MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Dr. Eric Mackey was sworn in as Alabama's state superintendent on Friday. He was selected by the Alabama State Board of Education in a 5-4 vote on April 19 and will officially begin his duties on Monday.
He sat down with Dr. Ed Richardson, who has been serving as the interim state superintendent since last fall, on Friday morning to take more than an hour's worth of questions from the media. The pair covered topics ranging from the transition of power, which Dr. Richardson described as "smooth", to the plan for the Montgomery Public Schools intervention.
Montgomery Public Schools Intervention Plan
Back in February, Dr. Richardson released his intervention plan to address struggling finances and staggeringly low student achievement in MPS. While the system's looming accreditation review was a factor in his plans, he said his five-year plan would simply get the system to the state's average standards, which he has said multiple times are "very low".
While Dr. Richardson listed a number of plans, the two that caused the most outrage from the public and certain stakeholders were his announcements of four school closures and the sale of Georgia Washington Middle School and his plans to accept charter school applications.
Dr. Richardson slated Georgia Washington Middle School, Dozier Elementary School, Floyd Elementary School and Chisolm Elementary School to close at the end of this school year. He said all four schools would be up for sale, and that closing them would save the system about $1.5 million.
According to Dr. Richardson, Georgia Washington was the first of the four to have an interested buyer. The Town of Pike Road planned to purchase the school for almost $10 million.
The Alabama Education Association filed a lawsuit challenging Dr. Richardson's authority to carry out his plan with regard to MPS property. That suit was eventually dismissed months later.
Due to the delay, rezoning meetings for families impacted by the closures that were originally scheduled for March will now be held in late May. The sale of Georgia Washington Middle School is still uncertain.
Dr. Richardson has stated multiple times that not selling the school, a move he admitted would only hold MPS over for about a year, will prevent the system from being able to present a positive financial report to its accrediting body and will result in hundreds of staffing cuts.
He stated the biggest regret he has of his term ending is that he was not able to implement his intervention plan fully, which he attributes to the AEA's legal battle delaying the process.
"I was not able to finish that up in a satisfactory way," Richardson said. "The Montgomery board's encouragement of AEA to sue us to delay the action, I have some strong feelings about. The only ones getting hurt in this discussion are the students. That's what's getting hurt. All you have to do is look at the student achievement scores. There's absolutely no reason for that to be that way."
While there was speculation about whether Dr. Mackey would continue on Dr. Richardson's path after he was quoted saying he would likely have to make some adjustments and "tweak" the plan, he confirmed on Friday that he believes Dr. Richardson's plan is solid and intends to move forward with it.
As for other cuts within MPS, Dr. Richardson's original plan included closing about 9 administrative buildings and laying off nearly 20 central office staff members. He confirmed Friday that about 10 of those employees have been notified of termination and the rest will be notified by the end of the month.
Sale of Georgia Washington Middle School
After the Alabama Supreme Court handed down the opinion the state superintendent does, in fact, have the authority to close and sell MPS schools to help ease financial strains on the system, discussion about selling Georgia Washington Middle School was put back on the table.
Pike Road canceled the sales agreement after delays brought on by AEA's lawsuit.
In the initial interview on Friday morning, Dr. Richardson said he was not feeling hopeful or confident that the sale would go through. However, about an hour later, his office notified news outlets that he learned it possibly could happen.
Michael Sibley, director of communications for the department, said he expected a final decision by next week.
Pike Road Mayor Gordon Stone confirmed lawyers are currently working to potentially reach a deal. He said he is "encouraged" about the process.
It is unclear if the sale would bring in the nearly $10 million that was originally on the table. On Friday morning, Dr. Richardson reiterated that, without it, MPS would see major staffing cuts in addition to central office scale backs.
If Georgia Washington is not sold to Pike Road, it will be closed next school year.
Chief Administrative Officer
One of the "tweaks" to the intervention plan Dr. Mackey said has already been made is naming a new chief administrative officer for MPS. The CAO for MPS is tasked with leading the system through the intervention process and working closely with the system superintendent and state superintendent to carry out the intervention plan.
Dr. Reginald Eggleston currently serves in the position. Terry Roller, the current Talladega City Schools superintendent, was named as his replacement. Dr. Mackey said Dr. Eggleston will remain on staff to serve in a different position.
"Dr. Eggleston's done his part; he's done what he was asked to do," Dr. Mackey said. "We want no other systems to fall under state intervention, so he's going to lead a team that will go out and work with some systems that may be struggling in different ways so that we don't have to take over any more systems."
He said he believes Roller is a good fit for MPS CAO.
MPS still without a CSFO
On Wednesday, the MCBOE delayed its selection of a chief school financial officer. Board members said they wanted a larger pool of candidates after two of the four finalists dropped out of the process. However, both Dr. Mackey and Dr. Richardson said the board should have filled this position already.
"They've had, not just weeks, but years to find a competent CFO," Dr. Mackey said. "They've put it off, and they've put it off and they've put it off. At some point, we may just have to step in and say "Look, if you can't 24, 26, 28 months then somebody's going to have to just do it.""
Dr. Richardson said he believes the board will attempt to re-hire Brenda Palmer, who currently serves in the position.
"They're going to try to hire the person that's currently there that can't do the job," Dr. Richardson said. "I would overturn it if it occurred today. If not I recommend that Dr. Mackey do the same. They determined that she did not have the qualifications to be there, and now they're trying to do that. That just tells you what's going on here. Why would you do something if you know it's going to be overturned?"
Dr. Ann Roy Moore's Contract
The MCBOE recently voted to hire Dr. Ann Roy Moore on as the system's permanent superintendent. Dr. Richardson's gave the board a deadline of noon on Thursday to have her proposed contract to him for his review before his term ended on Friday.
School board member Dr. Lesa Keith expressed concern that Dr. Moore would be paid more than the system should be paying a superintendent while under intervention for financial reasons. Dr. Richardson said there were a few parts of the contract he adjusted before sending it back for processing but that the salary, though higher than he thinks it should be, was not something he changed.
Dr. Richardson said his main priority with the contract was to make sure there was a clause allowing the state superintendent to terminate the contract, without having to pay a buyout, if Dr. Moore is not performing well after the first year.
Dr. Richardson confirmed the contract did get in on time. He said it is "close" and anticipates it will be approved. He said attorneys are still working on it, and it will go before the MCBOE on Tuesday May 15 at a special called meeting
MPS accreditation review
By the end of May, the MCBOE will have received a very detailed report from its accrediting body, AdvanceEd, laying out all of the recommendations and improvements that must be made in order for MPS to maintain its accreditation status.
According to Dr. Andre Harrison, Alabama's state director for AdvanceEd, MPS will have about six months from the time it receives that report to show substantial improvement. If not, MPS could risk being put on probation. Both Dr. Richardson and Dr. Mackey said they anticipate probation for MPS, especially if the system is unable to reach a deal with Pike Road to sell Georgia Washington.
Dr. Richardson's next steps
While Richardson was adamant that he will not return to the state education department arena, he hinted that he is not finished with public education.
"There are a couple of other state groups, not this one, that have asked me to advise them," Richardson said. He also spoke about the book he had started writing about public education.
Dr. Mackey was sworn in on Friday at 2 p.m., just hours after Dr. Richardson cleared his belongings out of the state superintendent office. Dr. Mackey begins his term on Monday.