Muscogee County voters slightly favor school takeover proposal

Gov. Nathan Deal’s proposal to create an Opportunity School District that would empower the state to take over Georgia’s chronically failing schools was defeated by a wide margin in Tuesday’s referendum. But a slim majority of Muscogee County’s voters favored the proposal, called Amendment 1 on the ballot.
Gov. Nathan Deal’s proposal to create an Opportunity School District that would empower the state to take over Georgia’s chronically failing schools was defeated by a wide margin in Tuesday’s referendum. But a slim majority of Muscogee County’s voters favored the proposal, called Amendment 1 on the ballot. File

Georgia voters on Tuesday defeated Amendment 1, Gov. Nathan Deal’s proposal to create an Opportunity School District that would have empowered the state to take over chronically failing schools or convert them to charters or even close them.

But while the referendum failed by a wide margin statewide (60-40 percent), a slim majority of Muscogee County’s voters favored the proposal (51-49 percent). The difference is significant, insists John Thomas, the District 2 representative on the Muscogee County School Board.

“This result indicates the majority of local citizens are so frustrated with our failed local public system that they are willing to relinquish control of schools to the state,” Thomas told the Ledger-Enquirer in an email. “This result validates the position (District 8 representative) Frank Myers and I have been taking, and I continue to be proud to stand with Frank on the short end of many, many 7-2 votes that continue to rubber-stamp our schools into failure. We will continue our fight, and now it is clear, with the support of the majority of the people.

“Perhaps this local result will finally provide the wake-up call the administration needs to join us in these efforts.”

Board chairman Rob Varner of District 5 replied in an email to the Ledger-Enquirer, “I categorically reject the suggestion that the local vote to support the amendment was, in any way, a negative reflection on our district.”

Varner said the Muscogee County School District, “in virtually every metric,” is a better system since David Lewis became superintendent three years ago, “evidenced most recently by our graduation rates,” which surpass the national and state averages. “Our schools and this district are improving; we did not need the OSD amendment to put us on that path.”

Lewis also replied to Thomas’ comments in an email to the Ledger-Enquirer.

“While I readily acknowledge that we are not where we want to be, it is disingenuous to denigrate the hard work of our students and staff who are making great strides in the right direction,” Lewis said.

The superintendent said, “I have recently completed a three-year update of the 10-year plan I initiated upon coming to the district, which reveals improvement in every significant performance indicator by which school systems are evaluated as documented by independent sources such as the College Board, the Georgia Department of Education and the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement, to name a few.”

Varner opposed the governor’s proposal, calling it an “aggressive government overreach.”

“I was not convinced that such a dramatic change would meaningfully impact the performance of these schools and prefer local solutions to local problems,” Varner told the Ledger-Enquirer in an email.

Varner noted Lewis “has already begun addressing the problem by installing research-based solutions aimed and increasing both math and literacy skills for all of our children but targeted toward those who are most at risk. We’re already seeing positive results.”

Lewis also called the OSD proposal an “overreach” in an email to the Ledger-Enquirer and contends the state’s “plan for addressing these schools was not clearly defined.”

Struggling schools can’t be improved “with a one-size-fits-all approach,” Lewis said. “The unique challenges facing these schools will require shared responsibility between the school, parents and community partners working in collaboration to support and address their individual needs.

“Toward this end, our district staff has been meeting with parents, Partners in Education and the faith communities affiliated with these schools to share school-specific data, provide resources and present a call to action to the school community. Through the regional reorganization of the district, we have worked to identify specific needs and individualize support based on those needs. In addition, the implementation of several research-based curriculum initiatives aligned to state standards, targeted professional development to improve teaching practices and other additional resources have reduced the number of schools on the OSD list in Muscogee County.”

MCSD had 10 of the 141 schools on the state’s original list of chronically failing schools released last year. Georgetown and Rigdon Road elementary schools, however, improved enough with other schools in the state on the 2015 College and Career-Ready Performance Index to move off the list. That leaves 127 schools in Georgia and these eight in Muscogee on the current list: Baker Middle School and Davis, Dawson, Forrest Road, Fox, Lonnie Jackson, Martin Luther King Jr. and South Columbus elementary schools.

All of MCSD’s chronically failing schools receive school-wide Title I funding, which is extra federal money for schools that have at least 40 percent of their students from impoverished families.

“Looking ahead,” Lewis continued, “the emerging Columbus 2025 Strategic Plan also holds great promise for aligning community assets that will yield enhanced educational outcomes which I believe can become a model for other communities.”

Another key, Lewis added, would be for the state to stop changing the public school standards and assessments so often “in order for educators and students to adjust to new expectations.”

Other local counties

Chattahoochee County voters also went against the statewide result and favored the proposal 57-43 percent. ChattCo’s middle school is on the chronically failing list.

“This past year, my board of education recognized the need for change,” ChattCo superintendent David McCurry told the Ledger-Enquirer in an email. “I worked closely with my school board throughout this past spring to create a plan for improvement. Parts of the plan included having to make some very difficult personnel decisions. Our plan has been put into place this current year, and we expect improvement.”

ChattCo’s elementary and middle schools started the school year with new principals.

“I’m sure the 57 percent of Chattahoochee County voters in favor of OSD may have been attributed to the fact that the community as a whole also sees the need for improvement,” McCurry said. “However, I’m also hearing another factor may have been confusion among voters between the Amendment 1 question and the local question to restructure the board of education to create staggered board terms. I’m told many voted yes for OSD by mistake, thinking they were voting yes to restructure the local school board. Either way, we all agree things must improve.”

Harris County voters, however, sided with the state’s majority and rejected the proposal 53-47 percent. On behalf of Harris County superintendent Jimmy Martin, the school district’s chief information officer, Jeff Branham, told the Ledger-Enquirer in an email the referendum shows “the majority of Georgians believe that local control is best for our schools and ultimately for our children.”

Instead of a state takeover of failing schools, Branham suggested, “many states have adopted a turnaround system which includes targeted walk-through observations, instructional coaching, modeling, co-teaching, support on lesson planning, curriculum mapping/pacing, sharing of curricular resources, professional development and instructional data teams, and school-wide data reviews.”

Controversial campaign

Opponents of Amendment 1 objected to the wording on the ballot, arguing it didn’t explain what an Opportunity School District would do.

The OSD referendum started with this preamble on the ballot:

“Provides greater flexibility and state accountability to fix failing schools through increasing community involvement.”

Then it asked voters this question:

“Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow the state to intervene in chronically failing public schools in order to improve student performance?”

Keep Georgia School Local campaign manager Louis Elrod said in a news release, “Georgia voters refused to be deceived by misleading ballot language, and when they read the fine print on Amendment 1, they learned it was nothing more than a political power grab that outlined no real plans for improving education.”

Deal spokewoman Jen Talaber didn’t respond to the Ledger-Enquirer’s questions about the governor’s proposal being rejected.

Michael O’Sullivan, executive director of the Georgia Campaign for Achievement Now, part of the 50-state CAN nonprofit organization advocating “a high-quality education for all kids, regardless of their address,” successfully fought a similar political battle, helping to convince voters to approve the 2012 Georgia charter school amendment. He figured the OSD would be the next logical step.

“It's a missed opportunity to have provided another way to help improve schools and guide our state's most underperforming schools onto a path of success,” O’Sullivan said in an email to the Ledger-Enquirer.

O’Sullivan asserted the infusion of “more than $5 million” from national teacher unions to defeat the amendment is “a number never before seen on a ballot measure in Georgia and twice as much as supporters of Amendment 1 spent.”

But the campaign did elevate the issue to a prominent place in public discourse, O’Sullivan noted. He hopes Georgians won’t squander the attention or forget the “needs of the 68,000 children who currently attend a chronically failing school.”

“Since the measure was first proposed, it had been encouraging to see a renewed sense of urgency on behalf several school districts to turn their failing schools around,” O’Sullivan said. “Without the Opportunity School District holding districts accountable, I fear that the same urgency will diminish. Going forward, we should all be demanding to know what each district is currently doing to improve the outcomes of students in these underperforming schools and how that plan is succeeding. The citizens must be the catalyst for change.”

At least the proposal’s opponents can agree on that, Elrod indicated in the Keep Georgia Schools Local news release.

“We look forward to engaging with local communities, strengthening relationships between local school boards and families, and focusing on the solutions we know work -- like efforts to increase resources, reduce class sizes, increase teacher pay, restore art and music programs and work on retaining our best teachers,” Elrod said.

Georgia Department of Education superintendent Richard Woods, who remained publicly neutral on Amendment 1 during what he called “a contentious campaign,” intends to use the focus on this issue as motivation to “engage stakeholders.”

Woods said in a news release that he will conduct a “Solutions Summit” for members of the education, business and faith communities, as well as families, “to have candid conversations about these schools and develop a framework where all parties, including the GaDOE, have skin in the game. It’s time that we stop talking only about the problems that persist in these schools and start developing actionable solutions.”

One of those solutions, Woods said, will be assigning a GaDOE staff member to each chronically failing school “so they have a personal contact to help provide whatever support they may need.”

Woods also plans for the GaDOE to conduct “Community Conversations” around the state “to chart root causes and create solutions to address school performance – all with the common goal of supporting our kids.”

How Muscogee County precincts voted on Amendment 1

A majority of voters in 16 of Muscogee County’s 26 precincts approved the referendum. The precinct most in favor was National Infantry with 62 percent voting Yes. Two precincts tied for being most against the referendum: St. Paul and St. Peter with 55 percent voting No.

16 precincts majority Yes

(Percentages are rounded, except those at 50 include the decimals)

National Infantry 62, Eddy/Key 60, Cusseta Road 59, Gallops/Hannan 57, Columbus Tech 56, First African 56, Carver/Mack 55, Wynnbrook 55, Fort/Waddell 54, Rothschild 54, Cornerstone 53, Wynnton 53, Mt. Pilgrim 52, Salvation Army 52, Faith Tabernacle 51, St. Andrews/Midland 50.11

10 precincts majority No

(Percentages are rounded, except those at 50 include the decimals)

St. Paul 55, St. Peter 55, Psalmond/Mathews 53, St. John/Belvedere 53, Edgewood 52, Gentian/Reese 52, Moon/Morningside 52, Britt David 51, St. Mark/Heiferhorn 50.41, Epworth 50.005