Huntsville Board of Education forum

I attended the Huntsville Council of PTAs forum at Grissom High School featuring District 2 candidates David Blair and Emily Elam, and District 3 candidates Jennie Robinson (incumbent) and Walker McGinnis.  Before I get into the details of the two hour forum, there’s a good story.

I met State Senate 9 Democratic candidate Tim Mitchell campaigning at the event.  Turns out, I like Judge Mitchell.  Anyway, we were talking and political consultant Dave Driscoll noticed that someone was stuck trying to park (a teenager had pulled in at a bad angle and was stuck on another car).  We found the owner of the other car (Coach McGinnis’ wife) and she pulled her car up a few feet allowing the young man to back away (and park in a spot with more room).  Judge Mitchell was instructing the young man on how to turn his wheels so as to not cause more trouble (neither car seemed to be damaged – I wiped off some of the marks with a wet finger).  YMMV but I thought it was a good story with a happy ending.  It was certainly more exciting than what I was about to endure for you, dear readers.

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About 80 people attended the forum moderated by Mark Thornhill of WAFF TV48 and Challen Stephens of The Huntsville Times.  Due to my poor stenographic skills and lack of enthusiasm for transcription, I’ll only be providing highlights from the forum – sound bites, so to speak – er, write…  The format was question, response from candidates, rebuttal from opponents – by District.

Candidates gave an opening statement:

David Blair (District 2) = “I’ve faced a lot of the same issues we’re facing today”
Emily Elam (District 2) = “Our school board needs new vision and new perspective”
Walker McGinnis (District 3) = “South Huntsville has not gotten their fair share”
Jennie Robinson (District 3) = “developed strategic plans… parent and a business person”

QUESTION 1 = what are your top three priorities?

Blair (D2) = finances due to proration, Superintendent search, academics; ensure that “schools that are strong stay strong, schools that need help get help”
Elam (D2) = budget (as a “living budget”), establish evaulation procedures for Superintendent (why did we have to buyout Ann Roy Moore?), find Superintendent
Blair Rebuttal = budget is set for year (not “living”)
Elam Rebuttal = budget is based on projected revenues so needs revisiting

McGinnis (D3) = budget “sad to have to borrow money for payroll”, Superintendent search with parental input – looking for an educator with a business background, struggling schools
Robinson (D3) = Superintendent search “biggest decision” looking for a strong educational leader, academic achievement – 13 chronically underachieving schools and transfers from them overload other schools, budget – look at program support
Note that I’ll omit some rebuttals in the interest of me finishing this…

QUESTION 2 = proration and bracing for cutbacks?

Elam (D2) = “look at admin and overhead” before cutting teachers, wants more than 50 pages of budget detail
Blair (D2) = budget is fairly detailed, look at unfunded federal / state mandates (~$20 million), possibly combine textbook purchases with Madison County / City

McGinnis (D3) = cut administration, HR has 11 employees and contractor – don’t need both, tenure is a monster that can be challenged
Robinson (D3) = raised issue of contractor staffing last year, fighting tenure is expensive because AEA has deep pockets, review magnet / special education programs, explore shared services with Madison County / City
McGinnis Rebuttal = “I’ve fired teachers with tenure”
Robinson Rebuttal = 11 HR employees is in line with other school systems

QUESTION 3 = no sense of community; bring community together; celebrate strength and individuality of each school?

McGinnis (D3) = the common element is that parents care about their kids, support Schools Foundation
Robinson (D3) = common purpose will unite community, every part of this town has good things happening, Schools Foundation Speaking Up, PTAs pull together
McGinnis Rebuttal = need to involve more parents, transparency
Robinson Rebuttal = communications and transparency, need to act on input provided by parents

Blair (D2) = has to start at the top, the school board needs to be united, schools are interacting at the administration and PTA level
Elam (D2) = ensure entire City gets a good education, Schools Foundation Speaking Up, make schools more comfortable
Blair Rebuttal = shore up schools with academic challenges 
Elam Rebuttal = achievement gap is happening across nation

QUESTION 4 = Superintendent search – which present or past world leader has characteristics?

Robinson (D3) = Winston Churchill – spirit is the difference between an optimist and a pessimist,  look for opportunities, build on strengths, deal with challenges
McGinnis (D3) = Abe Lincoln and JFK, inspirational, need business sense, current board is not cohesive
Robinson Rebuttal = Alabama Association of School Boards can help search for Superintendent for nominal cost
McGinnis Rebuttal = Dr. Thompson was the product of an outside agency search [IIRC Thompson got an early buyout like Moore for poor performance]

Blair (D2) = Bill Gates to fix finances, General Myles for experience at executive management
Elam (D2) = JFK and Einstein, creativity, innovation, can’t solve problems using the same process that created them – noted Blair’s involvement in Dr. Moore’s selection
Blair Rebuttal = about 4 years ago things went awry

QUESTION 5 – rumor that Dr. Moore might be reinstated by the next school board – would you bring her back?  What do you think about Moore’s 6 month contract extension?

Blair (D2) = no, questions the 6 month extension
Elam (D2) = no, concerned that the 6 month extension might undermine the authority of new Superintendent

McGinnis (D3) = absolutely not, need to move forward, 6 month extension shows that the board got caught in that situation, outsourced Superintendent evaluations
Robinson (D3) = absolutely not, gave Moore the lowest evaluations, said no to 12 month extension and opposed 6 month extension until tenure rights came up, extension was the best solution in a bad situation

QUESTION 6 – transparency?

Elam (D2) =  the school system hasn’t been transparent, board presented that everything was fine, disappointed that budget meetings were held at 4PM when people are working, budget should be online, meeting minutes don’t provide much information
Blair (D2) = want to hold budget hearings at each high school, quarterly meetings with public, agenda is not transparent

McGinnis (D3) = budget meetings held at bad times, budget needs to be at website, we need parents on budget committee
Robinson (D3) = meet with each PTA board so no surprises, move to electronic board meetings, searchable board minutes, post budget online, make it easy to find information, community committees
McGinnis Rebuttal = the board violated the spirit of the sunshine law regarding Superintendent Moore
Robinson Rebuttal = negotiating contracts is within bounds of sunshine law

QUESTION 7 – leadership experience?

Robinson (D3) = management consultant provding leadership training, board member of Alabama Association of School Boards, 8 years on Huntsville School Board
McGinnis (D3) = 35 years as teacher, coach, principal; USAR Major

Elam (D2) = Courts Jury Manager, volunteer court youth advocate, DHR Quality Assurance committee, quick learner
Blair (D2) = President of Helpline, Treasurer Schools Foundation, HEALS board, HEMSI board, 4 years on Huntsville School Board

QUESTION 8 – hundreds of students applied for transfers under AYP / NCLB?

 Blair (D2) = consumers (parents / students) are voting with their feet, choices needed at Butler and Johnson either a) shore up schools with community involvement or b) close down
Elam (D2) = Butler has 400 students and 70 staff maybe try magnet programs

McGinnis (D3) = had to deal with a struggling school day-to-day,  Dr. Robinson ads say test scores fell steadily at Chapman Middle School while McGinnis was principal, shows Robinson signed commendation letter noting school scores rose
Robinson (D3) = need to control level of transfer students, NCLB responsible for small number, most transfer under desegregation court order, need to get out from under court order, parents who transfer say they don’t like old buildings and have a lack of confidence in neighborhood school principals
McGinnis Rebuttal = look at the scores from Chapman
Robinson Rebuttal = difference between (ARMT?) scores and SAT scores, SAT scores slipped at Chapman and 100 families left the school
McGinnis Rebuttal = State goes by (ARMT?)  scores, several families transferred to Williams
Robinson Rebuttal = stand by statement that scores dropped, 100 families left, says McGinnis traveled for AEA instead of working

QUESTION 9 – compare Huntsville and Madison – what are they doing that we should do?

 Blair (D2) – Madison does great PR
Elam (D2) – short-sighted of Huntsville to spend reserves, we’re not performing to the standard they’re setting, Kiplinger recognized Huntsville as great area but noted that City schools were lackluster, GreatSchools website rates HSV 6/10, Madison County 8/10, Madison City 9/10

Robinson (D3) = Madison has one high school and enjoys economies of scale, Madison is a homogenous community, few special programs, no court order
McGinnis (D3) = Huntsville has serious perception problems, as a realtor South Huntsville is not much of a drawing card, we’ve got to get our schools in better shape
Robinson (D3) = need to develop a program to work with realtors, train students as hosts
McGinnis (D3) = we already train students as hosts, out of towners aren’t impressed by basic maintenance, schools need renovation

QUESTION 10 – what do you think about merit pay?

Elam (D2) = do we want teachers to teach to the test?  A+ AP program is ideal
Blair (D2) = we’re in a financial crisis, now’s not the time, need to incemtivize teachers to stay in impoverished schools in addition to the special training they already receive
Elam Rebuttal = get rid of teachers who aren’t doing their job, makes it tough on good teachers
Blair Rebuttal = we are following the path of other cities [into an inner city school system]

McGinnis (D3) = no one can seem to come up with a system of fairness, tenure wasn’t designed to be a job guarantee, about the only thing I’ve agreed with Obama on was Race to the Top
Robinson (D3) = teacher effectiveness is more important than money, suggests Colorado’s tenure model of five year reviews
McGinnis Rebuttal = principals should routinely evaluate teachers
Robinson Rebuttal = since Alabama did away with PEPE there is no model to evaluate teachers

QUESTION 11 – why do you want this job?

McGinnis (D3) = “if something is wrong, I like to straighten it out”,  AEA travel was on weekends.
Robinson (D3) = “I will not leave your children in a crisis”, schools are economic engine, HSV schools are 74th in the State
McGinnis Rebuttal = South Huntsville has suffered from Robinson’s rhetoric
Robinson Rebuttal = proudest of the restoring funding for two counselors at Grissom, “I have been a lone voice on the board”

Blair (D2) = everything can be solved with a solid education
Elam (D2) = “Baby Jack” [Elam's newborn], make sure my son gets a good education, I believe in public schools

QUESTION 12 – what initial advice would you offer a new Superintendent about the Central Office?

McGinnis (D3) = Superintendent should make their own independent assessment
Robinson (D3) = hire someone to take us higher than 74th in the State, Board of Education sets goals then evaluates based on vision and accountability.

Blair (D2) = don’t micromanage
Elam (D2) = Superintendent needs to take decisive action on Butler HS

Summation

 Blair (D2) = need to talk about solutions
Elam (D2) = thanks for paying attention

McGinnis (D3) = my opponent has had 8 years, South Huntsville hasn’t received fair share
Robinson (D3) = 75% of voters don’t have children in schools, received every endorsement except AEA

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VOTE OCTOBER 5th!

Emily Elam has grown as a candidate – she did really well.  However, in the District 2 municipal election I voted for David Blair, and full disclosure, I’m voting for David Blair in the runoff.  More disclosure – I have one of his yard signs.  Blair has a solid grasp of the issues before the board, and more than that, he understands the complexities of the issues.  His experience, knowledge, and dedication will be critical to the Board of Education as they make important upcoming decisions.

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Overall, I have no confidence in the current Huntsville Board of Education or Huntsville City Schools administration.  Dr. Jennie Robinson seems to be the only Board member with any understanding of the challenges facing the schools, but she has one vote.  The FY 2011 budget is $220 million; total State prorationing (funding cut) was 9.5% in FY2010;  next year may be as bad or worse; the budget doesn’t reflect the near certainty of a looming funding crisis.

I doubt that the voters of the City will support raising taxes for schools and both of the District 3 candidates have pledged not to raise taxes.  Rumors abound that Madison County may raise sales taxes by 1/2 cent.  Regardless, the outlook for additional funding is uncertain.  Hard decisions lie ahead.

The Schools Foundation Speaking Up program was mentioned often as a way to improve communication with parents – the first issue Speaking Up needs to address is parents who have spoken up and who have been harassed by school administrators

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State Senate 9 Democratic candidate Tim Mitchell is the Probate Judge in Marshall County.  Mitchell is pro-life and pro-adoption (Marshall County has a very high success rate with adoptions).  Mitchell is tough on illegal immigrants – he was the first Probate Judge in Alabama to deny marriage licenses to illegal immigrants.  Mitchell supports Democratic State Representative Jeff McLaughlin’s ban on PAC-to-PAC transfers.  Mitchell supports Republican State Representative Mike Ball’s Housing Authority notification (and eminent domain) bill.  Mitchell denied eminent domain to a post office in a case that went to the Supreme Court – upholding his ruling.

Tim Mitchell is running against Republican candidate Clay Scofield.  I would vote for Scofield if I lived in Senate District 9.

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Huntsville City Council District 3 candidate John Olshefski attended the last part of the forum, after going to the City Council meeting and the GOP BBQ.  It’s almost an inside joke that you’re all in on, my noting who shows up for these things, but I believe that it is important to be there.

Update: Barry Pendergraft attended the City Council meeting, GOP BBQ, and the School Board forum.  On a related note, my qualifications to be a baseball umpire are now well-established (I can’t see).

Let’s remind our politicians exactly who they work for

“Let’s remind our politicians exactly who they work for”.  Linda Lawrence received a standing ovation for this remark at the South Huntsville Civic Association meeting packed into Grissom’s auditorium Monday night.  Her SECOND standing ovation came after quoting from the Declaration of Independence – IMO the ovations were given out of appreciation for her efforts to hold the City and HHA accountable. 

The applause was also a warning shot to City officials who may find themselves out of office if they continue to pursue the unproven (or failed) policy of deconcentrating poverty. 

The South Huntsville Civic Association’s mission “is to unite residents of South Huntsville so we have one powerful voice that lets our local leaders know we expect them to: address our issues and concerns; operate government in a transparent manner”.  Their primary function “will be to act as a watchdog” for city government.  Their focus is on schools and safety

The Association is also planning to “screen candidates” and establish  a Political Action Committee (PAC) to fund candidates.  The meeting was attended by about 1200 citizens.

The group is headed by Mark Dummer and James Steele (disclosure – I put out yard signs for Steele when he ran for Mayor).  Challen Stephens of The Huntsville Times interviewed Dummer in this excellent article, “South Huntsville sends loud message”.  Stephens is an asset to Huntsville and I wish the Times had more reporters like him (and wrote more about local issues).

The meeting was moderated by a Huntsville Police Department Officer, who I’m certain is a nice guy, but IMO it is inappropriate to have a public meeting moderated by the Police.  Maybe someone with the HPD or City can explain that to us.

City Councilwoman Sandra Moon, Mayor Tommy Battle, and School Board Member Jennie Robinson gave introductory remarks; then Robinson gave a summary of the schools in the area, noting that enrollment at Grissom High School has increased (and it was already over-capacity) and that “some schools have been negatively impacted” by “Section 8 and affordable housing”.  Robinson noted that “historically, South Huntsville schools were not well-maintained” because of political correctness.  She closed by saying “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance”.

State Representative Mike Ball (R – 10) said that he ran for public office to ‘make the State Government more open, honest, and accountable’.  He described his proposed legislation to hold HHA accountable by: taking away their power of eminent domain, requiring public notification, and requiring the approval of the ELECTED City Council.  Ball promised to make passage of this bill his “top priority” next year.  Mike received applause after each part of his bill.

Several City Officials made presentations, including HPD South Precinct Captain Kenny Bryant, Terry Hatfield, Shane Davis, and Brenda Martin.  Civic Association leaders Mark Dummer and James Steele spoke about “holding elected officials accountable” and asked people to join the organization.

Then Linda Lawrence spoke…  Lawrence described Huntsville Community Rights, an organization formed to provide “facts about the intentions of the Huntsville Housing Authority”.  Lawrence said about deconcentrating poverty that there is “absolutely no proof that this works” and that “social engineering is socialism”.  Lawrence received two standing ovations from the 1200 people assembled – compare that to light applause mixed with boos for Mayor Battle.

The Police Moderator then announced question time – email questions… WE SHOWED UP and the City doesn’t even have the courtesy to acknowledge that by asking questions from the audience.  There was  a general groan from the audience when he said the first question was about sidewalks, as well as some outbursts from the crowd.  The City can’t duck the HHA issue forever, and putting an armed Policeman out front won’t stop people from voting.   If the City had handled the HHA situation correctly (or implemented a policy based on more than a slogan) they wouldn’t have to hide.