Once Again Montgomery Ignores Reality And Looks For Another Education Band Aid

There are certain non-negotiable education truths.  One being THERE ARE NO FAILNG SCHOOLS–ONLY FAILING COMMUNITIES.

Unfortunately, few, if any, politicians understand this, and not many educators either.

This was clear the morning of Dec. 20  when the state school superintendent and the Montgomery mayor held a press conference to announce that they support a plan by the Montgomery Education Foundation to convert four existing MPS schools to charters.  It was lights, cameras and action–and damn little reality.

The plan is that the education foundation will take control of Lanier high, Bellingrath middle and Davis and E. D. Nixon elementary schools, hire a management company, keep all existing students and magically turn water into wine.

Could it happen?  Perhaps.  Is it likely to happen?  No.

Because no one understands the non-negotiable truth I just mentioned.

Lanier high is 70.0 percent free-reduced lunch; Bellingrath is 84.5; Davis is 84.6 and E. D. Nixon is 81.2.  Numbers such as these have been proven over and over again to be a huge obstacle to school performance.  Not that kids in poverty can not learn, but because they live in an environment that is not conducive to educational achievement,.  FAILING COMMUNITIES.

Just look at this:  Bear elementary magnet in Montgomery has 528 students and their PTA has 800 members.  E. D. Nixon has 489 students and ONE parent is a member of their PTA.  FAILING COMMUNITIES.

There are 29 schools in the Black Belt counties of Bullock, Dallas, Greene, Lowndes and Wilcox counties.  The poverty rate at Bellingrath middle is HIGHER than all but two of these 29.  So the Montgomery Education Foundation, with the backing of the mayor and state school chief, is going to switch Black Belt schools to charters?

Or consider this.  Each year the Alabama Accountability Act requires the state to put out a list of “failing”: schools.   Nine schools have been on this list all six years it has been compiled.  They are in Bullock, Greene, Mobile, Montgomery, Wilcox counties and Selma and Tuscaloosa.  Collectively they have a poverty rate of 72.6 percent.  By comparison, the four Montgomery schools to be converted have a poverty rate of 78.1 perfect.

We increasingly hear about “wrap around” services for schools these days.  This means it is important to pay attention to needs outside the classroom in high poverty schools.  Things such as mental health, dental and medical care, working with families, etc.  (Which means the announcement this week that four MPS schools will soon have health care facilities is much more worthy of recognition than converting schools to charters.)

Ironically, both Davis and Nixon were selected as pilot schools for wrap around services a few years ago.  When the state intervened and took control of the Montgomery system, they eliminated support for these programs.

While I was on the MPS board one question I asked was, “What does the Montgomery Education Foundation do?”  No one on the board could tell me.  I have also asked a number of MPS principals if the foundation has ever helped their school.  I’ve yet to find one who said “Yes.”

There are many, many things this group could do to be a partner with MPS.  For instance, it was just announced that 164 teachers in Alabama have become national board certified.  This means they have undergone a very rigorous multi-year professional development program that will boost their effectiveness.  There is only ONE teacher from Montgomery on this list.  (There are FOUR from two Pell City elementary schools.)

Why couldn’t MEF begin a program to help more teachers gain this certification?

There are dozens of MPS teachers seeking help for their classrooms.  You can find them on www.donorschoose.com.  I have helped a number of them.  Why not MEF?

There is a lot of work ahead to get ready for this new grand experiment to put four charters in place.  There will be a tremendous amount of paperwork for MPS staff.  A staff that is already overburdened with trying to keep accreditation current and working through the state intervention.

For the sake of our students, I hope it works.  But when I read an article like this one that details a Federal study showing that only 18 percent of all education innovation programs succeed, it is hard to be hopeful.  My concern is also tempered by a lot of visits in high poverty schools and lots of conversations with principals and teachers who work with these challenges.


What Happened To The Montgomery School Board Races?

When the sun set last Feb. 9, there were 24 candidates signed up and chomping at the bit to run for five open seats on the Montgomery County school board.  (Me included.)

The field has been narrowed now to only six on the ballot on Nov. 6.  District 1 has Republican incumbent Lesa Keith going against Democrat Marcus Vandiver.   District 2, where incumbent Durden Dean did not seek re-election, has Republican Ted Lowry and Democrat Clare Weil squaring off.  And District 5 has Republican Jannah Bailey running against Democrat Rhonda Oats. Bailey defeated incumbent Republican Melissa Snowden in the June 5 primary.

Along with Dean, incumbent Eleanor Dawkins did not run again.  Her seat will be filled by Brenda Deramus-Coleman who won the Democratic primary.  There is not a Republican seeking this seat.  Incumbent Democrat Robert Porterfield lost to challenger Claudia Mitchell in the party runoff.  Since no one ran for this seat as a Republican, Mitchell will replace Porterfield.

Incumbent Democrats Mary Briers, District 4, and Arica Smith, District 7, did not have to run this year.

But whereas the June primary created a good bit of interest, that is not the case now.  As I write the election is just three weeks away but if either of the candidates in District 2 (the seat I ran for) have put up a sign, sent any mail, etc. I am unaware of it.  A check of their financial records on Secretary of State website shows that from Sept. 1 to Oct 12, Lowry only spent $270 and has 6,274 in his campaign account.  Weil does not show having spent any money and has $8,027 on hand.

In the same period, Bailey shows spending only $558–and this was to pay fines to the Secretary of State’s office for not disclosing financial info properly.  She also filed a report saying that she got $2,000 from Child Protect, the non-profit she runs.  Of course non-profits are prohibited from donating to campaigns so she amended her form to say the money came from a realtor PAC..  She has $3,086 cash on hand. Her opponent, Rhonda Oats, has spent $633 since Sept. 1 and has $971 in the bank.

Incumbent Lesa Keith has spent only $596 and has $3,908 on hand.  Her Democrat opponent, Marcus Vandiver. has not filed the weekly report due on Oct. 15.  He spent $373 in September and had $699 in the bank then..

Earlier this year a political action committee was created with a stated purpose of making wholesale changes on the board.  They wanted to oust all incumbents who were running.  In all they spent $100,313 according to the Secretary of State website.  While they were quite active in the primary, they have not raised any funds since July and only spent $1,336 in August and September.

Perhaps they consider their work over.  They played a major role in defeating Melissa Snowden in District 5 and definitely aimed their guns at me in District 2–though I was not an incumbent.  They were also involved in helping Claudia Mitchell defeat Robert Porterfield in the District 6 runoff.

To me, this lack of activity is disconcerting.  If someone is truly concerned about Montgomery schools and students, then they should be working hard to gather votes.  If someone is not willing to work to get elected, will they work once they are elected?

Secondly, as a member of the board now, I take note of who attends board meetings.  Of the six running in the general election, few have  shown up to observe board activities.  I don ‘t understand this at all.

As I’ve written, I see dedication, compassion and passion when I visit schools.  We should expect the same from citizens on the local school board.  But from my vantage point, this does not seem to be the case.





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.