After a two-hour discussion Monday evening, including opposition from most of the seven residents speaking during the public agenda, the majority of the Muscogee County School Board voted to table for three months Superintendent David Lewis’ recommendation to hire Camelot Education of Austin, Texas, a private, for-profit company, for $6.4 million annually to run alternative education programs in the district.
The board will use this time to form a community advisory committee, which will further explore the Muscogee County School District’s options to solve the problem that both sides of this proposal agree: MCSD must change the way it educates its students with special needs, emotional or behavioral problems and who are over-age and under-credited.
Kia Chambers, the nine-member board’s lone countywide representative, made the prevailing substitute motion, seconded by Frank Myers of District 8. John Thomas of District 2 and Vanessa Jackson of District 3 also immediately raised their hand in support, initially leaving it one vote short.
But after further clarification, Naomi Buckner of District 4 sided with the Chambers’ substitute motion and became the decisive fifth vote.
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“We need to move this board on, and, to do that, we need five votes,” Buckner said, explaining her rationale to break the deadlock.
Lewis, whom the board hired in July 2013 from Polk County, Fla., where he was an associate superintendent, has said he and his chief administrators have studied this issue for about 1½ years. They concluded that MCSD didn’t have enough specially trained staff and enough money to provide the alternative education students deserve.
As she presented her objections to the proposal, Chambers emphasized, “My stance on this Camelot issue has nothing to do with aligning with anyone on this board, and it has absolutely nothing to do with my faith in Dr. David Lewis.”
Her objections were that the contracts — one for each program — aren’t clear in certain areas and sometimes don’t say what officials have said they say.
“That gives me pause,” said Chambers, who has expertise in contracts as a real estate agent and in education as a former educator.
Cathy Williams of District 7 spoke against delaying the proposal. “I’m not willing to sacrifice our children for another year. … We have to do something, and I feel we have to do it tonight.”
During the public agenda, Waleisah Wilson, who said she removed her child from MCSD two years ago “for lack of concern” called the proposal “an undercover and quick decision that reeks of dishonesty.” She said Camelot comes with “too many issues of allegations of abuse.”
Tonza Thomas, president of the Columbus branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, read a letter from Pensacola, Fla., NAACP branch President Rodney Jones to NAACP board member Edward DuBose of Columbus. Jones said the complimentary letter to the principal of a Camelot school was misused by Camelot CEO Todd Bock, who forwarded it to the Ledger-Enquirer as evidence of an NAACP leader’s support after Thomas announced the Columbus NAACP’s opposition.
Marianne Young, the mother a special-needs child, questioned how the MCSD administration could recommend spending $6.4 million a year after saying it couldn’t afford to give teachers the full 3 percent raise the governor advocated.
Lewis has said MCSD already spends approximately $6 million on alternative education and he has talked to a potential buyer for the Edgewood property, appraised for $1.3 million, so his plan wouldn’t cost the district extra money, even with the necessary renovation of Marshall.
Alyssa Williams, who said she was speaking as a mother and a sister, noted no other school district in Georgia is using Camelot Education. Then she read aloud the MCSD newly adopted mission statement — “To inspire and equip all students to achieve unlimited potential” — and asserted that this plan seems to be declaring “we will equip the easy ones and pay somebody to equip the rest.”
Two pastors spoke in favor of the superintendent’s proposal: The Rev. Johnny Flakes III of Fourth Street Missionary Baptist Church, and the Rev. Ralph Huling, president of the local Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance and the pastor of St. James Missionary Baptist Church in Columbus and New Hope Baptist Church in Lumpkin.
“It’s not handing over our children to an outside entity,” Flakes said, “but it’s a partnership. It’s to bring resources to the table that are not otherwise provided.”
Huling said Camelot officials met with IMA members and answered their questions. He added, “This is not a blanket endorsement of Dr. Lewis. This is a blanket endorsement of our children.”
Theresa El-Amin, director of the Southern Anti-Racism Network, called the debate “a case study on community building and relationships. … Democracy is messy and noisy, and I’m OK with that, and we’ve had democracy in this community.”
The board convinced Lewis during the March 27 meeting to delay the vote and conduct two public forums to give the public more time to have questions answered about the proposal and Camelot.
The plan, designed to improve alternative education in the district, would close the Edgewood Student Services Center and reopen the vacant Marshall Middle School to create the Marshall Learning Center, which would house:
▪ The AIM program (Achievement, Integrity and Maturity) currently at Edgewood, annually serving 400-500 students in grades 3-12 temporarily removed from their assigned school because of severe violations of the district’s behavior code. It would be called the Transitional School at Marshall with a capacity for 250 students in grades K-12 at one time, adding grades K-2 currently not served.
▪ The Woodall Program currently housed at Davis Elementary School and Carver High School, serving 44 students with severe emotional and behavioral problems. It would be called the Therapeutic Day School at Marshall with a capacity for 75 K-12 students, although the K-5 students in the program would remain Davis.
▪ A new program called Excel Academy at Marshall, with a capacity for 125 students, for over-age students in grades 6-12 who have fallen behind their peers.
▪ Catapult Academy, the dropout recovery program with a capacity for 120 students in grades 9-12 currently at Edgewood and 300 on the waiting list, would move into Marshall but continue to be run by a separate contractor, not Camelot.
Asked for his reaction to the vote, Lewis told the Ledger-Enquirer after Monday’s meeting, “This is part of the process. … It will eliminate us being able to start next (school) year because of the timeframe necessary to renovate Marshall. So, at this point, it’s just a matter of looking forward to what the board has in mind for the advisory committee, how many, who, all that type of thing.
“I know there are a lot of issues around this, and I certainly understand that. I do feel like that we’ve done all of our background research and study on it. Obviously, I want the board and the community to feel good about it and feel like it’s a positive step in the right direction, but I am disappointed for the students who could have been served next (school) year.”
Camelot Education CEO Todd Bock, who attended the meeting but didn’t publicly speak during it, also expressed disappointment and understanding in an interview with the Ledger-Enquirer.
“I’m disappointed, but we’ll see,” Bock said. “It’s a big decision for the district. They didn’t have their arms around it as a board, so they want that extra time. … I respect the process. If folks need more information, I support that.”
Asked whether Camelot still wants to contract with MCSD, Bock said, “Absolutely. I mean, we’ve worked really hard, and the superintendent and his staff have worked really hard. There are several board members that have been very engaged in the process and have had answers to their questions. There are some others that need some more.”
Camelot has been through delayed votes with other school boards and ultimately still won the job, such as “a couple of contract cycles” in Philadelphia, Bock said.
“This is always a controversial type of program,” Bock said. “Folks think that kids are just being kind of shuttered from the district, which is certainly not what the truth is and is certainly not what our track record proves, as far as outcomes and graduation statistics and students pre- and post-test academic gains in numeracy and literacy.”
So he remains hopeful, Bock said, but this alternative education provider acknowledged his company and proponents of the proposal have more educating to do in this community to earn the job.
“We want to give everybody the information that they need to understand this fully,” he said. “And we certainly understand there are some folks who are never going to be supportive of this endeavor. That’s OK. But we want an opportunity to show folks what a good, quality alternative and therapeutic school looks like. We have that model, and we want to bring it here.”