By Larry Lee
Distrust is a cancer that can destroy anything it infects. A marriage, a football team, a church, a business—or in the case of Montgomery–a school system.
One simply has to look at the mess we’re in and all the people pointing fingers and blaming everyone but themselves. Most want the public to think they have all the answers—yet they have precious little experience or track record with public schools.
The general public has little trust in the local school board. I hear it over and over. The school board does not trust the mayor, the chamber of commerce or the Montgomery Education Foundation.
They do not trust the State Department of Education because in their takeover of the system numbers are tossed around casually without context. For instance, we have heard repeatedly that MPS lost 800 students from the 2016-17 school year to 2017-18.
But no one mentions that in addition to MPS, 82 other systems lost students during this period, among them Mobile, Jefferson, Lee and Madison counties and Birmingham and Mountain Brook.
We see charts comparing scores at Lamp with Lee. But comparing a school with a poverty rate of 4.9 percent (LAMP) to one with a rate of 67.3 percent (Lanier) is comparing apples to oranges.
Nor do school principals trust the staff at the MPS central office because they believe they have too many overpaid bureaucrats.
It is a recipe for disaster—not only for the 29,000 students in our public school system—but for the community as a whole.
EDUCATION IS EVERYONE’S BUSINESS. Whether you have a child or grandchild, niece or nephew, in a Montgomery public school or not, you have a vested interest in what happens in them.
But instead of linking arms and working together, we have too many separate agendas.
Take the Montgomery Education Foundation for example. I have yet to find an MPS school board member who knows what this group does.
On their web page they show their MISSION, CORE VALUES, and VISION. Yet, no where in these statements does it speak of working specifically with MPS. Nor do I see anyone connected with MPS on their board of directors.
There are a number of education foundations in Alabama. I am familiar with many. The director of the one for the Jefferson County school system is housed at the central office. She is considered part of the staff.
By contrast, the Montgomery Advertiser had an article on March 19 about the local education foundation applying to the state wanting to convert five MPS schools to charter schools.
It is ironic that in the same article, the executive director of the foundation says, “There are tremendous amounts of distrust but I understand that.”
So why is this group pushing a project that the school board does not support, instead of asking MPS what they need?
Their charter school plan is nebulous at best. They want to convert Lanier high, Bellingrath middle and Nixon, Floyd and Davis elementary to charter schools in the hope that they will suddenly blossom into bastions of academic achievement.
In other words, they think you can turn water into wine.
We are told the student bodies at each school will remain the same. Poverty is the greatest single indicator of school performance. Research has shown this over and over.
The poverty rate at Lanier is 67.3 percent. It is above 83 percent at the other four schools. In comparison, the poverty rate at LAMP is 4.9 percent, at Baldwin it is 13.8 percent, while Bear elementary is 12.9 percent and Forest Avenue is 10.6 percent.
(Children of poverty can certainly excel academically. I led a research study looking at 10 of them. I have visited many others that do well.)
But none of these were charter schools. They were traditional public schools with great principals and hard-working teachers.
Simply changing the name to a charter school and perhaps hiring some management group to run it is not a silver bullet. This is akin to thinking that if you gave the Huntingdon football team the uniforms the University of Alabama wore when they won the national championship in January they would suddenly morph into national champions in their own right.
Actions such as this are simply deepening the distrust among all parties who claim they want to help our schools.
What we need is everyone at the same table. The mayor, city council, county commission, education foundation, MPS board and the state department of education.
Put all the cards on the table. Bring any hidden agenda into the daylight. Act like grown-ups.
Because anything less is harming 29,000 students.
February 9 was the final date for candidates to qualify for the June 5 primary for both Republicans and Democrats. As I told you earlier, I qualified for Montgomery County school board district 2 as a Republican.
With five of the seven seats on this board up for election this year, there is not a shortage of candidates. The fact that two of these seats do not have an incumbent running helped heighten interest. In all, 24 people are running for a seat on this board. Democrats fielded 18 candidates, while six are running under the Republican banner.
Besides myself, five others are running for District 2. Three Democrats and three Republicans.
I am pleased to see so much interest. This is super because it is about time the Montgomery community takes an interest in its public schools.
Yesterday interim state superintendent Ed Richardson held a news conference to explain steps he is taking because of the state intervention that began in January 2017. He did not beat around the bush as he explained that four schools will close at the end of this school year and that 17 central office positions will be eliminated. All of this in an effort to get the system back on sound financial footing.
Richardson went in-depth In a review of student performance for MPS. it is not a pretty picture. Richardson feels that the current MPS board has refused to address critical needs and he says they should “be embarrassed” with the present state of affairs.
However, in fairness we need to remember that former state superintendent Mike Sentance pushed the idea of intervening in Montgomery within just a few months of taking office. He got strong encouragement to do so by some Montgomery political types.
This effort was poorly conceived or thought out and can only be called a disaster of the highest order. Montgomery was scheduled to go through a re-accreditation process in 2018. Most systems seek assistance from the accreditation group, AdvancED, long before the process begins. Oft times they come in to review where a system stands and give them a heads up on areas that need attention.
Sentence did not do this. Instead he asked to delay accreditation until 2019 and took matters into his own hands. He gave a three-year contract for $700,000+ to hire an out-of-town Chief Financial Officer. He spent $535,000 to hire consultants from Massachusetts to assess Montgomery schools. (Principals I talk to say this info was of very little value.) He retained principals who were set to be terminated and gave a 10 percent raise to all principals at the poorer-forming schools. And the central office got a number of high-priced staff to work on a “turnaround” program.
For all intent and purpose, it was a wasted year for the 29,000 students in this system and all schools, staffs and faculty. And much of what Richardson is now trying to clean up can be laid at the feet of Mike Sentance and those who encouraged him. As we know, Sentance had no experience as a teacher, principal or local superintendent and was woefully prepared to run this intervention. The same can be said about those who were his cheerleaders.
So we have a mess in Montgomery. And I am pleased that 23 others have joined with me in offering their help to try to make real steps in making things better.
I look forward to presenting ideas I believe are needed at this time and hopefully convincing voters that I have the demonstrated passion, experience, maturity and common sense to work for these 29,000 students.
Our brand new campaign is going well. I am pleased at the support and encouragement I am getting–especially from the education community. And whether you live in district 2 or not, you can help us have the resources we need by going to this link and making a contribution.
It should be fun.
A few days ago we took Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange to task for his plan to turn to charter schools to solve Montgomery’s education woes. In our opinion, he is ignoring deep-rooted issues and is hoping for a “quick fix” instead.
But earlier this past week, he came out forcefully for the Montgomery community to get involved with the public school system and to especially pay attention to the elections for county school board. Five of the seven seats are to be filled.
In this case, we believe he is on target.
Time after time we have stated that “education is everyone’s business.” This means not only politicians, but the faith-based community, the business community, non-profits, civic clubs, the chamber of commerce, etc. There is no better window to the soul of a community than its school system. What is more important than taking pride in how we are educating our young people? What is more important than developing a new crop of citizens to be the best they can be?
Mayor Strange also announced a website, EducateMGM.com to educate the public on this year’s election and to provide info to those who might be interested in seeking a school board seat.
However, I do wish the mayor and others would stop throwing out the red herring about how many students the Montgomery school system lost in the last year. Some would want us to believe Montgomery was alone in declining enrollment. This is hardly the case at all. In fact, the state lost 3,250 students from 2016-17 to 2017-18. There are 136 school systems in Alabama, 85 lost students.
The decline is especially apparent in central Alabama where Autauga, Elmore, Macon, Bullock, Crenshaw, Butler, Lowndes and Dallas counties and Selma all saw enrollment fall. The only systems in the region to gain over these 12 months were Pike and Troy city which gained 60 together.
Other notable declines happened in Jefferson, Lee, Madison and Mobile counties (which fell 1,328) as well as Birmingham and even Mountain Brook.
Hopefully the mayor will continue to encourage community support for our public schools. Hopefully he will lead by example by making a concerted effort to spend more time in schools observing students and talking to educators. Hopefully he will come to understand that too many of the challenges children face today that impact learning are outside the education environment.
After 12 months of limbo, the Montgomery County school board has gotten court-authorized approval to hire an interim superintendent within 30 days and a permanent superintendent by May 30.
The system went under state intervention in January 2017 and has not had a superintendent since Margaret Allen retired last summer. Former state superintendent Mike Sentence gave Reggie Eggleston the duties of the superintendent after Allen stepped down..
The Alabama Education Association filed suit last September, essentially on the grounds that Sentance over-stepped his authority and failed to adhere to applicable law in his intervention efforts. The suit resulted in a mediation agreement accepted by the Montgomery board on Jan. 5, 2018.
Under the agreement, the intervention remains in place. However, the state must present a written intervention plan by Jan. 26. Among other things this plan must detail the role of both the board and system employees in day-to-day administration. Once an interim is in place, Eggleston will continue to have an office in the Montgomery central office, but will only be the “point person” for the state intervention and not involved in operational decisions.
The agreement was welcome news to all but one member of the Montgomery board. Former teacher Lesa Keith did not vote to accept it.
I spoke to several board members, all of whom are pleased with this step. “At least we may finally know who is on first,” one said. “The last year has been a nightmare with too many cooks in the kitchen and power taken away from the people elected to run the school system.”
Under the agreement, the Montgomery mayor “shall be permitted to offer advice and input into the selection of the interim and permanent superintendent.”
Several board members have questioned this since they view Mayor Todd Strange as more an adversary than an ally of the public school system. Just this week, Strange announced that he wants to convert a number of existing schools to charter schools.
Indications are that the board will move quickly to put an interim superintendent in place.