South Huntsville Civic Association

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					                                      South Huntsville Civic Association
                                             Questionnaire for
                                        Huntsville City School Board

        Candidate Name:          Jennie Robinson          School Board District: 3

1. Please describe the issues or platform on which you are running.
My three key objectives for the next four years will be to:

   Develop a visionary, united board that works together to provide strong leadership and address challenges. The
    single most important responsibility the board will have in the next four years will be the selection of a new
    superintendent and the creation of a strong strategic direction that restores community trust.

   Ensure the sustainability of the school system by creating a solid business plan that identifies revenue
    streams, decreases costs and strategically prioritizes the use of resources based on impact on student achievement.
    Rebuilding the one month reserve must be part of that business plan.

   Increase student achievement by ensuring that we have high quality administrators and high quality teachers in
    every school and that they are carefully recruited, selected, mentored, trained and held accountable. No school in
    Huntsville should be identified as low achieving. Every school should offer unique opportunities that attract and retain

I am running because I believe in the future of Huntsville, I have a vision of what our public schools can be, and I believe
that, in spite of our challenges, the vision can be achieved. I have faith in our community. I believe that we can weather
the storms ahead and use them to accomplish significant change. I want to be part of that change.

The current economic downturn has had a significant impact on school systems throughout the state. As a result,
Huntsville City Schools has laid off nearly 100 valuable employees. Next year promises to be even worse as loans have to
be repaid, the required one month reserve rebuilt, and temporary funding streams dry up. In addition, BRAC leaders
continue to express concerns about schools and the lack of sufficient space at high achieving schools. Finally, as No
Child Left Behind is disbanded, the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act will create significant
policy changes at the Federal level that will be as sweeping as were the initial changes made by No Child Left Behind. In
addition, the school system faces the additional challenge of hiring a new superintended and creating anew vision as we
move forward.

This is no time for an inexperienced candidate to take on such significant challenges. My eight years of service on
the board, including my recent election to the Board of Directors of the Alabama Association of School Boards, provide
the background knowledge and experience needed at the local and state levels to address these challenges, to learn from
them, and to take advantage of the political opportunities they present to create needed change in our school system.

2. List any experience you have that you feel qualifies you for this office. Include specifically any
   political or community activities in service of south Huntsville.
As a parent, I have first hand experience with our school system. I initially made a commitment to public
service eight years ago because I believe in public schools. Four of my children have attended schools in South
Huntsville and my son will be a Junior at Grissom. I have been a PTA president five times in South Huntsville
Schools (Weatherly, Mountain Gap Middle, and Grissom), have served on the Board of the Huntsville Council of
PTAs, and have served on the Huntsville City Schools Strategic Planning Committee in 2000. I continue to
volunteer at Grissom and regularly visit and participate in activities at all our schools. I also met with every PTA
Board in South Huntsville as well as neighborhood and business groups (including the SHCA Education
Committee) last Fall to brief them on the financial challenges ahead. I have been a vocal proponent for South

Huntsville Schools in the past eight years and have worked with Sandra Moon to bring over $13 million dollars
into South Huntsville schools for significant renovations.

I am very involved with our community and active in a number of organizations. I am a graduate of Leadership
Huntsville and Leadership Alabama. I have learned how important a strategic collaboration between the education
community and the business community is in creating positive change. I also serve on the Subdivision Planning
Committee and as secretary for the Rotary Club of Greater Huntsville. As a business consultant and small
business owner, I am active in Chamber activities and also recognize the critical importance of our financial

3. List any endorsements and significant campaign contributions ($500.00 or more, cash or in-kind)
   you have received or are soliciting.

I have received an initial contribution of $2500 from Biz Pac. I have $10,000 in pledges from individuals.

4. Do you think the City of Huntsville should provide the Huntsville City School system with funding?
   Under what circumstances would this be justified and to what extent? Specifically would you
   support or push for new or additional taxes to support schools when unreliable tax sources do not
   produce expected revenue levels?

I absolutely believe that any community has a responsibility to fund its schools. First, education is the most
basic service a community can offer its residents. Second, education reduces the cost of all other services notably
police protection, jail costs, and welfare disbursements. Third, schools are the main attractor for a city. People
choose to buy homes and to stay in an area based on the quality of the schools.

State funding currently accounts for 54% of the HCS $240 million budget. The remaining 44% of the budget is
locally funded by city and county taxes. Our local funding is more than that provided for Madison County
Schools and about half of that provided to schools in Hoover, Vestavia Baldwin and Shelby Counties.
While the City contributes to our budget, there are also earmarks on the money, restricting its use and giving the
Board little flexibility to shift funding in time of financial hardship.

We have the opportunity to access State bond money tied to BRAC growth if we can demonstrate new sources of
sustainable operational funding. Madison created the model for funding support with a citizen’s panel that demonstrated a
need for the funds and permitted the board to craft a clear plan for the use of the funds. This model for a ½ cent sales tax
increase could also work for Huntsville. However, the public trust in the school system has been shaken. The board needs
to rebuild that trust and then make a solid case for funding and what that funding will buy.

5. What recommendations would you make regarding stabilizing the finances of the Huntsville City
   School system?
Long term funding issues need to be addressed at both the state and local levels. Funding at the state level is precarious
because the state education budget is funded by the state sales and income taxes. In the last five years, these volatile
taxes created unprecedented growth as well as decline and school system budgets have suffered. HCS has lost over $22
million in funding in the last two years due to proration and it is possible we could lose more before the beginning of the
next fiscal year. The “rolling reserve” proposed by some legislators is one answer to this problem. It would prevent
proration, reduce financial uncertainty for school systems, and permit long range planning. It is one of the most
innovative budget reform ideas to come along in years and would result in long term, stable funding for schools.

On a local level, we need to ensure the sustainability of the school system by creating a solid business plan that identifies
revenue streams, decreases costs and strategically prioritizes the use of resources based on impact on student
achievement. Rebuilding the one month reserve must be part of that business plan. Stable funding will only result from
long range planning.

In creating a business plan, we need to look at the most efficient use of our including the funding of “local” units—
teachers that the State does not fund. Huntsville has employed over 600 additional teaching and support
employees using local dollars. This has resulted in the addition of AP classes, foreign language, gifted programs,
art and music, special education programs, and a variety of other programs above the State funded minimum
“foundation” program. As State tax revenues decrease, local dollars are now needed to pay for traditionally State
funded units. That makes it impossible to continue to fund many of the “extras” we’ve taken for granted.
Fortunately, the Board has made efforts to reduce the number of locally funded units gradually over the past four
years through consolidation and program reduction.

Many of the locally units have been in our small schools with historically small class sizes. The RIF’s and
consolidations will help reduce these local units. Additional consolidations are warranted. The most
notable is closing Butler High School. For the past three years, I have asked for Butler to be closed. However, the
Superintendent has not been willing to make that recommendation. In addition, Davis Hills and ASFL could be
consolidated. It is also time to look at restructuring zone lines to see if there is a way to make better use of
our existing facilities. For instance, rather than building a new school in Providence, can we change zone lines
to move students to less crowded facilities?

In addition to decreasing local units and planning for facilities more effectively, we also need to look at how we
strategically fund some programs. One of the “programs” that was eliminated in some of our schools was block
scheduling. This very expensive program yielded few results and could not be justified. We need to look at value
added whenever we initiate a new program in the future as well as evaluate existing programs.We need to do a
program audit to justify every locally funded program. This may require re-education of our parents who have
come to take for granted certain programs for their children (foreign language, art, music, special ed). The County
staffs its schools based solely on State funding and, as a result, their programs are much more limited than are
those in Huntsville. Consequently, none of their schools ever make the US News and World Report list of Best
High Schools (both Grissom and New Century consistently make the list) and they have no National Merit
Scholars (Grissom has the most in the State). However, they also have no schools on the State list of low
performing schools. They are meeting the basic standard and doing it well. This back to basics approach is one
we may need to follow although it may not be palatable to Huntsville parents.

6. In your opinion is there a division between south Huntsville, specifically the SHCA, and other areas
   of town based on race? If elected, how would you deal with racial issues on the board?

Huntsville’s communities are geographically isolated. The two main centers of influence for the African American
community are Alabama A&M and the black churches, all located along Winchester Road. As a result, many members of
the African American community have chosen to live in North West Huntsville. This engenders the perception of a racially
isolated community and pits North and South Huntsville against one another for resources—schools, roads, public safety
protection, and retail development.

The recent charges of racism have been personally painful to me. I have been a vocal advocate for lower performing
North Huntsville schools and have worked closely with the District 1 representative to address those issues. Students
from North Huntsville are leaving their schools to come to South Huntsville schools and are straining the resources
available in our neighborhood schools. By helping to strengthen schools in North Huntsville, I felt that South Huntsville
schools would benefit as well. This was genuinely a win-win proposition. The Superintendent’s failure to work with the
Board to improve North Huntsville schools is one of the main reasons I believe she needed to be non renewed. It is ironic
to me that in voting to non renew the Superintendent because of her failure to improve minority schools, I have
been labeled a racist.

Rebuilding trust in the African American community is going to take time. There is a lot of healing that needs to take place.
The problem goes beyond the school system. There is distrust surrounding the Housing Authority, the police department,
the Mayor’s office and the school system. The only way to unite people is around a common vision. Someone once said
that politics is working around what we don’t agree on and finding a way to work together on what we do agree
on. If we can get everyone to agree that we are moving in the same direction, that we all want safe neighborhoods, good
schools, a bright future for our children, maybe we can find a way to work together.

7. In selecting a School Superintendent, what criteria would you use and what process would you
   suggest for making that selection?

We must develop a visionary, united board that works together to provide strong leadership and address challenges.
The single most important responsibility the board will have in the next four years will be the selection of a new
superintendent and the creation of a strong strategic direction that restores community trust.

The next HCS superintendent needs to be a strong visionary leader. Our current superintendent’s greatest
failure is her inability to think strategically and plan accordingly. Our greatest need right now is for a solid plan
for the future and leadership to help us achieve the vision. I will be looking for a superintendent who has been
able to turn around a system and grow it—academically and financially. I would also like to find a
superintendent who has successfully brought his/her system out from under its desegregation court order.
Our court order is one of our greatest impediments to flexibility and growth. Finally, I would look for a
superintendent who can engage the public, communicate the vision of our schools, and rebuild the public

Selecting a new superintendent can be an expensive process if a national search is conducted using a
headhunter firm. And even then, the results are questionable. One of the worst superintendents hired for HCS
came from a national search firm. The Alabama Association of School Boards is available to assist with
superintendent searches at a nominal fee. The advantage of using AASB is that they know all the
superintendents in the state very well and have been able to observe how they work with their boards. They also
know many of the superintendents in other states as they travel nationally to conferences. I believe that the
Board, with the guidance of the AASB Executive Director and staff, could find a great superintendent at a
reasonable cost.

8. Give us your thoughts regarding tenure and whether or not you feel any tenure reform is needed. If
   so, what reform needs to be made?

The primary motivation in any decision we make in the school system should be impact on students. Nothing else
should matter as much as that single factor. We fail as a school system when a teacher’s job matters more
than the students she teaches. Tenure was originally created in the 1920’s to protect teachers who worked in
systems with elected superintendents who made hiring and termination decisions based on politics. This era
predated our current employee laws and the protections that all employees now legally enjoy. Since only 16
school systems in Alabama now have elected superintendents and since current employment law guarantees
teachers due process and protects employees from arbitrary decisions, the time for tenure reform has come. No
better case for tenure reform could be made than our recent RIF’s. The RIF policy was written in such a way that
it was based solely on tenure. Dr. Moore assured us when we passed the RIF policy that programs and student
impact would be taken into account. That never happened. Since that time, I have asked for a seniority neutral
RIF policy and the Alabama Association of School Boards has agreed to work with our attorney to create
a test policy that will challenge tenure in RIF’s.

Proponents of tenure will claim that it is possible to remove a bad teacher. However, principals need to jump so
many hurdles that they give up and tenure makes most teachers immune from termination. In addition to the
laborious process of documentation, these cases cost thousands of dollars that should be going into the
classroom. The successes of many Charter Schools and the new School Transformation models claim their
success from bypassing tenure laws. These new models simply make it easier to hire and keep good teachers
and get rid of the ones who are not effective. They encourage excellence rather than reinforcing mediocrity.

The State is in the process of instituting a new teacher evaluation model (opposed by AEA) that will tie teacher
effectiveness to student achievement. This may be the first step in challenging tenure laws. If we can begin to
reform the way we evaluate teachers and tie evaluation to objective measures other than hire date (like student
achievement), we may be on the road to reforming tenure.

9. Do you think the School Board should have more influence on appointments to the Policy
   Committee? Would you recommend any changes to the process of these appointments?

At the last School Board works session, I asked for a review of Policy 100-10 which stipulates that a majority of
the members of the Policy Advisory Committee must be from the teachers’ union (HEA). While there is a statute
that stipulates the teachers’ union must be consulted with on any new or revised policy, it doesn’t specify that a
policy committee must be formed or that the majority of the members need to represent the union. I have
suggested that we reexamine the composition of the Policy Advisory Committee. Currently, 13 of the 17
members are school system employees.

Since the focus of our school system is on the education of children, my suggestion is that the committee be
composed equally of employees (teachers and administrators), parents, and community members. The teachers’
union could appoint teachers, HASA could appoint administrators, PTA could appoint parents, and community
groups could be consulted in appointing community members. In this way, balanced input could be sought
from all stakeholders.

10. Do you feel the state of safety and discipline in our school system is currently acceptable? If not,
    what recommendations would you propose to improve safety and discipline in the Huntsville City
    School system?

         As the nature of our society has changed, the nature of our students has changed. Students are coming
    to school with significant challenges—poverty, mental illness, physical disabilities, and learning disabilities. As
    a result, the work of education has become more demanding and resources have been strained. One of the
    biggest challenges has been the inclusion of severely handicapped students in the regular classroom. While
    some parents have sued and won the right for their mentally ill or behaviorally challenged children to remain
    in a regular education setting, the rights of other students to learn has been impaired. We need to find
    ways to educate children with severe disorders and provide an environment that supports their learning and
    social needs without hindering regular education students. A genuine alternative school that gives
    children who can’t function in a normal environment, for what ever reason, an educational option
    would be one way to increase safety in our schools.

         In addition, we need to create a discipline policy that is meaningful to students. Losing parking
    privileges, having to serve “in house” time on Friday night or Saturday, and losing privileges to participate in
    extracurricular activities would be much more effective than getting a free pass to stay home and watch TV or
    play video games for a couple of days. As we continue to experience serious budget constraints, we could
    also use students to empty wastebaskets, pick up trash or do simple yard work to beautify our school

        We also need to work with the City to expand the number of School Resource Officers trained and ready
    to serve in the schools. In addition, the City needs to pick up the tab for paying for these officers. Six years
    ago, when the SRO grant expired, HCS began paying the salaries of police officers who are City employees.
    The budget could not sustain the strain and the number of SRO’s in middle schools was reduced. We need to
    restore the City funding for SRO’s and maintain a strong police presence in our middle schools.

        Finally, at some point we need to hold parents accountable for the behavior of their children. Mobile
    has a model that has had tremendous success. In this model, the social service system works with the courts
    and the school system to identify and the create treatment programs for habitual offenders—truancy, fighting,
    insubordination, etc. Parents can even do jail time if a student fails to come to school or continues to violate
    the discipline code. I have met with our District Attorney and he is willing to work with the school system to
    implement a similar model.

11. What would you do as a school board member to ensure the best possible academic performance of
    the Huntsville school system as a whole and to keep south Huntsville schools at their traditionally
    high academic levels.

We need to increase student achievement by ensuring that we have high quality administrators and high quality
teachers in every school and that they are carefully recruited, selected, mentored, trained and held accountable. No
school in Huntsville should be identified as low achieving. Every school should offer unique opportunities that attract and
retain students.

Abraham Lincoln said that “You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong.” Taking scarce
resources away from strong schools does not help the rest of the school system. Grissom High School is the
strongest attractor our City has. If we weaken Grissom in any way, we will never be able to attract the kind of high
quality jobs and industry that will sustain our tax base and help our struggling schools and neighborhoods. On the
other hand, we also can’t say “Thank goodness the hole is not on my end of the boat.” Our school system is
judged based on an average of all test scores. As long as we have failing schools in North Huntsville, that does
not reflect well on South Huntsville schools. We must strengthen our low performing schools while maintaining the
high quality of our exceptional schools. It will not be easy but I believe it can be done.

We have more low achieving schools (13) than any system in Madison County and we have to stop making
excuses! There is no reason why any school in this city is not achieving at high levels. There is no reason why
any high school should have a high drop out rate. We have schools in Huntsville in high poverty areas that have
had significant success over time. These schools demonstrate that every child can learn and these models should
be replicated in every school.

As State standards become more rigorous in the 2010-11 school year, it will require the commitment of effective
administrators at all levels, the effort of dedicated teachers, and the cooperation of parents and
community partners who will accept the challenge of transforming schools. It will also require a demand for
accountability and a vision of what our schools can be. We are not doing the children in our schools a favor by
making excuses for them because of poverty, family issues, or a lack of advantage. We owe every child the
opportunity to be challenged rather than lowering the bar. We also need to hold administrators and teachers
accountable for results. We make excuses for those teachers and administrators who are failing and fail to reward
those who are succeeding. It doesn’t make sense and it doesn’t work.

In addition, we must strengthen neighborhood schools to make them as attractive as possible to the
families zoned for those schools. Putting a child on a bus for over an hour a day, disconnecting the child from
the support of family and neighbors, and creating barriers of time and distance for parents also doesn’t make
sense. It leaves some schools half empty and puts a strain on the resources of the transfer schools. This creates
a situation that drives families to private schools. We need to ask why people are leaving particular schools in
large numbers and fix what is wrong. We must also make it more attractive and easier to access supplemental
services than it is to transfer students.

South Huntsville Schools have a great opportunity for the next two years. HCS has just been a awarded a
multimillion dollar grant from the Dept. of Defense. Based on the number of families employed in defense
related industries, those dollars will be used to increase the availability of technology in those specific schools.
Not surprisingly, most of the schools with high numbers of families employed in defense are in South Huntsville.
Grissom, Mountain Gap, and Challenger are specifically named in the grant. Over a million dollars in technology
money will be coming to these schools as part of the grant. This is significant because these schools have never
been able to access the kind of technology money that Title I schools receive.