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Analysis: Why a city-run school system is a bad idea for Montgomery

Josh Moon



By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter

The City of Montgomery is planning to study the idea of creating a city-operated school system, moving from the current county system.

It is nothing more than window dressing meant to appease the business community.

It is the latest in a long line of “fixes” for the troubled Montgomery Public Schools system, but like the rest of them – including the ongoing Alabama State Department of Education intervention – it ignores the root causes of the problems in favor of window dressing designed to fool outsiders that the school system is changing.


If anyone doubts the ineffectiveness of such a shallow approach to decades’ old issues, look no further than the ongoing intervention.

It has been handled poorly on every front, and because officials ignored the dynamics of the city, ALSDE officials, including State Superintendent Michael Sentance, cut locals out of the process. That has led to community mistrust and has led Sentance to cozy up to a Montgomery community organizer named Cubie Ray Hayes, a longtime and well-known community figure who often serves as a go-between for city officials and community leaders on sensitive matters.

But the intervention’s biggest issue is that it hasn’t gone as billed. When the intervention came to life, it was pitched as a means to pump resources into the system to help children – a goal supported by State School Board member, Ella Bell, who was the force behind getting the intervention off the ground – it has done little more than shuffle funds from one set of administrators to another set. And privately, Bell has told those close to her that she has felt let down and unhappy.

Much of her unhappiness – and many of the complaints from those around the city of Montgomery – can be traced back to a belief that Sentance and others had hidden objectives for the intervention. Those goals, put in place by Sentance, business leaders and lawmakers, see Montgomery as an opportunity to implement business-friendly ideas, such as expanded tech programs and “school choice.”

According to sources familiar with the plans, the school choice effort would include charter schools and more “community schools” – schools that offer a variety of services, such as health care, adult training, etc., in addition to academics.

While those ideas have their positive and negative attributes, what’s unclear is why either the city or ALSDE need such major upheaval to do any of them. And what makes no sense is the idea of moving to a city-run system – which would exclude just four schools from the new city system.

Strange has said numerous times that his primary reason for switching to a city system would be to eliminate the board-operated setup of the county system, which he believes is inefficient. Instead, he wants it to be run like a city, where the mayor operates the city day to day, makes personnel decisions and sets policy, and the city council handles larger policy matters.

But that’s only a solution to problems if the Montgomery County School Board is your biggest problem.

It’s not.

Sure, the board has screwed up plenty, and it has allowed race and pettiness to overshadow teaching and learning a number of times, but it is not the cause of MPS’s struggles.

Simple math is.

First and foremost, Montgomery has a large number of citizens, and school-age children, living at or below the poverty line. Poverty, no matter where you go or what race of people that poverty affects, is the one constant in under-performing school districts.

But Montgomery makes things even worse.

Starting just after the Brown v. Board of Ed. Decision in 1954, private schools started popping up all over Montgomery. At one point in the 1970s, Montgomery had more private schools than any other city in the country.

The white, wealthy people of Montgomery will tell you that these exist for some other reason than race. It’s an outright lie. Those private schools, in a city with a population that is better than 40 percent white, are 90-plus-percent white. The public high schools, except for one traditional and the magnets, are 98-plus-percent black.

There are thousands of white Montgomerians who, between the ages of 1 and 18, interacted regularly with no other black kids, and vice versa. Many of those people are in leadership roles in this city now, which helps explain how they can’t see the real problems in the school system.

With so many Montgomery families sending their kids to private schools, the economic demographics of the public school system take a nosedive.

And it doesn’t stop there.

On top of all of the private school students, the system also loses 7,000-plus of its best overall students to its magnet program. That’s one-quarter of the MPS student body – it’s brightest and most dedicated students – removed from the general student body. Additionally, the parents of those children – parents so involved they offered to donate land to build a new magnet high school and have raised enough to build an amphitheater – are also out of the traditional public schools.

And still, it gets worse for Montgomery.

Because Alabama’s Legislature is run by men and women who value wealth over providing education, we have the country’s worst education policy: the Accountability Act.

The AAA, as it’s known, essentially diverts money away from “underperforming” schools, such as the ones in Montgomery, by handing out tax breaks – tax breaks that are deducted from the allocations to the local schools – to parents who have moved their kids from an “underperforming” school to a private school.

In reality, very few people actually moved. Instead, the majority of the tax breaks went to people whose kids were already enrolled in private schools.

Which means that overnight, in Montgomery, thousands of tax dollars left the public schools and went into the pockets of people who didn’t have their kids in the system anyway.

This is the reality facing MPS and the Montgomery County School Board, which have both been cast as the villains of public education. Because it is easier for people to believe that a few ignorant decisions or odd meetings are more responsible for the ills of the MPS system than two generations of racism, white flight and indifference.

If you doubt this, consider that when the mayor and other Montgomery leaders speak of the “public education problem” in the city, it is most often within the context of how badly the poor schools are preventing economic development. Translated: having poorly educated black kids is messing with white people’s ability to make money.

And so, the school board and central office are cast as villains in this show, because it helps to sell patchwork, easy “fixes” that appease the businesses for a bit. Like a city-run system.

The problem is no one, including the man pitching it, believes a city system will solve any of the real problems.

Just a few years back, when a city councilman in Montgomery brought up the idea of exploring a city-run system, Strange was adamantly opposed, and he was opposed for exactly the same reason – it won’t solve the root causes of problems.

And what no one wants to hear is that solving those root problems will take bunches of time, money and dedication.

Here’s the roadmap:

  1. Hire a lot more teachers and counselors and put them in the schools where they’re most needed.
  2. Move the most experienced, highest qualified teachers to the schools struggling the most, and give them raises to go.
  3. Move the magnet programs inside the traditional high schools so the best students can be an influence on other students.
  4. Identify at-risk students who lack proper parental support early and provide extended hours and additional, focused instruction for those specific students.
  5. Expand pre-K to all Montgomery children.
  6. Hire more security guards.
  7. Provide the schools with proper supplies and technology.
  8. Fully fund and restore the middle school athletic programs.

If you do all of this, there is little chance that MPS wouldn’t be a turnaround story that would draw national attention.

But little, if any, of what’s on that list will get done. Because it takes money and it takes care and takes tough decisions.

And the reality of Montgomery is this: The “business community” here cares about education to the extent that it can blame the problems in it on anyone with black skin.

That is evidenced by the criminally-low millage rate in Montgomery and by the lack of concern so many city leaders have for any traditional school in the system.

It has left us with this sad reality: Thousands of kids each year graduate from MPS schools and we know – know for an absolute, drop-dead fact – that many of them are completely unprepared for the world.

That is criminal.

But it won’t stop until we no longer offer cheap, quick fixes, like city-run systems, in order to do the bare minimum.

It won’t stop until we actually fix the problems.


Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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Opinion | Greed is threatening the daycare bill again

Josh Moon



By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter

It is happening again.

In the bowels of the Alabama State House, where the rancid sausage of state government is put together, the men are scheming again.

Scheming to kill, or severely weaken, the daycare licensing bill.


The same people are involved: Sen. Larry Stutts, the Alabama Eagle Forum and Sen. Shay Shelnutt.

For the last several days, Rep. Pebblin Warren and other advocates for the daycare bill have been meeting with that group of malcontents, listening to their insane demands and trying to come up with some way to placate this group who will apparently go to the mat to prevent churches from spending the money to properly care for and protect defenseless children.

The bill is expected to be on the Senate floor Thursday, but its fate is, at this point, unknown. Which is, quite honestly, astonishing.

Even for this group, the blatant bending to the almighty dollar in this instance is breathtaking.

In case you’ve forgotten what’s being proposed here, let me provide a quick refresher: Warren’s bill would force church-affiliated daycares to mostly follow the same rules and regulations as non-church daycares.

That’s it.

There’s nothing sneaky. No one wants to force the church daycares to bake a cake for a gay wedding.

There’s a specific provision within the bill that makes it clear that the guidelines being imposed relate entirely to the safety of the children and that the state will not get involved with curriculum.

But that’s not really a problem. And this small band of malcontents know it.

This is about money.

That’s what it’s always about in Alabama. Even when the people chasing that dollar routinely invoke the name of a man who warned repeatedly of the dangers of valuing money over people.

These daycares churn out a profit for the churches. And because they’re not beholden to the same guidelines as non-church daycares, they can often churn out a huge profit.

The math is pretty easy. If a church daycare and a non-church daycare each have 20 kids enrolled, but the non-church daycare is required to employ four, trained workers to watch those kids, while the church daycare employs just Bill, a guy who had a few hours to kill today, guess which one makes more money.

But you know, that’s not really a fair example. Because it makes Bill sound semi-competent. And in some cases, the employees, and the administrators, of these “church daycares” are anything but competent, respectable people.

You might recall that we had this debate last year. This same group of people managed to kill the daycare bill.

Less than two months after they did so, a 5-year-old child in Mobile was dead.

Because the “church daycare” he attended didn’t run a basic background check on the person driving the daycare van. Had it, it would have learned that its employee had a long criminal record.

Instead, the child was left to suffocate and die in scorching hot van and his small, lifeless body was dumped in some random front yard.

See, that’s the sort of thing that licensing prevents.

It also prevents the unintentional poisoning of children (yep, that happened), the burning of children by workers smoking cigarettes too close to them (happened), the near death of dozens of children from extreme food poisoning (happened) and the deaths of children in a fire-trap daycare (happened).

We all know what the right thing is here. And in moments when they’re not beholden to special interest groups and lobbyists, Alabama’s lawmakers let you know that they also know what’s right.

Gov. Kay Ivey did so last August, shortly after the death of the 5-year-old in Mobile. When asked if all church daycares should be regulated, Ivey said she “strongly believes” that all daycares should be licensed by the state.

But that was before campaign season. Before the church-backed lobbying groups and PACs got involved.

These days, Ivey is less forceful. Sources told APR that Ivey told a group of lawmakers that she would take no position on the bill.

When I asked her office directly what her position is, “strongly believes” all daycares should be state licensed morphed into … some other words.

Governor Ivey remains in favor of improved guidelines for day care facilities in Alabama,” the statement from her office read. “She believes more must be done to protect our children and that it is essential we have quality day care staff, rendering quality service.”

It is essential.

Unfortunately, with our weak state leadership — from the governor’s office on down — bending to the call of money, thousands of Alabama are unlikely to experience that essential service.

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Opinion | Active shooter on campus! Wasp spray may save us

Joey Kennedy



By Joey Kennedy
Alabama Political Reporter

I spent 90 minutes Tuesday afternoon in UAB’s Heritage Hall learning how to respond to an active shooter on campus.

You know, some deranged individual out to cause as much mayhem has he can, shooting and killing and shooting. And killing.

Yeah, it’s sad. But it’s today’s reality.


I teach English at UAB. I’ve been doing this for 18 years. I love it.

My first semester of teaching was September 2001. Two weeks into the semester, terrorists flew passenger jets into the Trade Towers in New York, into the Pentagon in Washington, into the ground in Pennsylvania.

I truly had no idea what I was doing, in front of my class at UAB that first semester in 2001. And two weeks into it, I had 9/11.

I didn’t count absences on that Sept. 11. We coped. We endured. We hurt. We still hurt.

In the 18 years I’ve been a part-time English teacher at UAB, we’ve endured many horrible shootings, many terror attacks.

Columbine happened two years before I started teaching. But since then, there have been so many shootings. Too many shootings to list, too many shootings to name.

But not so many that some can’t be named. Like the 2007 massacre on the campus of Virginia Tech University, where a senior student shot and killed 32 people and wounded 17 others.

Some of these shootings are too close to home, like the 2010 catastrophe at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, where 44-year-old biology professor Amy Bishop killed the chairman of the biology department and others.

And more school shootings, many other school shootings, too many other school shootings, including the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012. Twenty 6- and 7-year-old children died that day, as well as six members of the school’s staff.

Since Sandy Hook, there are yet other shootings – not just school shootings, either, though there have been plenty of those. In Charleston at a church. In Orlando at a nightclub. In Las Vegas at a concert.

And, yet, Congress, dominated by NRA Republicans, refuses to act. Refuses to do what it can to make us more safe.

Then, on Valentine’s Day, in Parkland, Fla., a few weeks ago, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, 17 students and adults were gunned down. Others were injured.

A few weeks ago. The students there aren’t staying quiet. They’ve started the #NeverAgain movement, and on March 24 in Birmingham, there will be a rally at Railroad Park and a march through Birmingham to encourage – implore – our political leaders to do something.


So here I am, an English instructor at UAB, for 18 years now, sitting in a classroom to receive instruction on how to respond to an active shooter on campus. There’s even a pamphlet: “UAB Police Active Shooter Guide.”

A pamphlet.

It’s where we are, as a nation, where we are today. I praise UAB officials and campus police for offering the class. When I received the message from the dean that the classes were available, I wanted to cry. Hell, I did cry.

How did we get here? Where, instead of teaching the Rhetorical Triangle, I’m worrying about barricading a door or making sure my students evacuate the building before being gunned down by a nut.

What stunned me before my active shooter class even started was that, since 2014, UAB Police officials have conducted nearly 200 such active shooter response classes.

This was my first.

And I learned that wasp spray might be my best weapon. We were told that even trained officers, police officers who go to shooting ranges, work under stressful conditions, patrol and police in the real world, miss 70 percent to 80 percent of the time they fire their weapons.

So, we’re told, that distracting the shooter may be our best option, if we can’t high-tail-it out of our building to a safer place.

Barricade the doors with chairs and desks and filing cabinets. But if the shooter gets in, distract him by throwing stuff at him. Swarm him. Maybe, I decided, I would carry the wasp spray and have it handy if the shooter looked my way. Hornet poison certainly will hurt, if you aim it right.

And an AR-15 will kill, even if you aim it wrong.

Yet, I mainly want to teach my students how to negotiate a college essay or convince them that Ernest Hemingway, the bastard that he was, is the best short story writer of the 20th century.

I want to encourage my students to read and enjoy words. I want them to appreciate Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening,” especially when Edna takes off her clothes and swims deep into the Gulf of Mexico to claim her independence.

I want my students to celebrate a good semester, to rejoice and appreciate their A or B or C.

I don’t want to keep wasp spray in my book bag. But I guess I will.

Because this is now. And, frankly, now sucks.

Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writes this column every week for Alabama Political Reporter. Email: [email protected]

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Opinion | Montgomery reappoints disgraced judge, needs new leadership

Josh Moon



By Josh Moon

Alabama Political Reporter

Former Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard shouldn’t go to prison.

Nope. His sentence should be commuted and he should be returned to his lofty position atop the Alabama House, because the things he did, while illegal, were not things that he invented and he wasn’t alone in doing those things.


Lots of lawmakers before him were using their offices for personal gain. Lots of lawmakers were involved in the schemes, or schemes very similar, for which Hubbard was convicted of 12 felonies.

So, set the man free and let him reign over the Legislature once again.

That’s stupid, right?

No one believes that the above argument — that others were doing it, so what’s the big deal? — is an argument that holds any real weight with adults, right? It’s an elementary schooler’s argument, right?

Well, apparently y’all haven’t met the Montgomery City Council and Mayor Todd Strange.

Because if their friends were jumping off bridges, they would be right with them.

On Tuesday, despite vocal disagreement from numerous citizens — and not a single citizen speaking in favor of it — the council accepted the mayor’s reappointment of Judge Lester Hayes to the Montgomery Municipal Court.

If you’re unfamiliar with Hayes, you should be aware that he’s quite unique in Alabama, a state that goes to great lengths to never, ever punish or even investigate most judges. Hayes was not only investigated, he was removed from the bench in 2016.

That decision by the Judicial Inquiry Commission (JIC) followed a number of complaints filed against him over his continued jailing of indigent defendants, and also because of his use of a private probation company contracted with the City of Montgomery to extract pennies from the penniless.

The JIC called the findings against Hayes — that he violated TEN! different canons of judicial ethics — “very troubling” and “serious.”

And they were.

Because in addition to violating those canons, Hayes also blatantly violated Alabama law when he locked up poor people without offering them a chance to explain their situation or present evidence of indigency.

And he continued to do this, over and over, despite complaints from attorneys in town, despite threats of lawsuits from the Southern Poverty Law Center, despite the pleas of poor people and despite his responsibility to know and uphold the laws of this state.

And Hayes stopped this practice, not out of some deep concern for the people of Montgomery or out of a crisis of conscience, but because he and the city courts were sued on three separate occasions in federal court.

And to prove there was zero remorse on his part, Hayes illegally took a legal job with the City of Montgomery and was later forced by the JIC to repay the city his salary.  

But on Tuesday, none of that mattered to the mayor and seven of the Montgomery City Council members who voted to reappoint Hayes to the bench. (Only councilman Tracy Larkin voted against Hayes.)

Their childlike reasoning: Hayes wasn’t the only judge to lock up poor people, and he didn’t start the practice.

For normal adults, such a statement would be the start of a process to remove all of the judges who violated the laws so blatantly. Because while the council spoke at great length of how such practices were common in Alabama and in other cities, it is more common that such practices are uncommon.

Thousands of American cities have managed to conduct business without operating debtors’ prisons. They either never had them, recognizing their cruelty and uselessness, or they voluntarily stopped them without court intervention.

But Montgomery is apparently led by a different group of people.

That group was unconcerned that Hayes had admitted in legal filings to treating the citizens that the council are supposed to represent unfairly and cruelly. That group of city leaders apparently believe it’s OK if judges get caught up in an illegal conspiracy to improperly jail citizens. That leadership group accepted a juvenile excuse and ignored their constituents.

So maybe Les Hayes isn’t the real problem here.

Maybe Montgomery needs new leadership.

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Analysis: Why a city-run school system is a bad idea for Montgomery

by Josh Moon Read Time: 8 min