Open letter strongly criticizes school board

Published 12:02am Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Last week several members of the ADC attended the Selma City School Board meeting. What we witnessed was disturbing.

We witnessed a public hearing, where the parents and public were not allowed to speak, a presentation on a public school corrective action plan that says the school system, as a part of its corrective action, needs to involved parents and public more and the outright refusal to even listen to the concerns of the attending parents and public during an open mic session that was requested and held immediately after the formal meeting.

The consultant, provided by the state, Dr. James Wright, presented the corrective action plan. After presenting the plan, only school board members were allowed to ask him questions. The audience remained quiet and listened during the meeting, but their frustrations began to show as the meeting progressed.

It was clear the citizens were not satisfied with what was being said and how the meeting excluded their participation.

The Selma High School auditorium is large, but I estimated approximately 80 people were present at the meeting, with at least 70 being concerned citizens and parents. Considering the short notice given the meeting, attendance was fair. Considering the importance of the meeting, attendance was poor.

In preparation for the meeting, ADA determined school officials were not going to allow citizens and parents to make comments or ask questions. Therefore, as chairman of ADC, I made the following written request.

“If the citizens will not have the opportunity to ask questions and make comments during the formal meeting, I ask that we be allowed to convene a public meeting immediately following the school board meeting.

Also I asked all elected officials, state officials and state contractor to remain so that they could hear from the citizens.

My request only asked school officials listen to the concerns of the people. What followed was a clear example of why the public is so turned off with the entire system of governance in Selma.

Every Selma City School System educator present and the state consultant Dr. Wright refused to stay and listen to the people. They all walked out. Many citizens left in frustration. About 40 citizens remained for the open mic session. Only school board chairman Henry Hicks Sr. and board member Udo Ufomadu stayed to listen to the people. Selma City Councilwoman Bennie Ruth Crenshaw was the only other elected official who remained and listened to the citizens.

The mic was opened and the public was given the opportunity to be heard. They expressed no confidence in school officials. They made cries for help and appeals for someone to listen to them. They expressed concerns about their children being targeted, because they speak out. They did not yell or scream. They were broken, but polite. They simply wanted to be heard.

The corrective action plan discussed during the formal meeting includes a commitment to involve the public and parents more in the education process. Even though this is stated in the plan, this did not happen.

Instead, school officials resolved to have the public meeting where the public was blocked from speaking and then when asked to just listen to what the people had to saw, they turned their backs and walked out.

The consultant, Dr. Wright, mentioned the low audience at the meeting. I recall over the past two years, I have attended about four public school meetings. One meeting was at Clark Elementary where a hundreds of citizens came out in protest of the local board’s decision to terminate the superintendent. The second was when the school board president recommended the school system initiate an outside investigation. The third meeting was when the local board turned down a $3 million school improvement grant. Now this meeting where proposed solutions to problems identified by a State investigation are being discussed.

At every meeting, the public has been silenced and ignored, and each meeting saw a reduction in attendance. The public has been bullied and threatened into submission. People are afraid to speak for fear their children will be retaliated against by people they must entrust with their children or that they will be targeted by what the state investigator identified as “fear of suffering retaliation possibly at the hands of school and, in some cases, city and county officials.”

When I first saw the State Department of Education investigation report, I hoped the local school board would express remorse for their prior decisions by ceasing the 3-2 political voting, and doing what is right and necessary to make things right. They did not.

When it became obvious the local school system would not be able to correct it, I hoped that the state would come in and truly address the problems citizens suspected and confirmed in the State’s investigation report. But last week, the consultant Dr. Wright, made clear to the local board the state wants to dump the responsibility to fix the system problems back into the laps of the local body.

The most recent public comments from State Department officials say that they are shocked the local board has not taken action up to this point. Once again, at the last meeting, two of the board members did not bother to even show up.

ADC is the African American arm of the Alabama Democratic Party. We are a political organization and we deal in politics. ADC does not stand in judgment of anyone. However, one of our primary goals is to do what is necessary to improve public education.

How can this be done when school officials refuse to even listen to parents and a majority of the local board, with the aid of their attorney, stonewall parents and ignore the directives of the State Department? ADC wants the people heard and we want responsible answers given.

In an effort to seriously include the public in the education system corrective action process, Mr. Hicks suggested each board member select one citizen to be added to the committee that is working on the plan. ADC respectfully disagreed with Mr. Hicks’ recommendation.

Our reasons for disagreement are two-fold.

First, the board members are elected by the public to represent the interest of the public. Each board member appointing someone to the committee will not ensure those parents, who want to speak will be heard. This will only ensure that the committee will have persons added who will echo the positions of the existing board members.

Second, even if this strategy were adopted, it would be equitable for the at-large seat on the board to only appoint one person. Because the president is elected at-large, if this is done, the president should be able to appoint four representatives.

In the end, the citizens who stayed for the discussion after the meeting decided to put together their own message and personally deliver their message to the State Department of Education. We hope they will follow through and that State Department will listen.

ADC will continue our support of the public’s right to speak. We will push to ensure people’s voices silenced by political bullies, threats of retaliation, or turning off the public microphone during the public meetings. Properly educating the children is our primary goal, and we dare not settle for less.

James Perkins, Jr.

Dallas County ADC Chairman

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