By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – As many as 200 teachers are facing layoffs and up to 400 support personnel will be outsourced from Montgomery Public Schools due to the system’s inability to finalize a budget that meets its state-mandated financial obligations.
Interim State Superintendent Ed Richardson, who is leading the state’s intervention of Montgomery schools, called personnel cuts “unnecessary” actions taking place because the Montgomery School Board and the Alabama Education Association (AEA) are blocking a key part of the state’s budget plan: selling the Georgia Washington Middle School building to the town of Pike Road for $9.8 million. That money would be used to allow the system to meet its state-mandated requirement to keep a month’s operating expenses in reserve, Richardson said.
Richardson laid blame for the layoffs and the now very real threat of Montgomery Public Schools losing accreditation squarely at the feet of the Montgomery Board of Education and AEA. He called the teachers and education employees union “the single greatest impediment to the continued progress of Alabama public schools.”
“We had a chance about two months ago to effect a number of positive changes that would have sent a message to the accrediting body that we have a plan for financial stability and that we have a plan for having additional resources to get positive academic improvements next year. Because of delay tactics by members of the Montgomery Board of Education and the Alabama Education Association, those were not possible,” Richardson said. “Without the sale of property, we’re into personnel. Totally uncalled for and unnecessary. But now with these delay tactics, that’s where we are.”
Montgomery school board members and AEA officials say Richardson and Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange are using the layoffs and the threat of Montgomery schools losing their accreditation as “scare tactics.” They also argue that Richardson has a conflict of interest because he previously served as a consultant to Pike Road schools.
AEA President Sherry Tucker responded to Richardson saying, “Anyone paying attention to the matter knows Ed Richardson has a personal issue with AEA. This is causing him to make decisions that he thinks will hurt AEA, regardless of if they will help the children of Montgomery County.”
What a Mess
The threat of Montgomery schools losing accreditation has very real consequences for the city, the region and, perhaps, the state. But it’s the students who stand to lose the most, as many could lose college scholarship opportunities.
Losing accreditation could cause an exodus of teachers and students alike, as families search for better options. That snowball effect could make things even worse academically and financially for Montgomery Public Schools.
This has the full attention of Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange, who likened the problem for the city to an oncoming train.
“That train is called accreditation,” he said.
Strange also said continued struggles in Montgomery schools would discourage military families from moving into the area when a service member is stationed at Maxwell Air Force Base.
What has up until now been a mostly local education matter may be turning into a statewide political issue.
Why? Partly because the AEA has entered the fray. The once all-powerful teachers and education employees union has been in rehabilitation mode after years of political turmoil from within and without the organization.
By filing suit to block Montgomery turnaround efforts, from the sale of Georgia Washington to the formation of charter schools, the AEA is getting right back into the thick of it politically and helping turn the struggle over Montgomery schools into a much larger story about education reform.
Also, this story isn’t likely to end well. Montgomery schools might lose accreditation. People are getting laid off. It’s likely to get a lot worse before it gets better. Before, you could have blamed most of that on politicians at the local and state level. Now, AEA risks sharing in the blame.
I reached out to AEA to ask about the political downside to getting involved in the Montgomery Public Schools fiasco.
“AEA doesn’t make decisions based on the ebb and flow of politics. We have to do what’s right for educators and the students they serve. If we do that, the politics will take care of itself – there’s never a wrong time to do the right thing,” President Sherry Tucker said.
Richardson’s shot at AEA sounded like rhetoric from ten years ago when Alabama Republicans and education reform advocates had a consistent and comfortable boogeyman in the AEA. Tensions have largely cooled since those heated battles of roughly 2006 to 2014. Now, in Montgomery, things could be heating up again.