Ken Hare in Depth: Possibility of city school system should spur MPS action

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - If strong language from the state superintendent of education isn't enough to spur the Montgomery County Public School System into action to ensure academic integrity, then the renewed possibility of the city of Montgomery breaking away to create its own system should do the trick.

In a recent letter, state Superintendent Tommy Bice suggested that an "institutional mindset" exists in Montgomery Public Schools that places more importance on advancing non-magnet students than in actually teaching them.

That letter apparently prompted Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange, who has been a strong supporter of MPS, to say that he will propose that the city revisit the possibility of creating its own school system if the school board and MPS officials do not adequately address the issues raised by the State Department of Education.

Unless the Montgomery County Board of Education has a death wish, its members will take a deep breath, then they will forget about being defensive, forget about petty internal squabbles, forget about protecting turf, and forget about protecting friends among the administration. Instead, they need to remember and focus on two things -- student learning and academic integrity.

Unless that happens, there are two very serious consequences that could occur: First, the state could take over administration of MPS. And the city could get serious about creating its own system.

If Montgomery broke away, it could leave the county system with so few schools, so few students and so little fiscal support that it might not be able to remain a viable system. The town of Pike Road already is in the process of creating its own system, and some of the school-age youth who live in the non-incorporated areas of the county already attend private schools.

I believe that if the city created its own system, it would have the potential to be a great one.  But because of the harm that could occur to those students left in the non-incorporated parts of the county, the best alternative is to fix the issues facing the current system.

It's clear from the Montgomery mayor's comments that he would rather MPS fix what's broken than the city break away. Readers will recall that he vetoed a proposal to study the possibility of a city system a couple of years ago. But Strange also made it clear that he would support pursuing a city system if the issues raised by Bice are not adequately addressed.

I recently talked at length with a source in MPS who disagreed with the description of the problems outlined by Bice as a "grade-changing scandal," saying that most if not all of the allegations did not involve grades of students simply being switched. Instead, the source said it would be more accurate to describe it as MPS officials failing to follow proper procedures.

But this goes far beyond just procedural technicalities.

In his scathing letter, Bice outlined many failures of MPS, including but not limited to:              -- Students being allowed to take a course for the first time in credit/grade recovery, which is not the intent of the program.

-- A lack of documentation to support grade changes, and some changes not being signed or signed by someone without the authority to do so.

-- School officials relying on "questionable written materials"

-- "much of which appears ungraded"

-- to supplement or replace required scores.

-- Students who failed credit recovery tests, or who took no test at all, being given passing grades.

-- Students with grades in a course below 40 being allowed to take credit recovery, and some students who took credit recovery being given a grade higher than a 70 -- both of which violate credit recovery guidelines.

Those are serious allegations, and those involved deserve more than a slap on the wrist.

In a lengthy interview with WSFA reporter Jennifer Oravet, MPS Superintendent Barbara Thompson defended the system's punishments of those who have so far been identified as being involved.

Thompson essentially threw down the gauntlet to Bice, saying that MPS had taken all the steps that were justified to punish the seven system employees identified to date as being involved. She repeatedly in the interview called on the State Department of Education to provide further evidence of problems if it had it.

She told Oravet that the "individuals that we identified we terminated, we non-renewed" and that this "wasn't a structural, procedural issue, this was an individual choice."

So what exactly was the actions taken against the original seven individuals identified by the original probe?

According to MPS, one was fired for an unrelated cause (allegations of sexual harassment.) One retired. One's contract was non-renewed as a principal, but the person was kept on as an assistant principal. All were placed on leave with pay for some period. Three received "letters of concern" in their files. According to my math, that leaves four who remain employed in their prior positions and one who remains an assistant principal.

I'll leave it up to the reader to decide if that is "pretty harsh," as Thompson described it.             Other than his letter, Bice remains mum on the issue, pointing out that the extended investigation is still ongoing.

But MPS did respond to the state superintendent's request for a plan to address the issues raised by the probe. Although buried in academic bureaucratic jargon, the system's response does seem to address the procedures for changing grades of students.                         However, as Strange said, it's not just the response but the "follow through" that is crucial.

"If that's not getting done – and I don't say this lightly – then I and the city council will revisit the idea of the city forming its own school system. We can't sit by and watch. We have to do something," he said.

The citizenry of Montgomery County should hope that the administrators and school board members of Montgomery County Public Schools are listening.

Copyright 2013 WSFA 12 News.  All rights reserved.

Ken Hare was a longtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site. Email him at