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

Josh Moon

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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.

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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.

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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 | The blackest Black Friday ever

“The coming weeks are going to be difficult, no doubt about that.”

Joey Kennedy

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(APR GRAPHIC)

Thursday was Thanksgiving, and it’s understandable that many people didn’t have a lot to be thankful for. More than 260,000 people are dead because of the COVID-19 pandemic that Donald Trump simply ignored. Around 3 million people have been infected, with many of those suffering lifelong health complications from the virus.

A first Thanksgiving without loved ones. A first Christmas without loved ones bearing down.

Millions of people lost their jobs because of the pandemic. Hundreds of thousands are in danger of being evicted from their homes. Many don’t have water or power or heat as the winter settles in.

Thanksgiving? Really?

Except …

Yes, there are many things to be thankful for. Our families, if we have them. Our friends, and we all have them. Our animals, and many of us have them.

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We can be thankful that the long, horrible tenure of Donald Trump is nearly over. It’s the end of an error.

We can hope that racism will be wrong again. That homophobia, misogyny, xenophobia, and cruelty will fall from the everyday ordinary to the awful extraordinary. Kids in cages, separated from their parents, no more. Chaos in government simply an anomaly at last.

We can hope. That alone is something to be thankful for.

The year 2020 has been a hot mess. Masks, social distancing, hand washing and sanitizing are the norm now. They may be forever.

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We should be thankful that COVID-19 vaccines are on the horizon. But that’s a strange thankfulness, and we cherish a vaccine for a disease that didn’t have to spread as far and wide as it did. It was mismanaged as badly as a crisis can be mismanaged.

There still are people out there who refuse to wear masks or who believe the virus is a hoax. A doctor described people she was caring for who were dying, and all the time denying the virus existed, even to their last breaths.

That’s certainly nothing to be thankful for.

Our health care workers, those on the front lines, deserve our thanks and our love. As do grocery store workers, first responders, teachers, and delivery people. Heroes work there.

I’m personally thankful for my wife of 41 years. My daughters in San Diego. My friends here and elsewhere. My pugs and other dogs and animals. I’ve got plenty to be thankful for, when we pare life down and don’t expect so much.

The coming weeks are going to be difficult, no doubt about that.

Too many people traveled this Thanksgiving, and there’s going to be a price to pay. Too many people are making plans for Christmas, and there’s going to be a price to pay. Too many people are planning New Year’s Eve celebrations, and there’s going to be a price to pay.

Oh, I’ll have some champagne and stay up until midnight on New Year’s Eve, if only to witness that this damn year doesn’t hang around for one second longer than is allowed.

Perhaps we can see a light at the end of this 2020 tunnel. Maybe by spring, we’ll all be vaccinated, and this pandemic will be at the beginning of its end.

But if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that we can’t count on, yes, anything.

This is Black Friday. The blackest Black Friday ever. Be careful out there. Wash your hands and wear a mask. Take care of each other. Believe in science. Don’t trust a reality show president who, fortunately, finally has been fired.

Do your best to do your best. Let’s have a new year that at least promises hope.

Dig deep and find what you’re thankful for. Then hug it close with all your might.

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Opinion | The emperor has no votes

The outcry of illegalities over the recent election is simply the latest example of just how far they’ll go.

Josh Moon

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Two-and-32. That’s the record of the super-fantastic “strike team” of “elite” attorneys representing the Donald Trump campaign in various lawsuits around the country that contest the outcome of the U.S. presidential election.

For a refresher: Joe Biden won that free and fair election in a landslide and will be the next president of the United States. The end.

In case after case after case, despite what the president has tweeted and despite what enablers and spineless politicians have helped him push, the Trump elite attorney strike team has failed to offer even the slightest bit of proof of the grand fraud that Trump has repeatedly claimed on Twitter or that his “dye hard” personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, has screeched about during insane, “Veep”-like press conferences. (Have you ever witnessed a stranger, more disturbing image than that of “America’s mayor,” wild eyed and ranting, with his cheap hair dye running down his face as if his ears were bleeding?)

In fact, in the overwhelming majority of the cases filed by strike team Trump, the team has been forced to admit to judges that they have no evidence of fraud or that they’re not able to claim fraud.

It’s pathetic that we’re still doing this — that the transition to a new administration is being held up by this band of grifters looking to squeeze one last drop of donations from the marks who have already forked over so much to this long-running American con.

That’s all this is.

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The entire Trump presidency has been exactly this — a con game to enrich him and his closest business partners. To that end, it has been highly successful.

It has also been successful in turning seemingly rational people into googly-eyed yes men willing to sully themselves for a taste of the political fortune or fame that comes with being near the presidency.

It is, to be honest, shocking the ease with which so many in the highest offices of our federal and state government have been convinced to denounce reality and make fools of themselves to ensure they either benefit from being in the cult’s favor or at least not being a target of the cult.

The outcry of illegalities over the recent election is simply the latest and most horrific example of just how far they’re willing to go and how little of America they truly hold sacred.

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Alabama’s Secretary of State John Merrill, for example, has given media interviews in which he willingly passed along wild, long debunked conspiracy theories of Biden getting thousands of votes at once, and how there’s no explanation for it. And yet, there was an explanation — one that had been given over and over and over.

Alabama congressman Mo Brooks, a man who so frequently buys into rightwing conspiracies that he almost certainly has purchased an extended warranty for all of his cars, sent a bat-guano insane letter to a constituent this week in which he laid out how “socialist Democrats” were able to “steal” the election through massive fraud and how Republicans in Congress can steal it back.

One of the means by which this election was stolen, according to Brooks, was by excluding Republican poll watchers. None were excluded. And the strike team has now dropped that line of attack altogether.

Brooks and Merrill aren’t alone, however. Up and down the line, Alabama GOP officials and the media mouthpieces they pay to amplify their idiotic ideas have gone full in on this idea of fraud, even when other Republicans — like that poor secretary of state in Georgia — were trying desperately to tell them it wasn’t real.

Honestly, it’s like Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is being played out in real life, right in front of us. Only, the swindlers became the emperor.

Trump and his minions continue to walk around stark naked while insisting that he has on the most beautiful, perfect clothing in the whole world. And there’s this one group of people who are buying it. And then there’s this whole other group who know full well that this guy is buck naked but they’re too afraid of alienating the first group, even if it means undermining the cornerstone of American democracy.

In the meantime, the swindlers just keep sending out fundraiser emails. Because, again, that’s all this is.

Look at the frivolous lawsuits and how thoroughly Trump’s strike team has been embarrassed in every courtroom so far. This isn’t about winning or about massive fraud or about correcting problems in the election system. It’s about money. Pure and simple.

Finally, late Thursday, two influential Republicans, Sens. Mitt Romney and Ben Sasse, said what we all know.

Sasse said the lawyers have “refused to actually allege grand fraud.” He was also critical of the strike team’s tactics.

Romney said Trump was trying to “subvert the will of the people.” And he said he couldn’t imagine “a worse, more undemocratic action by a sitting American president.”

Hopefully, that will open the floodgates for a river of sanity and basic common sense. Because the longer this goes on, the more likely it is something catastrophic takes place.

It’s not too late yet for the president to put some clothes on.

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Opinion | Be thankful, not regretful

“We can stay home, because maybe next Thanksgiving, we can gather again.”

Joey Kennedy

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My wife, Veronica, and I just don’t have much real family left. But Thanksgiving Day is one of our favorite holidays. In the past – many years past – we hosted Thanksgivings.

Over the past few years, though, we’ve attended three Thanksgiving celebrations with friends. One, hosted by our dear friend Jo Ellen O’Hara, former longtime food editor at The Birmingham News, is no longer possible because she now lives at Fairhaven, an assisted living community in eastern Birmingham.

This was a typical Southern Thanksgiving, with turkey, cornbread dressing, various (and too many) side dishes, and featured a dozen or so people.

John Evon and Rian Alexander hosted us later in the day on Thanksgiving. Usually, this was simply the four of us at their Helena home. It was more a Northern Thanksgiving, with turkey or ham, stuffing (not dressing), and various (and too many) side dishes.

And for the past three years, we’ve attended the Thanksgiving bash hosted by APR editor Bill Britt and his wife, associate editor Susan Britt. This gathering, of maybe 20 or so people, was held at the Britts’ farm in Attalla. There was more than just turkey or ham, more side dishes than should be possible. Bill and Susan and the APR’s capable copy editor and the Britts’ assistant Charlie Walker did most of the cooking, but this gathering was also partially potluck. We’d all bring dishes to add to the abundant food choices. (Bill also makes a damn good Raw Apple Cider. Add a touch of whiskey.)

This year, we’ll have none of that. With the Coronavirus (COVID-19) spiking in Alabama and across the country, it’ll be just Veronica and me on Thanksgiving.

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That’s sad, too. We’re social people. We like to be around others. A lot of others.

That hasn’t been much of a feature in 2020, and I don’t expect it will be through a big chunk of 2021.

The warnings have been issued. Gov. Kay Ivey’s mask mandate is staying in place, thank goodness, though there should be an enforcement effort, too.

Here is Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris: “We all want to see our family for holidays, yet this is a special year when we need to minimize risks because of the consequences of this highly infectious virus. Use your best judgment to plan the safest possible Thanksgiving. Consider hosting a virtual celebration, or if hosting or attending one, be sure to put prevention measures in place.”

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Oh, that Alabamians – and Americans – would heed that advice. But so many won’t. They’ll gather anyway – with grandparents and parents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends.They’ll gather at Thanksgiving, in a big dining room, have great conversations, and wonderful prayers.

And two or three weeks later, they’ll start to get sick and die, just in time for the Christmas some of them may not be around for.

Or they’ll survive Thanksgiving, thinking this virus is no big deal. And they’ll gather again for Christmas. Two or three weeks later, they’ll start to get sick and die, just before the presidential inauguration.

By then, too, the cases from all those New Year’s celebrations will be cranking up. And another group of people will start to get sick and die, just in the first month of 2021.

This plague is real. It’s killing hundreds of thousands of people – old people, middle-aged people, young people, children.

In Alabama alone, there have been more than 220,000 COVID cases, with more than 3,340 deaths. More than 88,000 people have recovered, but many of those are crippled with longterm, chronic health problems.

Daily cases in Alabama are ranging from 2,000 to 3,000 right now.

This is serious.

This is no hoax.

It is real.

Wear a mask.

Socially distance.

Wash your hands obsessively.

Attend only small gatherings if you must attend any gatherings – and you really don’t have to attend any gatherings.

So for Thanksgiving, for Christmas, for New Year’s, it’ll be just Veronica and me. We’ll make the best of it. Have fun together. Watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and A Christmas Story and It’s a Wonderful Life. We’ll listen to Christmas music and drive around looking at Christmas lights. We’ll have great food (my wife’s cornbread dressing is the best in the world).

And we’ll miss our friends. But we won’t kill them, and they won’t kill us.

We have plenty to be thankful for today and next week. And at Christmas and New Year’s. But we won’t be attending any parties or gatherings. We cannot do that for awhile, just as we have not done it since March. We can stay home, because maybe next Thanksgiving, we can gather again, with our friends (our family) who lived through one of the darkest periods of our lives.

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Opinion | Turnout for presidential election shatters record in Alabama

“The driving force had to unquestionably be driven by a fervor to vote for President Donald Trump.”

Steve Flowers

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On the morning of the momentous Nov. 3 presidential Election Day, I began my day on my hometown radio station, WTBF in Troy, which has been my tradition on Election Day for more than 30 years.

As the polls began to open around 7 a.m., we began getting calls that the people were lined up for almost a mile outside of the two most populous voting locations in Pike County.

Then, I started getting texts that a good many of the Republican boxes in major North Alabama cities had people waiting in line for two to three hours in voting precincts in Jasper, Hamilton, Cullman and Huntsville.

Folks in Talladega were showing up in droves driven by a local amendment.

When I voted around 10 a.m., the voting officials informed me that more people had already voted in record-breaking numbers.

About that time, I was receiving texts from other South Alabama locales like Daphne and Fairhope in Baldwin County and Enterprise and Ozark in the Wiregrass that records were going out the window.

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In Dothan, where I had spoken the day before, people were calling to tell me that records were being shattered at the Westgate polling place, which is one of the largest Republican boxes in the state.

When I went on the popular Mobile talk radio Jeff Poor Show at 10:30 a.m., Jeff said reports were coming in of an unbelievable turnout.

During the noon hour, I traversed to Montgomery for talk radio and interviews with my Capitol City television home, the Alabama News Network CBS 8 and ABC 32. I saw the same thing happening.

At St. James Methodist Church, where most of Wynlakes votes, there were two-hour-long lines. At Woodland Methodist in Pike Road, it was two to three, and at most of the Republican boxes in Elmore County, especially Millbrook and Wetumpka, there were three-hour waits.

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As I headed on to Birmingham for my election night TV appearance the scene in Shelby and Jefferson counties was more of the same, if not more pronounced.

My daughter, who votes at Vestavia Hills United Methodist Church, said the line had been out the door and around the church all day with no parking. The two major voting locations of Hoover, the Finlay Center and Hoover Met, had lines that reached almost a mile.

Around 6 p.m., while discussing the unprecedented turnout with Secretary of State John Merrill, who had joined me on CBS 42, we saw an unbelievable line out the street at the prestigious Church of the Highlands voting location in Tuscaloosa.

The coup de gras was at around 9:30 p.m., a good two-and-a-half-hours after the polls had closed, our TV cameras showed a picture of Trussville City Hall where voters were still waiting in line to cast their ballot even though Trump and Tuberville had already been declared the winners in Alabama by the Associated Press.

Merrill confirmed what I knew by that time, that indeed the state of Alabama had an unprecedented, unbelievable, amazing, record-breaking turnout — 2.3 million Alabamians voted despite COVID, which shattered any previous voting participation record.

The driving force had to unquestionably be driven by a fervor to vote for President Donald Trump. The vote for Trump was the largest for any candidate in the history of the state.

Trump garnered an amazing 62.7 percent of the vote, which surpassed his 62 percent against Hillary Clinton. He provided immense coattails for coach Tommy Tuberville, who beat our-anomaly, liberal, two-year-tenured Democratic Sen. Doug Jones by an amazing 60-to-40 shellacking.

Tuberville is now Senator-elect Tommy Tuberville.

Public Service Commission President Twinkle Cavanaugh set a record in her re-election bid with almost 1.4 million votes. She gained the record by receiving the most votes for any candidate in a contested race outside the presidency in state history.

Tuberville set the record for most votes for any senatorial candidate in state history. He trounced Jones by over 20 points despite being outspent 4-to-1.

According to unofficial election night results, the top Alabama counties for Trump were Winston at 90.3 percent, Cleburne at 89.7 percent, Blount at 89.6 percent, Marion at 88.4 percent and Cullman at 88.2 percent. They were the brightest red in the ruby red Heart of Dixie.

See you next week.

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