MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Interim Alabama State Superintendent Dr. Ed Richardson and Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange held a joint press conference Wednesday to discuss the status of the state's intervention of Montgomery Public Schools, and they made no attempt to hide their displeasure with where things stand.
Both Richardson and Strange have shared frustration over a legal battle that has slowed the intervention plans. Richardson referred multiple times to "delaying tactics" and called the Alabama Education Association, which brought a lawsuit, "the greatest impediment to the further improvement of Alabama's public schools."
Strange has previously called AEA's lawsuit a way to "thwart" intervention, and though he admits he as mayor doesn't have any legal authority over MPS, he was indignant about the thought of being the mayor of a city that has an unaccredited school system. He cautioned those who think they see a "light at the end of the tunnel" to realize "it's the train coming at us." The train he referred to is MPS's accreditation.
"We are weeks away from having a significant train wreck if we cannot convince the accreditation area that we are making progress in the right direction," Strange said.
Richardson also laid some of the blame to members of the MPS board, several of whom were among the audience members and who would confront him afterward during a Q&A session.
"I would say to you in fairness to the board, I've found no reason to believe they're malicious or dishonest or not committed to Montgomery. I haven't found that at all," Richardson said of the board. "What I have found is an inability or an unwillingness to deal with the significant problems that lie before us."
What MPS is facing is an intervention due to financial issues and low student performance rates. And it will need to correct issues soon because of a pending accreditation review.
Richardson reiterated his intervention plan and said the continued delays have caused him to be unable to correct the system's problems. He anticipates that instead of MPS holding where it is or even improving, it will continue to "decline".
"The problems that we face are not teacher/principal problems. It's because of a very poorly organized school system at the top levels that's causing the problem," Richardson said.
The interim state superintendent said the system is running out of time to correct problems ahead of an accreditation review by AdvancED and believes the longer delays continue, "the actions we have to take will be more severe, more harmful, and harsher than I would like to take but will take."
"Lack of student progress is the big issue," Richardson explained of the second reason for intervention. "And regardless of whether you look at college and career readiness rates, graduation rates, low ACT scores, excessive absences or whatever standard you wish to identify, these deficiencies are central to AdvancED, the accrediting body's study of the Montgomery Public Schools..."
At this time, Richardson believes there's been so little progress on addressing issues that he doubts the system will be ready for AdvancED next year even as he reminded those in attendance that the agency has already delayed its review by a year and will not give another extension.
"I am most concerned that the report that we will receive will make it more difficult for us to solve our problems and it will extend the time limit by at least two years," Richardson warned.
And then there's the "third problem" which Richardson said was the one he really wanted to talk about.
"We had a chance about two months ago to affect a number of positive changes that would have sent the message to the accrediting body that we have a plan for financial stability and that we have a plan for having additional resources to affect positive academic improvements for the next year," Richard stated. "And because of the delaying tactics of members of the Montgomery Board of Education and the Alabama Education Association, those were not possible, and so AdvancED came and went out me being able to give them some positive report."
A ruling is still pending on AEA's suit against Richardson and the intervention team's plan, which called for the closure of four schools and the sale of one of those, Georgia Washington Middle School, to nearby Pike Road Schools. Because of the delays, the $10 million sale fell apart.
With the school year winding down, Richardson has stated the plan is still to close the schools, but without MPS gaining any benefit from Georgia Washington. In the wake of financial issues and a looming accreditation Richardson is preparing alternate plans.
"Without the sale of property, you're into personnel," Richardson lamented. Calling the next step something that's "totally uncalled for and unnecessary", he nevertheless moved into a discussion about the list of cuts his staff is preparing.
Set to be finalized by the end of April, the list calls for the outsourcing of at least 400 support personnel jobs and cuts of up to 200 teacher positions. "I would say this is the worst possible option," Richardson said, "and that's why I wanted to express it because within the next 30 days those steps are going to be taken."
Richard also cautioned that MPS could see losses beyond the specified cuts. "I predict, and I think we've already started to see this, is that you're going to lose some of your best teachers. Some have already started to resign and retire. That list is coming in. And you're going to lose more of your students as parents look to other options."
A loss of more students would mean a loss of additional state funding that's based on enrollment, something MPS can ill afford.
As interim superintendent, Richardson's days in charge of the intervention are winding down. The Alabama State Board of Education is scheduled to vote on a superintendent finalist to replace him by the end of April.
"I regret that I will be unable to develop a position for the Montgomery public schools to put them in a more favorable position," he said.