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School superintendent says he never intended to hire wife's uncle, but recommended him

COLUMBUS — A school superintendent in north Mississippi said this week that he never intended to hire his wife’s uncle for a district job, despite recommending it.

Columbus Municipal School District Superintendent Philip Hickman spoke to the Columbus Rotary Club Tuesday and was asked about the integrity of hiring relatives to work for the district, The Commercial Dispatch reported.

In August, Hickman recommended that the school board hire a Chicago-based educator, Leslie Smith, as director of schools in Columbus. The job was created by Hickman and would pay $70,000 a year.

Three out of the four board members who voted to hire Smith said later that they had been unaware of his relationship to Hickman before the vote. After that, Smith turned down the job.

“I was never going to hire my uncle,” Hickman told the civic club. “The reason why I did that is because I knew that someone was leaking information, illegal information.”

Hickman also said there was nothing illegal about the hire. He said he told Smith to include their personal connection on the resume submitted to the district.

In an interview with The Commercial Dispatch after his speech, Hickman contradicted his previous statement, saying he was aiming to hire Smith when he recommended him to the board.

“Of course, yes,” Hickman said.

He was asked to clarify his statements to the Rotary Club about never intending to hire Smith.

“I wanted to inquire whether or not there was a leak in the office,” Hickman responded.

He was then asked why school district employees’ talking about the district would be an issue.

“If employees are doing things that are illegal, that’s what the problem was,” Hickman said. “Not that the employees are talking about things that are within the district.”

During his speech Tuesday, Hickman was also questioned about the school board hiring his wife, Adilah Zalzala, to be a special education teacher at Fairview Elementary for $42,000.

“When you talk about hiring my wife, every superintendent has hired their wife, uncle, cousin,” Hickman said.

“My wife has two masters’ degrees in special education,” he said, adding that a position was open and his wife was qualified.

An audience member then told Hickman he had heard the position was only open to Zalzala. Hickman said that was not the case.

“It was open to everyone,” the superintendent said. “It’s been a position that has been open for two years. See, that’s what I’m saying with facts. People don’t know the facts.”

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