Richard Hyatt: Cantrell's strategy pins blame on superintendent, cabinet if proposal doesn't solve economic woes

May 21, 2013 

Stealing the thunder of a John Grisham courtroom, Mark Cantrell polled the leaders of the Muscogee County School District like a defense attorney polling jurors in a murder trial.

Singling them out by name and position, the bearded school board member asked each administrator whether they supported their interim superintendent's controversial plan to padlock two local schoolhouses.

Cantrell's masterful strategy did not sway Monday's final vote, and it certainly wasn't surprising that all 11 cabinet members were in lockstep with their boss. But Cantrell's actions let the public know who to blame if the closing of Edgewood Elementary and Marshall Middle and the possible firing of 40 classroom teachers doesn't solve the school district's $40 million shortfall.

Asking for a delay on the vote and pinning down the source of the proposal were not things he cooked up in the heat of another meeting in which the public played pin the tail on John Phillips.

"I wanted more than Dr. Phillips telling me that," Cantrell said Tuesday. "I wanted to hear from the best and brightest, people that we pay more than a million dollars a year."

The board ultimately voted to close the schools, culminating weeks of angst and anger, but if Cantrell hadn't called for a delay, we would not have witnessed a debate that was livelier than the 9-0 vote would indicate.

The scene was set when Nathan Prophet-Smith, speaking on the public agenda, performed like Paul Olson on steroids, referring to a previous meeting in which attorney Frank Myers commented on board members' grammar, a statement John Wells called tacky.

"We have a Constitutional right to be tacky," Smith said.

When Wells moved to accept Phillips' budget recommendations, Cantrell asked for a delay. Phillips said that wasn't possible since the district is legally required to meet budgetary deadlines.

"We have to move on," Wells said. "We can do a feel-good measure and delay this for a month, but we would run the risk of having 14 furlough days."

The debate went back and forth, but Phillips assured the board a decision was inevitable.

"This is not a Fantasy in Lights," he said.

Before polling the cabinet, Cantrell asked the temporary superintendent if the proposal was his and his alone. Phillips said it came out of a discussion that he had led.

The budget crunch follows cuts that trickled down from the state on April 12, but urgency was intensified when local leaders didn't pass that information on to the board for nearly three weeks. That led to Monday's vote to shut down two schools and the expectation that more are ahead.

When that time comes, let's hope the board won't need to poll administrators to get answers they should already have been given.

-- Richard Hyatt is an independent correspondent. Reach him at www.twitter.com/hyattrichard.

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