By Robert Carter and Melanie Patterson
North Jefferson News
— [Editor's note: The comments from members of the Gardendale Board of Education were made before their first organizational meeting on Tuesday night. It was also edited to correct a quote from Chris Segroves involving legal counsel.]
The new Gardendale Board of Education will begin its work with “a clean sheet of paper,” as one of its members puts it.
But it also faces the formidable challenges of starting almost from scratch, as well as a controversial issue that almost every school system in the country is dealing with now.
The five charter members of the board met Tuesday night in an organizational meeting at City Hall. (That meeting took place after press deadlines; see njeffersonnews.com for details.) The four men and one woman won’t be officially sworn in until April 1, but they decided to get a head start on setting the direction for the new school system, which will break away from the Jefferson County Schools.
The North Jefferson News spoke with four of the members earlier this week about what their biggest task is right off the bat, aside from naming a superintendent.
The members were also asked their views on Common Core, the national initiative that was adopted by the Alabama Board of Education, which seeks to establish national standards as to what students should know in core subjects at the end of each grade. It’s an initiative that faces opposition from a number of groups, most of them conservative-leaning; it is the political target of State Sen. Scott Beason (R-Gardendale), who has introduced bills either calling for it to be removed entirely, or for individual school systems to be allowed to opt out.
“We’ve been given the unique opportunity to start with a clean sheet of paper,” said new board member Dick Lee. “I think the greatest challenge we face is coming together as a board and committing ourselves to focus on building a best-in-class school system.”
Lee, who is executive vice president and chief credit officer for Peoples Bank of Alabama/Generations Bank, is grateful for what he calls the “financial resources and non-financial resources” the people of Gardendale have entrusted to the new city school board.
“We ought to be bold in our vision and creative in our thinking,” Lee said. “If we do that as a board, and if the community support is there, we can truly build a best-in-class system.”
Lee said he keeps coming back to the phrase “best in class” to describe the Gardendale City School System because that is exactly what he envisions.
Two things have impressed Lee so far in the school board’s infancy: The Gardendale City Council’s commitment to the school system, and the support of the Gardendale community.
Community support includes the passage of an additional 5-mill property tax to financially support the four Gardendale schools, as well as people who have approached Lee and the other board members to express their support.
As for Common Core, Lee said he does not have enough information yet to form an educated opinion.
“It will be a big issue for us,” he said. “It’s like a lot of other things we will face; we will have to keep an open and creative mind.”
Chris Lucas, a senior vice president and a compliance officer with BBVA Compass, shares much the same opinion of Common Core at the moment — there’s still much to learn about the controversial initiative.
“I think there’s advantages to the idea of having a common system that everyone is held accountable to,” Lucas said. “At the end of the day, if Sen. Beason’s bill gets passed, we’ll take a look at it. But, there’s really two advantages to our system — we have a better-funded system, and we have local control that equates to better flexibility. That would apply to this issue — if we have the flexibility to go with Common Core or not, it’s something we would look at.”
Lucas sees three big tasks right out of the gate for the new board, all related to hiring: the superintendent, a chief school financial officer (CSFO) and the board’s attorney.
“The hiring of the attorney will likely happen first. The CSFO hiring could take place before the superintendent,” Lucas said. “Getting the separation talks with the Jefferson County Board, and getting them finalized in a way that is beneficial to the children here in Gardendale, is the biggest thing after that.”
Chris Segroves, who was active in the effort to form the new school system along with Lucas, sees the separation process as the biggest task after hiring a leader, with hiring a qualified school finance officer next in line.
“I would imagine [the negotiations] will be fairly difficult, but I’m anxious to get some feedback from legal counsel on how to begin that process, and set the tone in terms of what to expect,” said Segroves, a comptroller for Southern Nuclear Operating Company in Birmingham.
As for Common Core, Segroves is also reserving judgement for now.
“I want to get an understanding for what flexibility, what options are available at the local school district level before I develop any positions on my own,” he said. “I am supportive of performance standards; we need metrics in order to identify progress, but those standards should be administered at the local-school level. That’s why I am anxious to see exactly what the local district is able to control.”
Karen White, who retired as principal at Snow Rogers Elementary in 2011, is the only member of the new board to have hands-on experience with Common Core, though it was limited — the initiative took effect in 2010, not long before her departure. Still, she favors the initiative, though she’s keeping an open mind with opponents.
“There’s a difference between curriculum and standards, and that’s where the confusion comes in,” White said. “I support Common Core standards. I’m comfortable with what our state department [of education] has done with it. I do not have enough clarification to why there is opposition — I get that it’s about government overreach, but I have no evidence that’s the case in Alabama.
“We have to do what’s better for students, period. I have been doing my due diligence to investigate the pros and cons of Common Core.”
White believes the foremost task at hand for the new board, even before hiring a superintendent, is to establish a vision for the system.
“Building trust within the community and being very transparent will be a critical piece of this ongoing puzzle,” she said.
White hopes that the negotiation process with Jefferson County Schools will allow for a grandfather clause for children in Mt. Olive who are currently zoned to attend Bragg Middle and Gardendale High schools.
“I am absolutely for that, and have no qualms saying that,” White said. “I am not about excluding children. This is about educating children, period... It is a very complicated process, but I am all for coming up with a solution to this problem that includes Mt. Olive and any other children that are currently attending Gardendale.”
Dr. Michael Hogue, the fifth member of the new board, is the interim dean of the McWhorter School of Pharmacy at Samford University. Attempts to reach him for comment before press deadlines were unsuccessful.