Since Muscogee County School Board member Frank Myers alleged during Monday night's meeting that the school district doesn't have enough textbooks for all of its students, the debate has played out in heated email exchanges, and superintendent David Lewis has decided to survey schools to sort fact from fiction.
Lewis said Monday, "To our best knowledge, the students, if they have the need for a textbook, they have one available to them to take home." The superintendent urged residents to contact him with specific cases to the contrary.
Myers, the District 8 representative, said district officials haven't received the complaints he has because folks fear retaliation. Lewis insisted that doesn't happen under his administration.
That night, Nathan Smith, a frequent critic of the board, emailed board members a link to a Facebook conversation, where he wrote, "The Superintendent said tonight it's untrue that kids don't have textbooks to bring home. What say you?"
In two days, more than a dozen people posted a response disputing Lewis' contention, and two supported the superintendent's statement. Since then, board members have exchanged a flurry of emails about the issue. Schools mentioned in the Facebook posts and emails as not having enough textbooks are Allen, Carver, Fort, Jordan, Hardaway, Shaw and Waddell.
In an email Tuesday, Myers wrote, "Somebody is clearly not telling the truth. Again, as I stated last night, I get very regular complaints about kids not having the textbooks they need. I did not appreciate the inference that the parents of school children are lying about this very important issue."
Lewis responded in an email:
"Thank you for sharing this information. For clarification, it is and continues to be as recently as last week my understanding that students have access to the books and instructional materials needed to teach Georgia's curriculum standards. These standards are the curriculum for the State of Georgia. It is important to note that national textbook publishers do not print state-specific textbooks and therefore, textbooks are not necessarily aligned to Georgia's standards. For this reason our district made the decision several years ago (and wisely so) to become a standards-based district and as such, utilizes books as one of several resources. In some cases this may be a textbook the student brings home as necessary, while in others it may be an online resource. In fact, there are teachers in various disciplines that elect not to use any one specific book but rather a variety of hard copy and electronic resources to cover their respective state standards.
" I regret that you interpreted my response as an inference that anyone is lying about any aspect of this important issue - parents, students or staff. I do believe that we as a district need to do a better job of educating our constituents on the changing paradigm surrounding standards-based classrooms and the resources teachers and schools are using to meet the more rigorous standards we desperately need to ensure that our students are college and career ready. The good thing about our district's preparation for the move to digital content is that, unlike a traditional textbook, the digital versions can be routinely updated to keep them current."
Myers emailed back and called Lewis' response "absurd" and "utter rubbish." He concluded, "You must do better, sir."
In an email addressed to Myers, board chairman Rob Varner of District 5 defended Lewis:
"Your unsubstantiated and threatening comments, particularly in such a public forum, are vulgar, unprofessional and have no place in, what should be, a civilized discussion between our Superintendent and the Board of Education. Our Code of Ethics demands that we, 'Communicate in a respectful professional mannerand be courteous with all district employees'. Say what you wish, but a least show Dr. Lewis the respect he deserves as 30 + year, highly educated professional in the field of education. We cannot properly communicate and perform our job, as members of the board, if we don't communicate in a respectful and understanding manner."
Myers responded Wednesday in an email addressed to Varner:
"Here is a newsflash for you: Many kids in our public school system here in Columbus don't have access to textbooks. This is not at all 'unsubstantiated' --- rather, it is a fact. And this has been true for years now. Would you please get your head out of the sand, take a moment to recognize it's not all wine and roses, acknowledge that we do have some problems that merit attention, and actually do your job as a board member/chair?
" Nearly 20% of our local public schools are on the 'perpetually failing' list for a reason. Instead of spending so much of your time acting as 'Apologizer/Defender-in-Chief' for David Lewis, and further pretending our local public school system is just humming along without any flaws, perhaps you might spend at least a little bit of your time recognizing, then attempting to rectify some of the shortcomings that have led to this widespread failure in our system."
As a result of the hullabaloo, Lewis emailed board members Wednesday that he has asked MCSD chief academic officer Ronie Collins and region chiefs Terry Baker, Ronald Wiggins and James Wilson "to survey schools once again to ensure that students have access to books and instructional materials necessary or required for the classes where teachers use a book. I will provide the findings once the survey has been completed."
Board member Shannon Smallman of District 7 wrote in an email Thursday, "The concerns absolutely need to be addressed and I suggest they be presented to Dr. Lewis and the Board with strictly the facts of the concern. along with any pertinent information in order to look into it, not bringing in personal issues that do not relate to the situation. It makes it hard to effectively work through issues when everyone feels like they are being attacked. Then we should discuss these concerns and the findings openly at our work sessions and meetings."
Myers responded in a Thursday email: "Nobody on the board has been 'attacked' or 'threatened'. And it is pretty much impossible to 'work through issues' when some people will not acknowledge an issue even exists. The only ones who have been attacked or threatened are the school kids who are being systematically cheated out of a quality public education in Columbus, Georgia because they don't have the books they need."
Kia Chambers, the nine-member board's only county-wide representatives, weighed in with this email Thursday:
"It appears to me that we ALL have the same common goal and that is to provide a quality education for the students in the Muscogee County School District. The issue of students not having textbooks is a valid concern and I appreciate all parties who are trying to rectify this issue. Please know that your voice is being heard. With that said, I would also add that I have full confidence that if Superintendent Lewis said he would look into this issue and provide an update then I believe that is exactly what will happen. If it is determined that there are schools that are in need of textbooks then this should be an easy fix. I asked that we respectfully and cooperatively allow our Superintendent an opportunity to conduct Due Diligence so that we can continue this discussion in the appropriate forum. ( work session/board meeting)."
Former board chairwoman Mary Sue Polleys offered historical perspective in a Facebook post Monday night. She noted complaints about a lack of textbooks are an old issue. During her first campaign 22 years ago, Polleys wrote, "I met with Dr. Jim Buntin and Mr. Guy Sims way back then to get the whole story and learned the following: 1.Technology has brought changes. Tech programs and platforms have replaced traditional texts in some subjects/ grades. 2.Some schools/ grades/subject specialists, etc. elect to have a class set of books, not one for every student. 3.Textbooks are bought for the whole system on a rotating schedule involving several years. Thus when books are lost or disappear for various reasons, shortages might occur in some grades/ places some years. And I'm sure there were other factors, too. It was a lot more complex than I ever guessed. But no matter how many traditional textbooks we bought for the 13 yrs I was on the board, I still heard similar complaints the whole time. Always tried to track down the specific situation to answer a specific complaint, but it was difficult. Students and parents do NOT keep up with and take care of books today the way we had to do decades ago when I was a child...I also learned that."