Distrust Damaging Montgomery Schools

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.

Campaign Is Up And Running

The campaign for a seat on the Montgomery County board of education is off to a great start.  After qualifying with the local Republican party, I filed necessary paperwork with both the Secretary of State and the Ethics Commission and have now submitted my first financial report to the state.

Once a candidate has either raised or spent $1,000, they must file a financial statement at the end of the month.  (These can be found on the Secretary of State’s website.)

I am very pleased with our first report because it clearly shows strong support, especially in the education community.

We had 118 donors who gave $7,683.08 by the end of February.  This, coupled with my own contribution, gave us an ending balance of $27,683.08.  This balance was far and away much more than any of the other 22 candidates seeking five seats on the board.

If you would like to join this growing list, and we hope you will, just click here.

(Interestingly enough only three other candidates filed a financial report.  Apparently, we were the only ones to hit the $1,000 threshold.  There is one other candidate in the June 5 primary in my district, he did not file a report.)

I am deeply grateful for all those who contributed.  It is heart-warming to know so many are joining me in this effort to make a difference for Montgomery public school students.  Especially gratifying is that 64 present, or former, educators donated.  Of these, 11 are now superintendents or retired ones.

They are ready for a common-sense approach to public education.  They know we should listen to principals and teachers—not special interests—when setting policy.  They know fads and quick fixes are not the answer and want a voice to represent those who work in schools and classrooms.

(On a personal note, the fact that six of my Theodore high school classmates from decades ago contributed brings a smile and great satisfaction that friendships have lasted so long.  Heck, even the girl I took to the Senior Prom sent a contribution from Florida.)

We now have our yard signs in hand, as well as printed literature.  My intention is that these really will be YARD signs instead of signs to clutter roadways and medians.  If you would like one, or more, let me know.



Visits to local schools are inspiring and revealing. It’s no secret our schools need a lot of help.  But so far, I’ve seen a lot of people working passionately for our students.

Probably 95 percent of all I’ve met working in education say they were “called.”  Time after time someone tells me about playing school with their dolls or pets as a child.  I am convinced as surely as the Good Lord “calls” someone to go to another country to minister, many are “called” to spend their life among children.

There is simply no other reason a principal arrives at a school just after the sun comes up and stays until it is dark again.

Morale throughout the MPS system is not good.  Those who work directly with students feel unappreciated by central office staff and tell endless stories to back up their contentions.  I think the ONLY reason for a central office, either in a local system or our statewide system, is to do whatever is needed to help teachers with their students.  Unfortunately, we have too many cases where a central office staffer seems to think that teachers and principals work for them—instead of the other way around.

This attitude has got to change.

And as a board member, helping to bring about this cultural shift will be high on my list of priorities.

Again, to all those who are joining me in this effort, thanks from the bottom of my heart.  And to those who have yet to join our movement, I look forward to meeting you.

I have said countless times that EDUCATION IS EVERYONE’S BUSINESS.  If improvement is to come to MPS, we have to embrace this notion.  Education is a community function.  Join with me in showing this is the case.






Off And Running

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.

I Am Running For The Montgomery County School Board

Editor’s note: Below is a press release sent out Jan. 29, 2018.

Longtime public school advocate Larry Lee has announced his candidacy for the District 2 seat on the Montgomery County school board. Incumbent Durden Dean is not seeking re-election.

“The public school situation in Montgomery is not good and has been well-documented,” says Lee.  “But instead of making hard choices and facing harsh realities, we’re looking for ‘quick fixes’ and falling behind even more.”

Lee points out that this is an important year for Montgomery public schools as five of the seven elected school board seats are up.  There are many, many challenges facing them.

In his view, Montgomery has three school systems.  One is more than 40 private schools, one is 10 magnet schools that can compete with any in the country, the other is about 45 more “traditional” schools.

Poverty is a good indicator of school performance.  In the magnet schools, only 20% of students are on free-reduced lunches, as compared to 62% in the traditional schools.

“This 40% gap is HUGE and tells us that if we only focus on academics in the traditional schools, we will scarcely move the needle,” says Lee.  He points out that the state has just tabbed 11 Montgomery schools as “failing.”  The average poverty rate for all schools in the system is 56.6 percent.  Ten of the so-called failing schools exceed this rate, some by as much as 30 points.

Lee writes the state’s number one blog about education, Education Matters (www.larryeducation.com) which has more than 250,000 views a year.  He believes in common sense approaches to solving education challenges—not the fads and silver bullets politicians often want.

He put together the nationally-acclaimed study, Lessons Learned From Rural Schools, that explored the successes of 10 Alabama rural elementary schools.  He was recognized by the Council for Leaders of Alabama Schools (CLAS) with the James Street Award “in recognition of lifelong work to ensure quality education for the children of Alabama.”

He chaired the state advisory board for HIPPY (Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters.)  He was a charter board member of the national Network for Public Education and today serves on the board of the National Rural Schools Collaborative.

He has presented to CLAS, the School Superintendents of Alabama, the Alabama Association of School Boards, the Alabama Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, Alabama Education Retirees Association and Alabama Association for Career & Technical Education.

And he was a key part of creating the Black Belt Teacher Corps at the University of West Alabama.

“Education truly is everyone’s business,” says Lee. “This means the faith community, business community, civic clubs, non-profits and others.  There was a time when ‘community’ and ‘schools’ were essentially one and the same.  We need to again embrace that concept.”

Lee adds that it is extremely important that new board members be people who have a track record of working on behalf of public schools.  “We need demonstrated commitment to do the job at hand.”

Larry is a product of Alabama public schools and a graduate of Auburn University.  His son and daughter also went to public schools.

He retired after a career in journalism and community/economic development and spends most of his time dealing with education issues.


This Time Montgomery Mayor Gets It Right

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.

Montgomery Finally Gets Some Good News

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.