Two Weeks And Counting

It has now been two weeks and two days (August 31) since I was sworn in to serve the remainder of a term on the Montgomery school board.  Of course, the view is always different on the inside looking out than on the outside looking in.  And so it is here.

One of the things I’m trying to do is get a better “feel” for this system and its schools.  For me, that means seeing things with my own eyes and listening to people with my own ears.

To this end I have joined one PTA (at a school where the PTA is apparently on life support), gave $100 to support a school program, attended a pep rally, went to one open house, attended a ceremony recognizing nine National Merit Scholarship semi-finalists and attended a ceremony recognizing those who helped Booker T. Washington high relocate after a recent fire.

I have visited three schools.

Also had two board meetings dealing with the next system budget and spent six hours at the Alabama Association of School Boards in a training session.

During my campaign I said repeatedly that if done properly, service on this school board calls for a much bigger commitment of time than most people realize.  I still think that.  And probably even more so.

As I’ve said before, I think Montgomery has more of a COMMUNITY problem than an EDUCATION problem.  Of course, we have major education issues–but until this community decides to truly become engaged to help schools, until we look at public schools as “OUR” schools, until a lot more citizens ask what can I do to help, meaningful progress will largely be wishful thinking.




Tracking Montgomery County School Board Races

It seems the election for members of the Montgomery County school board is like the Energizer Bunny–it just keeps going and going and going.

Actually they have been going since last Feb. 9 which was the last day for candidates to qualify. This board has seven members who serve staggered terms.  Two of the incumbents, Mary Briers and Arica Smith, did not have to run this year.  Two incumbents did not seek re-election, Durden Dean and Eleanor Dawkins, while three incumbents ran again.  They were Robert Porterfield, Melissa Snowden and Lesa Keith.

Porterfield lost to challenger Claudia Mitchell in the Democrat runoff, while Snowden .lost to challenger Jannah Bailey in the June 5 Republican primary.  Keith, a Republican, had no opposition in her primary and is being challenged by Marcus Vandiver in the Nov. 6 general election.  Vandiver won the Democrat runoff for this seat.

More than 20 candidates qualified last winter, six are still standing and will face off in November.

Let’s take a close look at each board member district:

District 1–Republican incumbent Lesa Keith was elected in 2014.  She is a retired teacher.  Her Democrat challenger Marcus Vandiver works for the state department of education.  To date, Keith has filed no financial paperwork with the Secretary of State.  Candidates are required to file once they raise or spend $1,000.

Vandiver only shows having raised $50 in August and has a balance of minus $51.37.  However, he has raised a total of $7,630 since qualifying.

District 2–Incumbent Durden Dean did not run for re-election and the Nov. 6 contest between Republican Ted Lowry and Democrat Clare Weil promises to be very competitive.  (This is the district I ran for and therefore, know it better than the others.)

Weils’s financial report for August shows she means business.  She raised $6,450 from 40 contributors and another $734 from unitemized donations.  (Contributions of less than $100 do not have to be itemized, though most candidates do.)  By comparison, Lowery had $3,300 in donations, but only had two individual contributions, other than $200 from himself.  He got $2,500 from the Alabama Realtors PAC.

Of the $18,935 Lowry shows in total money raised, $7,000 has come from political actions committees.  By comparison Weil has raised $20,119, none from PACs.  And Weil shows more individual contributions (40) in August than Lowry does for his entire campaign.  The fact she is from a well-known Montgomery family is reflected in her more than 150 individual contributors.

District 3–Democrat incumbent Eleanor Dawkins did not run for re-election.  Retired educator Brenda DeRamus-Coleman won the Democrat primary and since there is no Republican challenger, DeRamus-Coleman will be seated Dec. 1.

District 4–Incumbent Democrat Mary Briers did not have to run this year and has two years left in her term.

District 5–Incumbent Republican Melissa Snowden lost to newcomer Jannah Bailey in June.  Retired educator Rhonda Oats will face Bailey in the general election.  Oats successfully navigated both the Democrat primary and runoff to earn her spot.  Bailey has raised a total of $27,135 since her campaign began (with $6,095 from PACs).  This is far ahead of the $5,061 Oats has raised.

However, the August reports paints a bit different picture.  Bailey showed one $500 donation and a cash balance of $1,706 while Oats raised $477 and had a balance of $521.

District 6–Robert Porterfield, who presently serves as president of the board, lost his bid for re-election to Democrat Claudia Mitchell in the runoff.  Since there is no Republican in this race, Mitchell, like DeRamus-Coleman, will be seated Dec. 1.

District 7–Arica Smith is the incumbent and did not have to run in 2018.  So she remains on the board.

Montgomery is decidedly Democrat.  Democrat Parker Griffin beat Republican Robert Bentley decisively in the general election for governor in 2014.   Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential election and Doug Jones trounced Roy Moore in the 2017 special election for U.S. Senate with 72% of the vote.

Given this, it is insightful to look at the three school board seats presently held by Republicans, Districts 1, 2 and 5, as to how they voted in 2017 and 2016.  Trump won all three in his race with Hillary Clinton.  He took District 1, 51%-49%; District 2, 53%-47% and District 5, 51%-49%.  None of these were landslides.

By comparison, Jones clobbered Moore in each.  He got 62% in District 1, 61% in District 2 and 69% in 5.  So the potential for any of these flipping from Republican to Democrat is certainly there.  However, as always voter turnout will be important.  Presidential elections always boost turnout.  Montgomery County had 95,000 votes in the 2016 Presidential and only 57,000 in the governor’s race in 2014.  (The 2017 special had 66,000.)

At this point, nothing indicates any increased interest in the November general election.  While I do think Democrat Walt Maddox may do better in his race with Governor Kay Ivey than many think, I don’t think he wins.  However, if there is a strong Democrat effort to turn out votes, as there was for Doug Jones in 2017 as the numbers above show, it makes the Democrats in District 1, 2 and 5 very competitive.

A new “player” in this year’s election is a political action committee closely aligned with Mayor Todd Strange and the chamber of commerce.  It files reports to the Secretary of State under the title MGM NXT PAC.  Its expressed purpose has been to defeat incumbent board members.  District 5 incumbent Melissa Snowden was one of their targets.

They targeted me in District 2, though I was not an incumbent.  And they supported Lowry and Weil with mail outs.  While records show they have raised $101,762 and spent $99,714 so far, they show no contributions in August and spending only $740.  So they may consider their job done.  (It is interesting that though this PAC paid for mailing in support of certain candidates, none of these candidates show these as “in-kind” contributions to their campaigns).

Notable contributors to this PAC include: Dave Borden, former MPS board member ($7,500); realtor Jimmy Lowder ($2,500); realtor Owen Aronov ($5,000);  chamber of commerce employee Sheron Rose ($700): Mayor Todd Strange ($2,000) Thomas Rains ($800) employee of A+ Education Partnership; Mac McLeod, chief of staff for Mayor Strange ($2,500): Goodwyn Mills & Cawood ($5,525) and Stivers Ford ($5,000).


Montgomery Advertiser Figures It Out

Give credit to the Montgomery Advertiser for being honest about the REAL challenge facing the Montgomery County school system.  As they point out in this article, Poverty and proficiency: MPS’ biggest obstacle may be outside the school system, the issue goes far beyond the classroom and the school board.

Listen to one teacher.

“During the Sidney Lanier High School football team’s summer workouts, linebackers coach Stephen Landrum knew which of his players either just came from work or were going there next.

“I have a lot of kids that have to support their family,” Landrum said. “They’re working jobs to help pay for things and taking care of brothers and sisters. … If you have a schedule like that, there is no time for them to do any work outside of school and when they get to school they’re tired.” 

It’s worse during the school year, he said, when shifts can only be picked up after school and a rough next day in class is all but guaranteed.

Landrum has at least 10 such football players out of 60 who he sees carry their economic burdens onto the field along with their pads and helmets.

It’s the same story in his world history classroom, he said, where some students “come to school only to eat” and others can’t find motivation while wondering if they will be able to shower when they get home.

“There are kids that don’t know if their power is going to be on when they get home from school or if their water is going to be turned off. That’s a real issue,” Landrum said. “There’s 15 or 20 times a year that I find out one of my kids, the basic necessities at home, they don’t have them. That’s just the ones that tell me. There’s a lot more that don’t.”

High student poverty in school districts directly correlates to low average academic proficiency, according to a 2014 study by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA), and at a time when many are looking at ways to improve a Montgomery Public Schools system under state intervention, some within the system believe poverty isn’t being talked about enough.

“I think it’s probably the No. 1 issue,” Landrum said.” 

(Editor’s note: Because of his passion for young people, Stephen Landrum left his law practice to become a teacher of inner-city students.  Yet the PR campaign being waged by a group trying to hand pick the school board wants us to think he is a complete failure )

“Of the 37 schools where a majority of students qualified for free/reduced lunch last year, only six were graded above a D on this year’s state report cards, which measured academic achievement, academic growth, college and career readiness and chronic absenteeism. None of the 37 got higher than a C.

All schools that received an A or B had a free/reduced rate of 28 percent or lower.

Montgomery’s magnet high schools — LAMP (100 percent graduation rate, 100 percent CCR), Brewbaker Tech (99 percent graduation rate, 98 percent CCR), and Booker T. Washington (100 percent graduation rate, 95 percent CCR) — were in the top 15 schools statewide in graduation rate and college/career readiness percentage, according to another PARCA report, and the three combined for an average ACT score of 24.6.

The average free/reduced rate in those schools is 11.85 percent.”

Montgomery has watched this situation unfold for years and years–but local “leaders” have never acknowledged it or stepped up to do something meaningful themselves.

Don Bogie detailed the city’s predicament well 20 years ago.  But the community slept right through his sermon.

So now we have a full blown attack on the school system by a group the mayor calls “the young progressives.”  They have spent nearly $100,000 to trash our schools and certain candidates running for the board.  But I have yet to see one piece of literature they send to our mail boxes addressing the kind of things the Advertiser points out.  Instead, they have the ill-informed notion that seven members of a school board can magically undo generations of poverty and all that goes with it.

Most of us normally think that we get what we pay for.  But in this case, nothing will be farther from the truth.  Anyone thinking you can spend $100,000 and make water run uphill is living in a fantasy world.

Runoff Contributions For Montgomery School Board Races Make Things Clearer

There will be four runoff elections on July 17 for Montgome3ry County school board seats.  All are on the Democratic ticket.

District 1 has Fredrick Turner and Marcus Vandiver vying for the opportunity to face Republican incumbent Lesa Keith in November  Democrats Brenda Irby and Clare Weil are running in District 2.  The winner will face Republican Ted Lowry.  In District 5, either Rhonda Oats or Devona Sims will square off against  Republican Jannah Bailey in the general election.

And in District 6, incumbent Robert Porterfield faces Claudia Mitchell.  Since there is no Republican running, the July 17 winner will  be on the board.

Porterfield and Mitchell were neck and neck on June 5.  He had 1,553 votes to her 1,525.  But financial info from the Secretary of State’s web site shows that Mitchell is now being supported by the group (MGM NXT PAC) wanting a new board.  Porterfield has only raised $1,225 in the last two reports–and spent $1,526.  He has $390 cash on hand.

However, it’s a very different situation with Mitchell as she has raised $12,958 and spent $4,393 in the same period and has $9,251 in the bank.  She got $5,000 from the Alabama Builders PAC, $2,500 from the Alabama Realtors PAC, and $2,500 from Mac McLeod, MayorTodd Strange’s executive assistant.  (McLeod also gave $2,500 to MGM NXT PAC.  Strange has given $2,000 to this group as well.)

Realtors and homebuilders were also prominent in the primary campaign.  Lowry got $1,000 from Alabama Realtors PAC, as well as $1,000 from Montgomery Association of Realtors and $2,500 from Greater Montgomery Homebuilders.  Bailey received $5,000 from Alabama Builders and $1,000 from Alabama Realtors.  Lowry and Bailey were two of the four candidates endorsed in the primary by MGM NXT PAC.  The two others were Weil and Carey Owens in District 5.

About the only thing you can say with certainty about politics is that there are always things that happen that can’t be easily explained.  This is definitely the case in the Democrat race in District 2 between Irby and Weil.  Irby is very much a “mystery” candidate.  I never met her in the primary.  She was not at any of the candidate forums I attended.  Nor did she file paperwork showing she raised or spent $1,000.

Yet, she led the Democrat ticket with 42 percent of the vote, compared to 38 percent for Weil, who raised $13,330 and spent $10,203.

Oats had a substantial lead over Sims on June 5, 46 percent to 26 percent  Like Irby, Sims has not reached the $1,000 threshold to file a financial statement.  Oats shows raising $320 in her last two reports and spending $539.

Turner and Vandiver were very competitive on June 5 with Turner getting 37 percent and Vandiver 35 percent.  One of them will face Keith in November, who had no primary opposition.

District 3 was decided on June 5 when Brenda Deramus Coleman defeated Philip Ensler.  Coleman will replace Eleanor Dawkins, who did not seek re-election.

The board presently has four Democrats and three Republicans.  Regardless of what happens July 17, the next board will still have at least four Democrats.  As of July 3, MGM NXT PAC has spent $84,091 on their effort to dramatically impact the composition of the MPS board.  And while District 2 (Durden Dean) and District 3 (Eleanor Dawkins) are both getting new members because of resignations, the jury is still out on what the return on investment by the political action committee will be.

Rip Van Winkle Is Alive And Well In Montgomery

“With each new superintendent, hope springs eternal that someone will be found who can lead us to the Promised Land.

While only time will tell if there is a savior among us, whoever steps into the leadership role will face a much greater challege than a divided school board and taxpayer apathy.

He or she will become the chief administrator of a public school system that has lost one-fifth of its potential enrollees to non-public schools and of a student body that is largely dominated by children from single-parent families and low-income households.

These basic demographic factors are, within themselves, not conducive to raising standardized test scores, increasing graduation rates, or curbing violence in schools.  ….student demographics will continue to have a significant impact on what takes place in the classroom setting.

Public school enrollment has been declining gradually during much of the past decade  Non-public school students are predominately white, from higher income homes, and more likely to perform well on standardized tests, receive college and university scholarships, and generally excel in the classroom.  While not all the cream has been skimmed from the Montgomery public schools, there is not as much as there used to be.

The demographics of the black population are especially distressing.  While too many children–both white and black–reside in single parent families, are from low-income household, or are classified below the poverty level, these negative social and educational indicators occur much more frequently in the black community.

Such a high concentration of these characteristics in any population does not bode well for academic achievement and classroom success.  (A superintendent) can do little on an individual basis to ameliorate these deep-seated community problems.  Instead, it must be a cooperative effort, involving all sectors of the community.

Improvement will not come quickly or easily, but the need for a better educated, more highly informed populace cannot be ignored.”

No.  These are not my words.  They were written by my long time friend, Don Bogie, former director of the Center for Demographic and Cultural Research at AUM, AND PUBLISHED IN THE MONTGOMERY ADVERTISER ON JUNE 26, 1998.  ALMOST EXACTLY 20 YEARS AGO.

But they definitely echo my thoughts of just three days ago when I asked. “Can Montgomery Handle The Truth About Its Schools?”

Don’s article was passed long to me by my friend Wiley Cutts, who spent 17 years as principal at Lanier high school and 30 years in the Montgomery system.  And if anyone sees the irony in what I said last week and what Don said two decades ago, it would be Wiley.

As I read Don’s comments, it was impossible not to think of the tale of Rip Van Winkle who slept for 20 years in New York’s Catskill Mountains and missed the American Revolution.  Because just like ole Rip, Montgomery has been asleep for 20 years.

We’ve gone through a series of superintendents and school board members.  And today we are raising thousands of dollars to demean the 29,000 students, teachers and administrators and somehow deceiving good citizens into thinking this is PROGRESS.  We got involved with a state intervention directed by a state superintendent who was clueless about what needed to be done and “helped” a deficient financial situation by squandering money left and right.

Don Bogie was correct when he stated: (A superintendent) can do little on an individual basis to ameliorate these deep-seated community problems.  Instead, it must be a cooperative effort, involving all sectors of the community.

Improvement will not come quickly or easily, but the need for a better educated, more highly informed populace cannot be ignored.”

But unlike Rip Van Winkle, Montgomery refuses to wake up.






Can Montgomery Handle The Truth About Its Schools?

In 1992 the movie, A Few Good Men, told the riveting story of a military court martial.  The climatic moment being when the character played by Jack Nickolson says to the character Tom Cruise played, “You can’t handle the truth.”

That scene has gone through my mind over and over as I’ve watched the current hand-wringing about the MPS school board play out.

Because Montgomery and it’s “leadership” refuse to come face to face with reality in regards to our public school system.

Instead, we have press conferences, blame everyone else and raise money to fuel political campaigns based on deceit and deception.

And some good and well-intentioned people blindly follow those who say all our problems rest at the feet of our current school board.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

More than anything else, we have a COMMUNITY problem in Montgomery and all my friends who have written checks in support of the Expect More for Montgomery Public Schools campaign need to take a long, hard look in the mirror.

What have YOU DONE to help our public schools? Do you belong to a public school PTA?  Do you mentor a struggling student?  When I was a surrogate dad at the Goodwyn Middle school “Dad and Daughter Dance” recently, I didn’t see any of you there.

And writing a check to hire a political consultant to come up with big post cards slamming our school system is hardly paying your debt to society.

I sat through several candidate forums leading up to the June 5 primary. I listened to good people share their ideas.  Things like, “I went to Lanier and I don’t know why it can’t be like it used to be,” or, “I know how to fix things,” or my favorite, “all schools should be magnets.”

The one thing they all had in common is that they had evidently not spent enough time in schools talking to teachers and principals, especially those in high-poverty schools. As a result, they were all looking for band aides—instead of trying figure out why our schools are bleeding.

This includes the mayor, the chamber of commerce and the folks writing the checks to the political action committee.

We have a COMMUNITY problem and our schools are only a symptom.

Montgomery has three school systems. More than 35 private schools, eight magnet schools and 44 more traditional schools.

The differences in demographics in magnet and traditional schools is glaring. The poverty rate for magnets is only 14.6 percent but is 63.7 percent in traditional schools.

Since the greatest predictor of student and school performance is poverty, this nearly 50-point gap in poverty between magnets and traditional is very telling. And a strong message that any “turnaround” effort focused on just the school board or even classroom has a scant chance to move the needle.

Don’t think so? Then attend any PTA meeting at a magnet and non-magnet school.  Bear elementary has more PTA members than they do students.  It’s an entirely different story in traditional schools.

Which means comparing the home environment of students in these schools is apples and oranges. And wondering why all schools aren’t magnets makes as much sense as wondering why the football team at Huntingdon can not beat the one at the University of Alabama.

But instead of leadership trying to find common ground and unify Montgomery, we’re holding press conferences that divide us even more.

Until this community thinks of its public schools as “our” schools we’re kidding ourselves by thinking changing faces at the school board will make much difference. How can the school board by itself lower school poverty rates.  A principal of a school with an 84 percent poverty rate told me probably 90 percent of her kids come from single parent homes.  Can the school board round up dozens of daddies?

Ministers, both black and white, should be sitting down together to figure out how they can assist their neighborhood schools. The Montgomery Education Foundation should work WITH the MPS board, instead of being an adversary.  Expect More for Montgomery Public Schools should be raising money to help teachers buy needed supplies, not stuffing mail boxes with fliers screaming “our school board and our school system are broken.”

Instead of talking about charter schools, the mayor should look at Washington D.C. that has perhaps the worst school system in the country—and a greater percentage of students in charter schools than anywhere else.

We need to attack our issues with community-centered schools that provide wraparound services. We need to engage the whole community in doing this.  We had two community school pilots two years ago.  Then the state intervention took away their funding.

The truth is that education is everyone’s business—not just the school board’s. And as long as we claim them as the scapegoat, while we let everyone else off the hook, we are not accepting the truth.