wild, world of Mississippi politics, it was essential that Dr. Liddell be given a strong send-off on her maiden voyage.  She will face the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortunes”, over the three years of her contract.  She will be scrutinized, vilified and demonized.

What she needs is a community-wide conviction that she is the best person for the job.  This starts with the board of trustees giving her their full-throated support.  If she was indeed their first-and-only choice, Thursday should have been a wonderful moment.

She should have been announced as superintendent in front of her friends, supporters and family.  She should have had the red carpet rolled out for her, and she should have been given the respect she deserves.  There should have been no doubt left in anyone’s mind that she is now the leader of the district.

The next few months are going to be tough for Dr. Liddell.  She has made hard decisions about laying off teachers, cutting budgets and averting the near-certain disaster that she inherited from her predecessor.  And, when you make the tough calls, you make enemies.  It’s that plain and simple.

A grand announcement was in order, Thursday, but all we received was a whimper.  Four citizens were present, at the beginning of the event, but all of them had left before it was over.  Apparently, they had a life.  And, who can blame them?

One citizen, who will remain forever anonymous, did what everyone else was certainly contemplating doing.  He knocked on the door to the closed executive session, and reminded the Board of Trustees that they were taking too long.  You may never know his name, but at The Real Story, we call him “hero!”

In other notes and views:

Also, on Thursday, David Dunn was reappointed as the counsel for the Board of Trustees, for the second time in six days. Apparently, the vote on Saturday was null and void, because of a technicality or something. No one explained what had gone wrong, with the first vote. And, to make matters worse, the board had chosen not to inform any members of the media about Saturday’s meeting, in advance, apparently because they did not feel the need to keep the media and, consequently, the community, informed about the process.

Perhaps, everyone was not standing on one foot, when they voted, or something else equally silly.  No one explained this to us, so I will go with my own theory that a Yeti was allowed to vote, so the process was voided.  Whatever the reason – good luck, Mr. Dunn, and Godspeed.

And, maybe, just maybe, this will be the end of the public debacle that we call “Hiring Processes.”  We certainly advocate for openness in government, but we also believe that it is possible to have a transparent process, without subjecting the candidates to a circus-like atmosphere that will only serve, in the future, to dissuade truly qualified individuals from applying for positions of leadership in our community. And, perhaps our City leaders will someday come to understand that it is better to “keep their mouth shut and be thought a fool, than to open it and remove all doubt.”

In the meantime, I am going back to my deck and sip a tea with my good friend, the Yeti; he feels bad.  He did not know voting for CMSD’s lawyer would cause such a problem.  He would like to apologize to all involved.

Joseph B. St. John

Originally Published in the June 6, 2012 Print Edition


CMSD Releases Budget Update

 Editor’s Note: The Columbus Municipal School District released the following budget update to the press on Friday, May 11, 2012.

Governor Bryant signed the state education budget, today, in Jackson. It has been a very difficult legislative session. The MAEP allocations for school districts are now officially released, giving school districts a much clearer picture of anticipated state revenue. Through the process, Mississippi school districts were not fully funded in the state education budget, this year. However, districts were funded at a level that approximates last year’s state funding allocation.

This will leave school districts picking up the tab to cover increases in the retirement system, step increases and any gaps in their budgets from this year. For Fiscal Year 2013 (school year 2012-2013), the Columbus Municipal School District’s MAEP allocation is  underfunded  by approximately $2,374,020. Statewide, schools received a $19 Million boost in MAEP funding, but that amount is more than offset by a $23 Million mandatory increase in retirement costs. Total under-funding of MAEP, for the 2012-2013 school year, is $258,943,631.

Teacher Vacancies to be Filled Total 49 Positions  

Even though Columbus Schools’ budget was challenging this year, due diligence has been accomplished and the district is heading toward a more secure financial future. The budget team and I met with all building principals and department heads, last week and this week, to do another full assessment of our personnel needs, based on student enrollment and cost-efficiency needs. Columbus Schools’ RIF-impacted teachers will receive hiring priority.

I am pleased to report that Columbus Schools will be able to fill 49 RIF-Impacted teacher positions for FY 2012-2013 budget. These teacher positions are a combination of state, federal and local funds. Fortunately, Title I, Title II and Special Education funding projections for next year have enabled the district to exceed projections for hiring vacancies for next school year. We are investing all the resources we possibly can toward classroom instruction and reducing class size for FY 2012-2013.

Dr. Martha Liddell, Interim Superintendent
May 11, 2012

 Originally Published in the May 16, 2012 Print Edition


Special Budget Message & Legislative
Updates for Columbus Schools Staff

Editor’s Note: The following is a copy of a letter that was recently sent to all Columbus Municipal School District staff by Dr. Martha Liddell, CMSD interim superintendent.

I want to keep everyone informed, as we move toward the conclusion of another school year in Columbus Schools. I have returned, today, from a very informative legislative update meeting sponsored by MS School Boards Association. I am pleased that we had the opportunity to hear from legislators, state officials and Jim Keith, who covered many legal aspects that are facing school districts, today.

I also want to inform you that the state budget is in its final stage and will be heading to the Governor, soon, for his signature. This is good news for school districts, like ours, who are working every day to stretch our budget dollars as far as they can possibly go. The state budget did not come in as strong as I had hoped; however, being proactive, this year, the budget team and I have planned a budget for the coming year based on “level funding.” Fortunately, we didn’t “count our chickens before they hatched” and reduced expenses, this year and for the coming year, in order for CMSD to gain good financial footing, again.

Dr. Tom Burnham, State Superintendent, who has spent many long hours meeting with legislators, this year, told Superintendents and Board Members, yesterday, at the meeting, that it’s not the best budget, but it certainly could have been a lot worse. He advised that although the state budget seems level (when compared to last year’s state budget), it is still under-funded by $250 million dollars, and the increases in the retirement system will be passed on to school districts, as well, to pay.

RIF-Impacted Staff – I am pleased to report that budget meetings will be held, beginning this week, with building principals. The budget team and I will review, with principals, their school-by-school enrollment numbers and class loads, to make the best decisions possible. We are committed to keeping as many quality teachers as we can possibly afford, in Columbus classrooms. With the state budget complete, I am now able to give principals the “green light” to begin interviewing and re-hiring RIF-impacted teachers. The Board of Trustees will meet as many times as needed, this month, to approve personnel recommendations. We anticipate having 35-40 RIF-impacted teachers hired back and contracts out before the end of the school year.

I want to personally thank all of our principals, teachers and support staff for the honorable way you’ve remained focused on our students’ best interests, in light of a very tough budget year. Each of you is a “Champion”, in my eyes, and you are deeply appreciated. Our state tests are coming up, soon, and the focus on achievement that I continue to see in our schools is outstanding. As Robert Schuler once said, “Tough times never last, tough people do!”

Thanks for all you do,

Dr. Martha Liddell, Interim Superintendent

Columbus School District

Special Note: Because I believe educators need to know about the legislation that passed this year that affects their profession, I have provided a detailed list, below, of the Education Bills you need to know about. The Charter Bill did not pass this legislative session; however, we are told it will be back. 

The Bills that passed during this session were:

  • HB 707, which affects the start date of school. This bill says that school may not begin before the third Monday in August. Because a minimum of 180 instructional days is required, it is possible that school holidays will be reduced or that students will go to school into June. It is also possible that first semester exams will be given after the Christmas holiday. The change will take effect beginning with the 2014-2015 school year.
  • SB 2776, which requires that schools and school districts be assigned ratings of “A,” “B,” “C,” “D,” or “F”, based upon their accountability ratings. School and school district ratings will be assigned based on the following:
    • “Star” will become “A”
    • “High Performing” will become “B”
    • “Successful” will become “C”
    • “Academic Watch” will become “D”
    • “Low Performing,” “At Risk of Failing,” and “Failing” will become “F”
  • SB 2760, which consolidated the six school districts in Bolivar County into three: the Cleveland Municipal School District, the North Bolivar School District (combines North Bolivar and Mound Bayou), and the West Bolivar School District (combines West Bolivar, Shaw and Benoit). The superintendents will be appointed by their local school boards.
  • SB 2330, which consolidated the three school districts in Sunflower County into one. The superintendent will be appointed by the local school board.
  • SB 2737, which allows parents of students in school districts that lose accreditation to request a legal transfer to an accredited district, with the funding to follow the child. This will help to move us closer to our goal of ensuring that every Mississippi child has access to an excellent public school.
  • SB 2792 will allow students to be dually-enrolled in high school completion courses and in a community college credential certificate or degree program, a move that we hope will improve Mississippi’s graduation rate and ensure that more students graduate from high school workplace-ready.

Special to The Real Story

Originally Published in the May 9, 2012 Print Edition


Report on the Search for the Superintendent of the Columbus School District

The Columbus School Board contracted with the Mississippi School Boards Association to conduct a search for the superintendent of the Columbus School District. The deadline to receive applications for the extended search was March 22, 2012. All completed applications received, which were postmarked on or before March 22, 2012, were accepted and processed.

There are twenty candidates for the superintendent for the Columbus School District, among which are six superintendents, one interim superintendent, one assistant superintendent, two former superintendents, three school principals, three directors of district programs, two professional consultants, a dropout prevention and special services person, and a substitute teacher. Sixteen of the applicants have a doctorate. There are five females and fifteen males among the applicants. There are thirteen applicants from Mississippi, two from Alabama, one from Indiana, one from Oklahoma, one from Michigan, one from Tennessee and one from Wisconsin.

A complete and detailed report was made to the Board by Dr. Mike Waldrop, Executive Director of the Mississippi School Boards Association, and Dr. Harold Fisher, MSBA Consultant for Superintendent Searches, on Thursday, April 26, 2012. The Board received the report and has taken in under advisement to study and to determine the next course of action.

Originally Published in the May 2, 2012 Print Edition 


Liddell Provides Update to Teachers and Staff

 Dear Columbus Schools Teachers & Staff:

 State & Benchmark Student Assessments Follow Up: 

I wanted to take some time, this afternoon, to wish each of you a restful Spring Break with your families. It’s been a very busy year. Last week, our 4th and 7th graders wrapped up the State’s Writing Assessments and CHS students completed their benchmark assessments. Our principals have reported to me that the assessment periods went very smoothly, at each site. Thanks, everyone, for all your hard work.

State Budget Progress Monitoring Underway: 

The budget process in Jackson is getting underway, and funding appropriations are scheduled to take place during the last two weeks of April, before the close of the regular session. If all goes well, Governor Bryant could sign off on the state’s approved budget by the end of April. With this step completed, the school district can position itself to begin the re-hiring process of personnel members affected by the Reduction in Force (RIF).  The re-hiring process for critical areas, such as special education, specialized certification, and secondary education will begin in early May. Our goal is to begin the re-hiring process before school is out, or as soon as the state adopts the education budget for fiscal year 2012-2013.

(Reminder) RIF Affected Employees Will Receive Hiring Priority:

Please keep in mind that RIF-affected employees will receive hiring priority. Principals will conduct interviews with RIF-affected staff seeking to be re-employed, using a Board-approved rubric, to ensure fairness in hiring practices for all involved. I’m deeply committed to rehiring as many RIF-affected employees as financially feasible, once the state adopts its budget. I anticipate being able to rehire 35-40 RIF-affected employees, based on critical needs and student enrollment by school. We anticipate the state budget being adopted in late April or May; however the exact date the state budget will be adopted is unknown, at this time. I will keep everyone informed as the state works through the budget appropriations process.

Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) Funding Details: 

This state’s process determines the amount of funding the Columbus School District will receive through the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP). The MAEP funding formula is a major driver in a school districts’ ability to set a personnel budget each school year that is based on the dollars expected from the state.  Presently, the CMSD Budget Team and I are identifying all critical needs areas and reviewing Columbus School’s anticipated enrollment figures by school. We are in the process of developing a re-hiring plan based on this information. The next step for RIF-affected staff is to update your employment file with the Columbus School District.

RIF-Affected Employees’ Next Steps To Update Your Employment Files:    

The personnel department will take updates from RIF-affected employees, beginning on March 19, 2012. To update their employment file, RIF-affected employees should contact the district’s Personnel Office and submit the following information after Spring Break: an updated Employment Application (showing all years of experience to-date); a Letter of Interest, indicating that you would like to be considered for re-employment in the Columbus School District; and a current Resume that describes all of your professional qualifications.

Proposed Charter Schools Legislation – MAEP & Local Dollars Will Follow Students (This is serious.)

It is important that educators, administrators and staff understand that the proposed Charter School legislation that is on the horizon will have a serious impact on school districts rated “Successful or Below” in the state’s accountability system. The most proactive way for Columbus Schools to address the opening of Charter Schools is to improve student achievement. Although the district’s budget concerns will require larger class sizes for next school year, I am working on a plan to keep class sizes smaller for core areas of instruction, across the school district. Principals and teachers will have an opportunity to help design this new state-of-the-art instructional achievement plan.

I am including an update from Jackson, today, regarding the Charter Schools Movement in Mississippi. Please review this important information when you have some time. I’ve included the House and Senate Bill versions for your review. Charter Schools will be a game-changer in the public schools landscape in Mississippi. We must be prepared, both academically and financially, for the potential entry of Charter Schools in our area. Thanks for all you do for our students everyday, in and out of the classroom. (Find out more about the Charter bills below)

Dr. Liddell, Interim Superintendent

Columbus Municipal School District

Here is a Synopsis of the Charter Schools Legislation (From The Parents’ Campaign):

Senate Bill 2401 

Mississippi Public Charter Schools Act of 2012: Allows conversion, start-up, and virtual public charter schools to locate throughout the state. High Performing and Star school districts must give board approval for charters to locate within their districts; Creates the Mississippi Public Charter School Accountability Board, which consists of seven appointed members, to serve as the sole authorizer of charter schools. Students may cross district lines to attend charter schools; Allows state and local per-pupil funding to follow students. Charter schools are subject to the same accountability assessments and ratings, as traditional public schools.

•  Referred to Senate Education Committee, 2/15/12

•  Amended by Senate Education Committee to prohibit virtual charter schools and to allow pre-K to be offered in charter schools if privately funded; passed by Committee as amended, 2/21/12

  Debated by full Senate; Amendment 1 proposed to authorize charters only for Low Performing, At Risk of Failing, and Failing schools; amendment failed; 19 yeas, 32 nays, 1 absent; 2/22/12 

The Parents’ Campaign favors a “yea” vote on this amendment. 

 Bill passed by full Senate, without amendments; 34 yeas, 17 nays, 1 absent, 2/22/12  

 House Bill 888 

Mississippi Public Charter Schools Act of 2012: Allows conversion, start-up, and virtual public charter schools to locate throughout the state; Allows multiple authorizers of charter schools; Allows students to cross district lines to attend charter schools and provides for state and local per pupil funding to follow students; Holds charter schools to the same accountability assessments and ratings as traditional public schools.

 •  Referred to House Education Committee, 2/20/12 

  Amended by House Education Committee to allow conversion and start-up public charter schools only in districts rated Successful or below, to require that charter management organizations have a track record of success, to authorize virtual public schools (referred to in the original bill as “virtual public charter schools”) to contract with a charter authorizer to offer educational services, predominately through an on-line program; passed by Committee as amended; 14 yeas, 12 nays, 2/29/12  

 Originally Published in March 14, 2012 Print Edition


CMSD Board Votes to Approve RIF, Extend Superintendent Search

Thursday’s night special called meeting of the Columbus Municipal School District (CMSD) Board was a move to undo actions taken at the last school board meeting, held on February 13.

Most of the action was expected, with the Board quickly getting to the main point of the meeting.  The “Approve Staff/Personnel Item” was brought back before the Board to allow the “emergency RIF” to take place.  This has been the flashpoint of many discussions, over the past few months, in our community.

Next up, Dr. Liddell advised the Board that the Administrative Staff of CMSD, which had lost 10 days of leave, two years ago, would lose an additional five days, this coming year.  This was done as a cost-saving measure for the school district.

In addition, she reiterated that all RIFed employees did have two years or less of service.

Board Member Bruce Hanson asked if everyone on the list had met the criteria, and was concerned that some employees on the list were not eligible to be released.

Board Attorney David Dunn spoke up, in regard to Dr. Liddell’s comments that everyone on the present list qualified to be released.  “She is absolutely right.  Only employees who do not have EAPL rights – employees with less than two years of service – are on the list.”  Employees with no EAPL rights cannot contest their release from employment.

Mr. Dunn went on to explain that the RIF list met the criteria of the district and numerous Attorney General Opinions from the State of Mississippi.

After a brief discussion, the motion to accept the RIF list being brought back before the board was approved.

Before approving the actual list, Mr. Hanson had several important questions, the most vital being, “If there was no shortfall, if we had the all the funds, would we have to RIF anyone?”

Dr. Liddell stated, in detail, that the effected personnel had to be notified of the School’s decision by the 15th of April, and school administrators had to receive notice by March 1.  That is the law.  So, the RIF had to take effect, even if some personnel could be rehired.  She also repeated that the district hoped to rehire many of the employees who had to be released.

Mr. Hanson stated that he believed that there are sufficient funds to keep the teachers and that that money should be placed in the budget. However, Dr. Liddell and others were adamant about the situation and moved forward with the RIF plan.

The motion passed, with only Mr. Hanson voting “no”.

In other business, the board voted 4-1, with only Currie Fisher voting “no”, to extend the search for School Superintendent an additional two weeks.  Two candidates have dropped out, recently, and Tommy Prude stated that he had been disappointed with the list and wished to gather more candidates.

Many teachers have expressed concerns over the lack of specifics about the criteria that would be used to rehire the teachers who had been RIFed.  In a follow-up interview, Dr. Liddell shared the following plan and written statement:

The Columbus School District continues to focus on our core mission, which is “to provide a quality education for every child.” With the challenges with the district’s budget and Charter Schools on the horizon, Columbus Schools has to be extremely cautious with appropriately allocating resources and its finances over the next few years. Even so, we are focused on protecting instruction in every classroom, the safety of our students, and rehiring as many Reduction in Force (RIF) affected staff back for next school year as our funding will allow.

RIF-impacted teachers and administrators will receive top priority in filling positions that the district will need back for next school year. To ensure that building principals have a guide to use that is district and board-approved, a Columbus Schools Hiring Rubric has been developed with input of central office staff and principals. All decisions regarding the RIF were made in a fair and consistent manner, to address the financial crisis the school district is in. Columbus Schools values its teachers and all staff members, and will do everything possible to ensure a quality school system for all our students.

The following is the Hiring Rubric that will be used in returning the district to pre-RIF levels:

In her closing statements during our interview yesterday, Dr. Liddell stated she wanted to be open and fair, and she repeated that she was hoping to rehire as many affected teachers as possible.

The next several months should be interesting for the CMSD.  Stand by!

By the way…still no Robert or Del sightings!!!  And, they say they always return to the scene of the crime!!!!

Joseph B. St. John

A/K/A MoJo


Columbus Municipal School District:  A State of Emergency

Talking to Interim Superintendant Dr. Martha Liddell on Friday, February 24, 2012, she appeared calm in the wake of meetings, controversy and bomb threats.  Her demeanor was upbeat, despite the fact that she has been tackling one of the greatest challenges to face the Columbus Municipal School District (CMSD) in 40 years.  She is a woman who understands the financial crisis that looms over her and the district, and is well aware that every solution has the possibility to open her up to criticism.

Every since the CMSD announced that they would be having a Reduction In Staff (RIF), on February 7, she has braced herself for the onslaught of opinion that places her in the role of the “BAD GUY.”  Undeterred by the “mania” that accompanies any such announcement, Dr. Liddell has sounded more like a business professional than an educator, when discussing the looming crisis; something that has ruffled more than a few feathers in the school district.

During her speech at the February 16th Exchange Club meeting, Dr. Liddell expressed herself in the spirit of a tough-talking business executive and destroyed any chance of being perceived as a frightened interim department head.  She did not shy away from the harsh topics at hand and offered no apologies for what she told the audience.  She never “crawfished” on any of her beliefs; Friday’s interview was no different.

Confronted with emergency RIFs, picketers at the last School Board meeting, and a budget that could lead the CMSD to the humiliating possibility of being taken over by the State government, she forged ahead with her plans for correcting the problem.

“Having another agency coming in and taking over the finances of the district must be avoided at all cost” she expressed. “If you go under 7% percent of your (financial) reserves, the State can come in and demand a reduction plan to correct the problem.  If you don’t have a reduction plan in place after they make the request, they can come in and make the corrections themselves.”

Dr. Liddell made it clear that the CMSD is in an urgent predicament. “We are in an emergency situation, make no mistake about that. Our staffing budget is 30% out of proportion.  We are in the position to be under 7% of our reserve level, and that is a problem”

Even with the possibility of reducing school staff by 69 people, by releasing personnel who have two years or less of service, Dr. Liddell remains optimistic.  “We have talked to Todd Ivey, Bureau Manager of the Office of Financial Services with the Mississippi Department of Education.  We feel that, by mid-April, we will be able to re-evaluate our budget and bring 35 or 40 of our released employees back.”

The problem, however, is more complicated than just waiting for the State to rescue the school system.  Action has to be taken immediately.  Dr. Liddell goes on to explain, “The employees we have to RIF must be off the payroll by April 15 or they count on next year’s budget.  That is the law.  For principals it is March 1, if they are not going to be offered a contract.”

In all discussions, it is apparent that Dr. Liddell doesn’t want anyone to lose their job. It is apparent that it pains her that people are going to be out of jobs, but she stays the course when addressing the issues.  And, though they may not be popular stances, she is firm in her convictions.

When discussing the future of the CMSD, she is blunt and to the point.  “In the future, we have to be smart and efficient.  We have to have the courage to look at our problems and not walk away from them.  We first looked over this budget in June and knew we had to do something. Over the last eight months, we took the time to look over each and every line-item, and it was apparent that we were out of proportion in our personnel budget.”

When pressed about the future, Dr. Liddell is direct about her concerns regarding recent history, “This situation did not occur from May 2011 to February 2012.  For four or five years, the expenditures have exceeded our revenue.”  However, she never places blame or fault.  She is aware that it is her problem to fix.

“We have to run the school system like a business.  We cannot tax the people of Columbus any more.  In these tough financial times, that is not an option. We have to act courageously and make the hard decisions to fix the problems we are facing.  We are in an emergency situation.”

During the crisis, the Columbus Municipal School District Board has taken its share of hits.  School Board President Glenn Lautzenhiser has felt the pressure.  However, he stands firm in his conviction.  When asked about the current emergency, he stated, “This has been a very difficult process.  A great deal of time and effort has been put into looking at the financial condition of the CMSD.”  His calm demeanor squarely in place, he sums up the cold hard facts about the crisis in the school system.  “Seventy-six-percent of our budget is in personnel.  If you’re going to make the tough cuts, you have to make them there.  Over the last few years, revenue has been down.  We have not been fully funded from the State.  (In Columbus) millage has dropped from 213,000 to 205,000, and is expected to drop even lower in the years to come.  We have already used 1.7 million dollars (out of the reserves) to balance this year’s budget.  We can no longer do this, and we need to make the adjustments.”

Mr. Lautzenhiser reiterates that it is important that the expenditures and the revenues of the school district match.  And, it was imperative that this had to be done immediately.  Echoing Dr. Liddell’s words, he went on to explain, “We want to give a quality education to every child to be successful, but we must protect the financial integrity of the district.”

The last several months have been a trying period for the School Board.  However, Mr. Lautzenhiser remains steadfast in his beliefs. When questioned about the School Board not meeting with the Mayor and City Council about the school’s budget, before the 2011-2012 school year, he stated, “The budget is the responsibility of the School Superintendent, the management team and the School Board.”

In closing, Dr. Liddell worries about the future of the CMSD.  In a memo sent last week to school personnel, she stated,” Recent Charter School legislation that has been proposed, includes a provision that states that high- performing and Star school districts have the ability to authorize or deny charters entering the system. In order for Columbus Schools to have this opportunity as well, we have to be committed to the mission of our district, which is ‘to provide a quality education for every child.”  Earlier during this interview, she had stated, “It’s not a matter of if, but when the Charter Schools are approved.  If we are not ready for that change, the district will be left behind.”

Let’s hope they are ready.

Joseph B. St. John

A/K/A Mr. MoJo Rising

Originally Published in the February 29, 2012 Print Edition


Interim Superintendent Dr. Martha Liddell Speaks Out

 Interim Superintendent Dr. Martha Liddell gave a no-holds-barred speech at Thursday’s Exchange Club meeting at the Columbus Country Club.   Holding nothing back, she addressed what could be a pending emergency situation regarding the Columbus Municipal School District (CMSD).  Instead of the usual flowery speeches given by most department heads and politicians, she dove into the water with both feet and did not stop until everyone in the audience understood that the CMSD was in a dire circumstance.

Stripping away the shiny veneer of the everyday bureaucrat, Dr. Liddell explained in detail that CMSD had to do a better job in educating the children of the community and that technology was the key to keeping children in school.  Explaining in cold, scary facts, she reported that of the 330-340 children entering Columbus High School in the 9th grade, less than 200 will graduate.

Dr. Liddell explained, unapologetically, that each child represented $6,000 to the school system and honestly admitted, “If a hundred children drop out of high school, that is $600,000 taken away from our school system.”

She then went on to explain that the problem did not stop there.  Her facts stated that 70% of the people who are in prison today are high school dropouts.  “And, who pays for that?,” she asked. “We do. The taxpayers.”

Looking back on her younger days as an educator, she reflected on the idea that she was told that education was not a business.  However, now she was clear that it had to be viewed that way.  With state and federal funding declining and the money shortage reflected in the CMSD budget, she was aware that discussions have to be made with a businessperson’s heart. She stated, “Education is not free. It has to be run like a business.”

She clearly stated her decision to relieve people of their jobs was tough.  Knowingly looking at School Board President Glenn Lautzenhiser, she lamented, “It breaks our heart to tell a teacher we are not hiring them back to teach”

Dr. Liddell tackled the tough truth that for the last eight or nine years, the CMSD has been dipping into the reserves to keep their employees and programs funded and that this policy had put the school system at the brink of disaster.  With the reserves down to three million dollars, it is quite possible that the Federal Government could step in and take over the operations of the CMSD if they dig deeper into their own pockets to cover expenses.  “In cases where school districts have been taken over for finances, conservators cut the district’s expenses down to the minimum program and teachers and administrators are wholesale released out of their contracts, sometime mid-year, and many have no opportunity for re-hire.”

Dr. Liddell did not shy away from this possibility.  Underscoring that if the Federal Government took over the school system, very important programs, such as magnet schools and the AP program could be eliminated, immediately.

During the program, Dr. Liddell handed out the latest budget proposal for the CMSD date February 14, 2012.

Some of the highlights included:

Reduction in Force – What It Means for Columbus Schools

“Although Columbus School District recently had to implement the emergency measure of Reduction in Force (RIF) policy by treating all employees with less than two years of continuous service the same. I want to assure everyone that every certified employee who was included in the RIF process was treated fairly and consistently. Only certified staff members including teachers, counselors, coaches and administrators, who have less than two years continuous service in Columbus School District or who had not completed a continuous period of two years of employment in a Mississippi Public School District and one full year of employment with the school district were a part of this emergency cost savings measure. No employees who met the criteria was treated differently or exempted from the district’s RIF policy because that would not have been fair or legally defensible.”

Dr. Liddell spoke clearly that the school district could not “cherry pick” who they wanted to dismiss and, with less than five teachers on disciplinary improvement plans, the RIF policy they used was the fairest option available.

She also reiterated that if anything changed financially, the CMSD would rehire the teachers who were terminated.  Unfortunately for all involved, the affected employees had to be given their termination notices in a timely manner or the school district would have to pick up the salaries for next year.  This was not an option the CMSD felt they could afford to allow to occur.

Follow-Up Personnel Information Following Board Meeting

“A question asked at Monday’s School Board Meeting was why the number of RIF of qualified certified employees increased from 59 to 69 from the original list submitted by the personnel department. Dr. Myra Gillis, CMSD’s Personnel Coordinator, explained the changes were due to how employees were coded when they were first hired and later became a certified employee. However to be absolutely sure the RIF list was an accurate representation for affected employees, the Board did not take action on the personnel roster to give the Personnel Coordinator time to re-verify the list and Dr. Gillis has completed verifying and cross checking the list today. We all realize that our educators’ livelihoods are being affected by the emergency RIF. It’s important to be 100% accurate. Dr. Gillis has taken the time to double-check and confirm that the district’s RIF do include 69 certified staff members. The RIF distribution for certified staff by school/location is as follows: (RIF Criteria implemented fairly across the board)

  • Central Office (1)
  • CMSD Alternative School (1)
  • Cook (9)
  • Fairview (3)
  • Franklin (8)
  • Sale (3)
  • Stokes-Beard (5)
  • Columbus Middle School (10)
  • Columbus High School (27) – CHS has a larger number of new teachers than the norm for FY 2011-2012.
  •  McKellar Technology Center (2)

Total: 69

Dr. Liddell briefly touched on the possibility of Charter Schools, with the hope of drawing more students to the district and creating a more successful environment.

However, she focused on the bigger issue at hand in during her talk, at closing.

“Schools have to be different.” She said. “We have to move forward and be a lot smarter.”

Additional information can be found by visiting the following pages on our website:

Budget Update for Columbus Schools Family February 14, 2012

The Nation’s Report Card – America’s Charter Schools

Mr. MoJo Rising

Odd note of the day:  Robert Smith and Del Phillips were MIA!

 Originally Published in February 22, 2012 Print Edition

Reader Comment

will Says:

February 17, 2012 at 2:04 pm

Don’t forget Del Phillips. He hoodwinked the whole board (an easy thing to do), and then left town.

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