In November 2020, Montgomery County voters approved an ad valorem tax increase from 10 mills to 22 mills to benefit Montgomery Public Schools. This equals about a $12-per-month increase in property taxes that will affect the average homeowner in Montgomery County, excluding the Pike Road school district. It also includes businesses that own property and non-government-owned housing. The tax is expected to bring in an additional $33 million annually for MPS starting in 2023.
River Region residents have paid lip service to the importance of public education for decades, but always hesitated when it came to putting their money where their mouths were. Many bids to fund public schools have appeared on the ballots, but voters always balked. So why this tax?
The success of the tax referendum depended on convincing a skeptical public that the money would be well stewarded. “The community—rightly so—insisted on accountability before it would support a tax increase,” said Anna Buckalew, Chamber President and CEO. “So, we needed to talk about that. Are we all on same page with expectations of real excellence and accountability?”
The Chamber developed a Roundtable for Education, bringing together city, county, business and community leaders for a frank discussion about improving Montgomery Public Schools. They sought input from the school board, school administrators and the public. “The timing was perfect for change,” Buckalew said. “We actually have an opportunity to move the needle and change the trajectory of our system. If we can change the trajectory of our system, we can change the trajectory of our community,” she said.
Through this Roundtable, the community identified three major milestones necessary to move the needle: a tax referendum, to provide the critical funding to make much-needed changes; a comprehensive facilities study and informed plan for improvements; intentional opportunity to provide community input for the selection of a new superintendent.
Local attorney LaBarron Boone, Vice Chairman of the Chamber’s Board of Directors, worked as co-chair of the Chamber’s Ad Valorem Initiative Committee, encouraging voters to support an increase in the local property tax. He says leadership from the top down was key. “When our newly elected Mayor Steven L. Reed committed what is considered a ‘cardinal sin’ in politics and pushed a tax hike immediately after being elected, I knew he was willing to put his career on the line for this cause,” Boone said. “It showed his true heart and that he was willing to take the consequences if his first major initiative failed. His commitment made my decision to jump in much easier.”
Boone continued, “It’s a shame that it is considered a bad thing to support a new tax, because investing in our public education system is crucial. Do the research—look at every prosperous city, and you’ll find not just a decent public school system but an exceptional public school system. If you want that kind of community, you have to invest.”
Arthur Watts, Chief School Financial Officer for Montgomery Public Schools, is responsible for reviewing and managing all financial aspects of the school district, including compliance with government regulations and meeting the needs of stakeholders—especially students but including staff and the Montgomery community. He oversees regular operations such as accounting, financing of goods and services, payroll processing, accounts payable and auditing. Prior to coming to Montgomery in 2018, he was Chief Financial Officer for Birmingham City Schools for 14 years. “I am very thankful to residents of Montgomery County for approving the ad valorem increase,” Watts said.
The new funding informed the development of a Capital Improvement Plan that was approved by the school board in January 2022. In addition to facilities, funds will be also dedicated to improving instruction. This includes adding AP teachers in all middle and high schools, not just magnet programs; enrichment courses in music and foreign languages; comprehensive career tech for students who would rather pursue a profession immediately after graduation than go to college; improving technology in schools; and providing for counselors, nurses and security officers. Funds also can be used to incentivize candidates in what has become an extremely competitive hiring market, allowing MPS to compete for the best teachers.
“Knowing the revenue is going to be there has really allowed the system to move forward with its plan for consolidation, maintenance and new construction,” Buckalew said. “But you can’t just pass a tax referendum and believe that’s going to fix everything. We have got to have continued partnership - partnership is key. The business community will continue to demand accountability and support the school system, but we better make sure benchmarks are being met.”
LOOKING FOR A LEADER
The final piece of the puzzle in this first phase of benchmarks is the recent search for MPS’ new Superintendent. The system’s new head will lead the system, its students and the community into the future. This is “probably the most important leadership decision our community has made in many years. Especially at this moment in time,” Buckalew said.
The Alabama Association of School Boards (AASB), a nonprofit association that provides services and training for K-12 public school boards, was tapped to spearhead the superintendent search on behalf of MPS. AASB provides services including face-to-face and online training, superintendent searches and evaluations, and policy development and review.
The search process started with discussions with MPS School Board members to ensure they had current information about legal requirements and best practices for a search and to solicit ideas for what they thought it would take to get the system where they want it to be in the next five and 10 years. Search coordinators from AASB met with the entire board as well as each board member individually. AASB also sought input from the community through surveys and engagement meetings. “A board/superintendent relationship is like a marriage,” said Susan Salter, Director of Leadership Development for AASB. “We try to make a match that provides a strong working relationship with the board, but also employees, the leadership team and the community.” The leadership and guidance of Dr. Ann Roy Moore, the system’s current superintendent, was also a tremendous benefit to the search. Moore is retiring at the end of the school year after holding the position since 2018.
Desired traits for the new superintendent included someone who will hold people accountable but also build relationships, someone who will be an effective leader of the administrative team, someone with experience as a high-level administrator in a school system and therefore understands an enterprise as large as MPS, and someone with strong problem-solving skills, driven by data.
“MPS encompasses thousands of employees and more than 50 locations. It has a $500 million operating budget and is one of the largest employers in the county, with probably more locations than any other business in Montgomery, so it requires someone who understands how to manage that, but also someone who knows how to educate children,” Salter said.
“Someone who understands how decisions made at a central level impact the individual classroom.” Salter stressed leading a school system differs from other leadership roles. “Unlike building cars or making soft drinks, where you have some ability to control the quality of the parts or ingredients, and some ability to control the precision with which your equipment operates, school systems are people,” Salter says. “Children come with every conceivable advantage and disadvantage in a system this size. The education process for two individual children is going to be unique because you’re dealing with two individual humans. A superintendent must have a unique blend of charisma and technical know-how.”
Buckalew agreed. “I think we’ve made it clear that this community cares about education and wants better public education,” she said.
“The education process for two individual children is going to be unique because you’re dealing with two individual humans. A superintendent must have a unique blend of charisma and technical know-how.” - Susan Salter, Director of Leadership Development for AASB
WELCOME TO MGM & MPS
Dr. Melvin Brown from Etna, Ohio, has been named the new superintendent for Montgomery Public Schools. Brown holds a doctorate from The Ohio State University, a master’s from Virginia Commonwealth University and a bachelor’s from James Madison University. Since 2017, he has served as the Superintendent for Reynoldsburg City Schools Board of Education in Ohio.
The new tax revenue supporting MPS beginning in 2023 will fund an approximate $400 million bond issue for critical improvements in a Capital Improvement Plan. As the first step of implementing the plan, Volkert & Associates, a Mobile-based engineering and architectural firm, was hired to conduct a complete assessment of the more than 4 million square feet of buildings across all MPS campuses and then recommend renovations, improvements, closures or the need for building a new school. Additionally, it did a demographic study, using census data to identify population trends. This avoids using limited funds in areas where there is a dwindling population and helps the school board make tough decisions about schools that could be consolidated or closed. Health and safety also were key factors in decision-making.
“It was very important that what decisions were made were data driven,” Watts said. “We looked at every one of our schools, population trends, grade levels and took all this information to decide what we need to do with the limited funds we will have. We have gone decades without addressing many of the capital needs that should have been taken care of 15-20 years ago. That’s why it was so important that the ad valorem tax passed, to be able to address these needs.”
These are a few examples of items included in the CIP:
- Carver High School: Build a ninth-grade academy and update and upgrade the athletic facilities.
- Lanier High School: Consolidate Lanier High School into Carver High School. The Lanier building is almost 100 years old. The need to bring that building up to par would cost almost $70 million.
- Lee High School: Build a new high school facility. Lee High School currently serves approximately 1,500 students.
- Capitol Heights Middle School: Build a new middle school facility. There are currently about 650 students, and demographic studies indicate the student population is maintaining and will continue to maintain over next 15-20 years. The current structure is too old and out-of-date to try to renovate.
- Baldwin Magnet School: Migrate students to current Wilson Elementary facility; Wilson’s students will move to another elementary school that has the capacity for them.
- Gymnasiums will be constructed at all elementary schools. This not only provides opportunities for students to exercise when they can’t use outdoor areas but provides a place for school and community gatherings and special events.
GOALS: To accomplish the most dramatic and successful turnaround in education outcomes in history, MPS’ goals are:
- Culture: A culture of innovation is well established, with ideas obtained from the most successful school systems in the U.S. Broad communications to all sectors of the Montgomery County community to encourage input and support for the efforts to accomplish the goals
- Staff: All teachers and principals are evaluated for competency
- Academics: All high school graduates are College or Career Ready; Academic ratings for all students are at least 10% above the state average; Absenteeism among students and teachers is no greater than the state average
- Facilities: All physical facilities and environments are sound, clean, and safe