Former ALSDE employee warns supporters to proceed with caution
By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
About 60 people, most of them filled with confidence that their plan would work and eager to get the ball rolling, attended the public meeting held February 15 to discuss formation of a new school district for the schools within Atmore and separation of those schools from the county education system.
But, while confidence and eagerness were the common thread among those who came to Deliverance Ministry Church of Jesus Christ to hear and talk about the plan, a former state-level education administrator told supporters of the plan that they should move forward.
But, he warned, members of Atmore Citizens of Change (ACOC) — the meeting’s sponsor — should proceed with caution, realizing that the final say-so will come from the city’s governing body, of which Mayor Jim Staff and city council members Jerome Webster, Susan Smith and Chris Harrison were in attendance.
“If you break away from the county, form your own system, once you get the state board’s OK, give that pass to your city government,” said Eddie Hill, former superintendent of Daleville Schools who is retired from the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE). “If you’re going to do it, do it. But if your city government is not sold on the idea, I think you’re spinning your wheels.”
Staff, who discussed the county school system’s high points during the recent Rosa Parks Breakfast in Atmore, also warned separation supporters that their estimate of $15,000 for a feasibility study might be a little low.
“We tried to look at a city school system a few years ago,” the mayor said. “It was $60,000 for a feasibility study then, and that was four or five years ago. I don’t know what it is now.”
Staff then began to speak again about the progress made within the county school system, but the statistics he used to amplify his statements led to argumentative debate that strayed from the meeting’s main topic and threatened to get out of hand before Hill stepped in.
“Listen to me,” Hill said, holding his hands above his head. “Y’all are getting away from the point. We’re here together in hopes that you can formulate a school system. The horse is in the stall right now; you’ve got to get him in the race. You’re not going to get it all solved tonight.”
Prior to the debate, ACOC President Loumeek White spoke of his concern over the number of students who have transferred out of the county system to Escambia Academy or either Flomaton or Northview high schools.
“I graduated from here; my wife graduated from here,” he said. “Why shouldn’t my children graduate from here? Right now, we have more than 100 kids (former county school students) who are going to other schools. We need to figure out a way to get them back home.”
He said the vision for the city school system was to “create a school district driven by high expectations … that is safe and orderly … that is informed and data-driven … that values parental involvement and participation and that impresses focus, sustains professional development and increases excellence.”
Attendees also heard from Kim Staley, former assistant principal at Escambia County Middle School and former superintendent of schools in Moss Point, Miss.
Staley reported that the proposed system’s brick and mortar needs are already in place, and that staffing and transportation would also be inherited from the county system.
“Based on the number of children you have, you get x number of buses, you get all the buildings and all the teachers,” he said. “All that is automatically given to you. All these schools (within the new district) will be turned over to the Atmore City School System. All the buses and pay for the teachers will come from the state, just like it does now.”
Organizers of the plan say the city school district would consist of Rachel Patterson Elementary School, Escambia County Middle School, Escambia County High School and Huxford Elementary, although that facility is outside Atmore’s city limits.
To make sure that most of the points of discussion were better understood, the most frequently asked questions were answered on the back of the meeting agenda and is included as a sidebar to this article.
Before Mayor Staff’s comments sparked the uncontrolled debate, Lillie Johnson asked if the city would be willing to help with establishment of the new school system.
“Are you willing to help us if we help ourselves?” Johnson asked. “If we get our ducks in a line, would you be willing to sit down and do anything you can to help us?”
Staff answered in the affirmative, saying: “For these kids, I’ll do anything I can.”
Despite his earlier encouragement to proceed with the plan, Hill posed another warning.
“A lot of work goes into this,” he said. “Once you formulate this thing, you’ve got to make sure that you organize it right. It takes some time, just sitting down and organizing it. You want to make sure that if you’re going to go into this thing, that you’re going into it right.”
He added that staffing decisions, especially in the new system’s central office and the administration of the various schools, should be well thought out before being made, with more financial consideration than emotional.
“Don’t hire people from here,” he advised, patting his heart. “Hire them from your back pocket.”
Questions and answers provided by Atmore Citizens of Change
Q. Where would funds come from to fund our schools?
A. Currently, the Escambia County Board of Education receives 60% State Funding = $28,682,861, 13% Federal Funding = $6,058,090, and $27% Local Funding $3,197,420 (sales taxes, ad valorem, taxes, etc.). Atmore City Schools will receive its fair share of the funding from the same State, Federal, and local funding. Instead of Atmore sending its local funds (taxes) to the Escambia County Board of Education, those funds will stay in the city for our school system.
Q. Who creates or establishes a Board of Education?
A. The City Council will have the authority to appoint an Atmore City Board of Education or have the citizens to vote on an Atmore City Board of Education. The Board of Education will hire a superintendent.
Q. Who will develop a separation agreement between Atmore City Schools and the Escambia County Board of Education?
A. The Superintendent, Board of Education, City Council, Mayor, and attorney will develop the separation agreement.
Q. Who will hire staff?
A. Superintendent and School Board
Q. Who pays for the feasibility study?
A. $15,000. We are asking the city to support this investment. It will be a great investment into the future of our children and city.
Q. Will we have to build new schools?
A. Absolutely not. The current school buildings will be used for Atmore City Schools.
Q. Will Freemanville, Poarch, Canoe, McCullough, and Huxford children be able to attend Atmore City Schools?
Q. What if the Escambia County Board of Education decides not to cooperate?
A. The Citizens of Atmore deserve to have our voices heard, and our City Council has the authority to establish an Atmore City Board of Education. Our plan is to establish an amicable separation agreement. Our students will stay in our schools and the funding will follow them. Separation agreements among County Board of Educations are very common.
Q. Why do we need to act now for Atmore City Schools?
A. On last year, Senator Linda Coleman-Madison, D-Birmingham, sponsored bill, SB44 that would make it harder for city systems to separate from county systems. The bill proposed to up the minimum number of a city’s residents to 25,0000 instead of the current 5,000 requirements. This bill died but we don’t know if it will come up again. Atmore has an estimated population of between 9,000 – 10,000. We need to act now.