BY BRIAN JONES
“In the first place God made idiots. This was for practice. Then He made school boards.” – Mark Twain
Oh, if only Mr. Twain could be alive and in Lowndes County.
In the last week, both of our august local school boards have met and made what I suppose are their best efforts to lead their respective districts. Let’s have a look at what they’ve accomplished, starting with our friends in Lowndes County. [Stories on both meetings are in this week’s Packet. – Ed.]
After roughly 15 years of ineffectual hand wringing over the issue, the Lowndes County School Board finally began inching toward making a real, actual decision on school uniforms. In March, the board sent a survey out to parents, many of whom reacted with massive indifference – half couldn’t even be bothered to return it. Last month the board voted 3-1 to require uniforms at every campus. Brian Clark – who represents Caledonia – cast the lone “no” vote. Jane Kilgore, the other Caledonia representative, was not present.
This month’s board meeting – with Ms. Kilgore present, but without New Hope representative Bobby Barksdale this time – was packed with Caledonia parents who demanded their schools be exempt. The board panicked, and could not flip-flop fast enough. By the end of the meeting, uniforms were effectively dead. All three Caledonia campuses and West Lowndes High School were exempted, and uniforms were now optional at other campuses. (West Lowndes Elementary and West Lowndes Middle already required uniforms, and will continue to do so.)
I’m not sure there are any good guys anywhere in this debacle. If parents actually acted like parents, many of the problems the uniform policy was designed to address wouldn’t have become issues in the first place. It is not the school district’s responsibility to make sure your child is dressed appropriately. It is yours. If violations of the school dress code are as much of a problem as Caledonia High School Assistant Principal Andy Stevens said, then it sounds to me like uniforms are the best fix. Don’t like the fact that weary administrators are enacting a uniform policy after years of taking up your slack? You have only yourselves to blame.
Secondly, I agree in part with Ms. Kilgore’s statement that testimonials from district administrators should have been presented to the board before Friday. In his tenure to date, Mr. Wright has often seemed woefully unprepared when he brings requests before the board. He is rarely able to answer their questions convincingly. Many people I have spoken to after meetings wonder aloud when Mr. Wright is going to learn to be prepared.
The uniform fiasco has been no different. During the previous several months, Mr. Wright has offered few details about the specifics of his uniform policy. Parents at both the March and May board meetings complained that they had no idea uniforms were even in the works. If he is unable to provide parents and board members with even basic information, he needs to go back to the drawing board and stop wasting everyone’s time.
Finally, I have to turn to the school board. Really? This sad spectacle is the best you can do? I have covered the Lowndes County School Board since 1999. If, in my reporting, they have come off looking good, it is only in comparison to their counterparts in the city. As Wesley Barrett correctly stated, the uniform issue is not a new one. It has come up regularly in the 14 years I’ve been going to these meetings. Each time, the board dissolves into a puddle of helpless jelly at the very idea that – gasp! – they may have to make a decision that is unpopular.
Hey, guys? You were elected to make difficult decisions. You were elected to be clear-sighted and to make decisions that, while occasionally unpopular, are in the best interests of the district. You were elected to, in short, have a spine. If you’re unable to make a decision and then weather the slings and arrows of a few outraged phone calls, you have no business being on that board. This is especially true in light of the fact that many of the affected administrators supported the uniform proposal. These are the people who are in the schools every day. They know what the problems are. You should listen to them.
That brings me to the ongoing train wreck that is the Columbus Municipal School Board. Wait, did I say train wreck? That gives the impression of speed. Perhaps “oncoming glacier” would be a better description.
I used to complain, God help me, that the CMSD meetings were ridiculous because of their brevity. Dr. Del Phillips, during his tenure, clocked in as little as seven minutes of open session before the inevitable retreat behind closed doors. He apparently expected the members of the public to believe that a school board that meets once a month and manages a budget several times larger than that of the City of Columbus could conduct all its business in under 10 minutes. (And those few minutes included the Pledge of Allegiance and invocation.)
Answered prayers, they say, are responsible for more tears than unanswered ones. Look no further than the CMSD’s recent meetings. In February, the board met for four hours. In April, that grew to four and a half. Monday night the meeting stretched to an astounding six hours. It would be one thing if these meetings yielded great amounts of action. They do not. Monday night’s behemoth saw the board engage in epic examinations of minutiae and exchanges full of opaque jargon. For example, the board received a financial report chock full of references to “Funds 1120, 1130, 1140, 2711 and 3022,” and, during one discussion, Trustee Angela Verdell breezily referred to something like “Policy CBGB.” How many people in the audience do you think had any idea what any of that means? Do the trustees really think this enigmatic mishmash of acronyms is open government?
To make matters worse, the board didn’t even take action on many important items. Bids for transportation, food service and grounds work were all tabled; current contracts for both food service and transportation expire at the end of June. I wouldn’t be surprised if these self-created crises spawn special meetings, the CMSD’s favorite mechanism for avoiding public scrutiny. Feel the transparency?
When the trustees did make decisions, their actions were rather troubling. Jason Spears, as the clock neared midnight, suggested that the district hire a new employee to comb through the docket of claims before it is brought to the board for approval.
When his recommendation passed, I nearly fell off my chair. District leaders can’t go for five minutes without mentioning how hard they are trying to cut costs, how hard they have to scrabble for pennies to keep the lights lit and the heat on and teachers in classrooms, how deeply concerned they are that their millage is strangling the city taxpayer. Yet the district also maintains a highly paid superintendent, a deputy superintendent, an assistant superintendent, a director of accountability and compliance, a financial officer, a director of information systems, a public information and professional development coordinator, a grants and special projects coordinator, a data and assessment coordinator and a special assistant for public relations and parent involvement. (Several of those positions are recent additions, too.) Now Mr. Spears would like us to add another bureaucrat to that already staggering list. As I’ve said before in these pages, isn’t it funny how the central office is the last place our benevolent and wise leaders look when the cuts have to be made? How many dollars that should be spent in the classrooms are being spent on this administrative clutter? Why are we cutting the pay of bus drivers and teachers when we should be cutting these people? As Ms. Verdell said, the district already has people able to do this sort of work. Use them.
Finally, the CMSD continued its hilarious attempt to pretend that Lee Middle School doesn’t exist. At least two local pastors are interested in the facility, which has sat vacant and crumbling since its students were transferred to Columbus Middle School. The most vocal of the two, Shane Cruz, has been at pretty much every meeting for the past year, begging the district for any scrap of information about its status. Instead of giving him an answer they blandly ignore any and all questions, refusing to even acknowledge that the property – which is clearly marked with “for sale” signs – is on the market. I’d be willing to bet that the board’s reticence has a lot to do with the Lowndes County School District’s search for a site for their at-this-point-theoretical vocational complex, but it seems both petty and downright bizarre to continue dancing around the issue like this. I think Mr. Cruz’s suggestion that the district take down the signs until Lee’s availability is straightened out is a good one.
Meanwhile, the site continues to degrade. Thieves have already made off with a king’s ransom of copper. How much more will Lee have to rot in place before something is done?
One month after approving a blanket uniform policy, the Lowndes County School Board has neutered it.
At their May 10 meeting, the board flip-flopped 3-1, deciding to exempt the Caledonia schools and West Lowndes High School outright and for the policy to be optional at New Hope.
The district, which has discussed uniforms off an on for years, decided to send out a parental survey earlier this year. Surveys that were not returned were counted as yes votes. Around 20 percent of respondents voted no, around 30 percent voted yes and the rest did not respond. However, the majority in Caledonia opposed uniforms.
On April 12 the LCSD voted to enact a district-wide uniform policy 3-1, with Brian Clark casting the “no” vote; Jake Kilgore, the other board member from Caledonia, was not present.
Parents in Caledonia were not amused. At Friday’s meeting the audience was packed with Caledonia parents and constituents, and spokesperson Leslie Webber, who has lived in Caledonia for 13 years and previously been honored as parent of the year, asked that the board reconsider the policy.
“In a lot of cases that I have researched there were generally a selection of uniforms so that folks knew what they were going to get,” she said. “Many parents weren’t even aware this was being discussed. Many of the parents were against it, and several of the board members were. We weren’t even aware it was being discussed until we were here for merit discussion in March. [Many parents attended the March board meeting to protest the recommendation that the popular Merit program be done away with. – Brian Jones] “There are very valid arguments on both sides,” Webber said. “There are parents in the district that are excited about uniforms. Some of the teachers and administrators think the uniforms will make the dress code easier to enforce, and will reduce discipline problems. On the other hand many parents are against the uniforms for several reasons. There were 2,323 no votes. There were numerous parents who were not aware that there was a survey being conducted, and there were many parents who were initially for the uniforms and have since changed their minds because of the strictness of the proposal. There are also a large number of parents who don’t want to voice their opinion publicly for a number of reasons.
“The proposed mandated policy requires dress pants or shorts worn with belts, polo-style or dress shirts in colors that vary by school,” she said. “No logos, labels or designs. Shirts must be tucked in at all times. Girls have a few other options. As you know, K-12 students come in all shapes or sizes. There are concerns from parents and students whose shapes do not fit a tucked-in polo shirt or these specific dress styles. These parents feel their children will be self-conscious and have damaged self-esteem. That’s been one of the main concerns that I have heard. There are also a lot of families that don’t have the means to purchase the uniforms. There are a lot of families that are struggling and don’t qualify for assistance. They feel it would put a financial burden on them, especially if they have several students. I am not a parent of a senior, but some parents of seniors are dissatisfied that they will have to buy a uniform set for one year.”
Webber also questioned how the colors were determined.
Later in the meeting, Kilgore made a motion, seconded by Clark, that Caledonia schools be exempted from wearing uniforms. A furious 20-minute-long discussion ensued.
“The majority of the people do not want the uniforms,” Kilgore said. “I’d like you to respect our wishes. Years ago we did let West Lowndes Elementary and Middle do uniforms. We let them do what they wanted to do, and I think it would be nice if we were given the same option. I think if we maybe tweaked the policy a little bit it would help, and I also think the principals should enforce the dress policies we have. We can argue all day about if this will make it better or not make it better.”
“The majority of the people in Caledonia did not want the uniforms,” Clark said.
Trustee Jacqueline Gray asked that West Lowndes High School also be exempted.
“When we discussed this back in February we were all in favor of doing this,” Gray said. “I said at the time that West Lowndes High School did not want uniforms, but that we would go along with it if everyone else did it. But if you are pulling out, then I want West Lowndes High School to pull out, too. If everyone is doing it, that’s fine, but we are not going to be held to it if you’re exempting other campuses.”
Trustee Wesley Barrett argued against the exceptions.
“We agreed back in February to be across the board,” he said. “I voted against having a survey because apparently this board has been trying to survey the district for 15 years and you can’t get an accurate survey apparently. The way the results came in, I don’t see how anyone could take that as an accurate response. But we’ve been saying year to year for 15 years that we were going to look at uniforms. At what year are we going to decide to enforce the rules. When are we going to get serious? This year we say we’re going to do it next year. Next year we say we’ll do it the next year. I’ve looked at schools throughout the state who have (a uniform policy), and I couldn’t find one school that said it was bad for children. A lot of them said it was controversial at first, but in the long run it was a good decision.”
Superintendent Lynn Wright, who has been the driving force behind this year’s effort to enact a uniform policy, argued that it should be left in place.
“I don’t have a vote one way or the other, but my primary interest is the best interest of our students,” he said. “Their safety and security and providing an environment that is conducive to learning is one of our primary concerns. I have had – and I counted them up before I came in here – 38 negative emails. Ten of those are from the same person. I got 20 negative responses on paper. Some of the people who wrote negative responses wrote me two or three times. I have been to ball games, suppers, PTO meetings throughout the meeting since this was done and the support is overwhelming. I know you hear from a few, but I have principals asking that you not reverse this. The statistics that I’ve used come from the US Department of Education. They’re not selling uniforms. I’m not selling uniforms. But I’ll tell you that if they said painting children’s heads green would make them safer, I’d paint every one of your children’s heads green. Now I’ve got Mr. Divinney here, in a minute I’ll let him speak—”
“No,” Kilgore, who was chairing the meeting in Barksdale’s absence, said, cutting him off. [My understanding is that Mr. Divinney was at the meeting at the board’s request, and had prepared a PowerPoint presentation about the uniform issue. If this is true, it is unbelievable that Ms. Kilgore would dismiss him with a simple “no.” – Brian Jones] “I cannot defer to someone?” Wright asked incredulously. “I’m just the superintendent, I understand.”
Kilgore and Wright spoke over one another incomprehensibly for a moment.
“I do just want to mention this,” Wright said, finally talking over Kilgore. “We have an assistant principal here that would be glad to speak to that. The assistant principals are the ones who deal with discipline all the time, and if you don’t mind I would like to at least get his opinion because he represents one of the Caledonia schools.”
“You should have given the facts to us before you came to this meeting,” Kilgore said. “Also, one of my questions is that if they’re not enforcing the dress policy now, are they going to enforce the uniform policy?” [While I agree that Mr. Wright should have brought this type of testimony to the board earlier, I also think Ms. Kilgore should have been at the meeting when the decision was actually made instead of trying to undo it after the fact. – Brian Jones] “We have speed limit signs in town, but not every who speeds gets caught,” Wright said.
“The principals I’ve talked to at Caledonia supported the uniforms,” Barrett said. “We’ve got to go forward each month. We can’t go back and undo decisions.”
“My vote has not changed since February,” Gray said. “I said if it was a district-wide policy I would support it. If you do it, do it. Don’t backtrack. But if anybody pulls out, I’m going to pull West Lowndes High School out.”
“People in Caledonia don’t want it, and that’s the only thing I have to go by,” Clark said.
“We were also told that multiple people in the same household voted against this,” Wright said. “We had four or five votes coming out of the same household.”
Wright again asked that Caledonia High School Assistant Principal Andy Stevens be allowed to speak. Kilgore relented, but only allowed him two minutes.
“I think if we could fix the dress code and cell phones, we wouldn’t have the majority of our discipline problems,” Stevens said. “Every day I can stand at the front door and try to track down people who are out of dress code. I would be sending people home all day. I don’t know how much more I could emphasize that this is how it needs to be. I understand a lot of dissent is from the Caledonia end, and a lot is from the elementary end of it. We’ve got a little more leeway worked into the elementary side. As far as high and middle school, I think this is the best thing we can do.”
A parent attempted to respond to Stevens, but Kilgore would not let her speak.
“Mr. Stevens, if you send kids home because of the dress code, they’ll learn,” Kilgore said, and the audience broke into applause.
[Where are the parents in this equation? The dress code is readily available in the school’s student handbook. Is it too much to ask for parents to, you know, do some parenting and familiarize themselves with the policy and then make sure their children dress accordingly? Mr. Stevens said addressing dress and cell phones would solve many discipline problems. How many problems would be resolved if parents would actually exert some control over their kids? – Brian Jones] “I hate to take kids out of the classroom because of the dress code,” he said. “In this day and age with all the state testing we have to do, I do not like doing that.”
“I really think you are not doing justice to this issue,” Gray said. “In February, you supported this. Changing the policy does not make this board look credible. We approved this last month. As board members, our job is to make tough decisions. If you can’t commit, don’t do it.”
Kilgore began to call for a vote, but Gray interrupted her, offering an amended motion that would also exempt West Lowndes High School. Clark seconded her motion. Barrett then made an amendment to her amendment, asking that any school that opposes the policy be allowed to withdraw.
Barrett’s amendment passed unanimously; Gray’s motion passed unanimously; and Kilgore’s original motion passed 3-1, with Barrett voting no.