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Ken Hare In Depth: Sense of urgency needed from Selma school leaders

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MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) -

Several months ago, state officials leveled some very serious charges against the Selma City School System -- including the claim that school officials failed to investigate allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct in the schools as well as officials not taking academic and graduation standards seriously.

Those allegations by state education officials started a chain reaction of events that led last week to a state takeover of Selma city schools.

But in my opinion, that takeover was not inevitable, even though the "deficiencies" found by a state investigation are widespread and troubling on many levels. (The word "deficiencies" does not come close to adequately describing the seriousness of the allegations, which included at least one teacher having inappropriate sexual conduct with students and widespread academic failings. But that is the word used by the state, so I'll stick to it.)

Selma school officials had several opportunities to submit plans to address the deficiencies found by the state, but failed to do so to the satisfaction of State Superintendent Tommy Bice.

At the meeting at which the State Board of Education voted unanimously to support the takeover, Bice said Selma school officials did submit a plan but that "in my opinion it really didn't address the situation immediately."

Based on comments by Bice during and after the meeting, I believe that there has been no sense of urgency on the part of Selma officials to change what appears to be a culture within Selma city schools that tolerates lax academic standards. And there does not appear to be a willingness to take strong action against those school officials who have been violating state standards.

If that doesn't change,  it's going to be a long and embarrassing next couple of years for Selma school officials. Because Bice made it clear that if Selma officials aren't willing to clean up their own act, he's more than able to do it for them.

But it doesn't have to be that way.

Last year state officials intervened in Montgomery Public Schools as well following an investigation of grade-changing allegations here. As in Selma, that intervention also got off to a rocky start. But after the Montgomery Board of Education pushed out MPS Superintendent Barbara Thompson and replaced her with veteran Montgomery educator Margaret Allen, I have heard nothing but positive reports about how cooperative Montgomery school officials are being with the state to correct issues here.

If Selma school board members and school system administrators adopt the same sort of cooperative attitude, this takeover quickly could result in positive changes to benefit students. If they show a willingness to work with state officials, it could shorten the length of time the takeover remains in effect and make the changes that will come as painless as possible.

But if Selma school officials continue to drag their heels, it is likely to only delay the inevitable.

If the academic issues are as rampant as the state investigation suggests, those changes probably will involve some staff dismissals and even efforts to take state teaching credentials away from some educators. That is happening in Montgomery schools, and I have to believe it could happen in Selma as well.

The resolution approving the takeover calls for a minimum of five things to happen for the intervention to end: Successful implementation of a correction plan approved by the state superintendent, satisfactory corrections of any issues found by a state audit of instruction at Selma High School, development of a successful tracking and reporting plan to ensure that measures are put in place,  cooperation with the oversight by the state, and the demonstrated willingness of the board and administration "to promptly and proactively respond to evidence or reports of deficiencies of the kind that have prompted this action."

So a few words of advice to Selma school officials: Do everything within your power to cooperate with the state. Show that you will not tolerate cutting corners on academic standards, and for heaven's sake show that sexual improprieties within schools will be fully and quickly investigated and dealt with harshly when those investigations find any substance to allegations.

And finally, show a sense of urgency. These are not just "deficiencies" -- these are heinous failings that should have been addressed long ago.

Job developer recognized

Whenever there is news about new industries coming to Alabama, it is virtually assured that it will be elected officials who are out  front in making those announcements. If the industry is big enough, the governor will take center stage, flanked by mayors and county commissioners from the areas affected.

And that's OK. It's the way it has been done for decades, and it's the way it is done in most states, not just Alabama.

But journalists and others who follow economic development issues know that most of these job announcements would never have come to pass without the hard work  behind the scenes of dedicated development professionals.

That's why it was gratifying to see Ellen McNair receive an award last week from the Alabama Department of Commerce that recognizes her outstanding work as one of those economic development professionals.

McNair, the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce's senior vice president of corporate development, has worked more than two decades to bring jobs to Alabama and to the Montgomery area. She was the state's first woman certified economic developer, the first woman president of the Economic Development Association of Alabama and the first woman to lead a major state metro area's economic development efforts.

Over the years I've come to know just what a professional McNair is and what a pivotal role she has played in bringing jobs to our area.

So it's nice to see one of these behind-the-scenes workers have a chance to step out front and be recognized. So stand aside, all you politicians, and let a real pro take a bow.

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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 khare@wsfa.com.

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