Muscogee County School Board rejects plan to hire Camelot Education

The Muscogee County School Board meets May 15, 2017, in the Muscogee County Public Education Center.
The Muscogee County School Board meets May 15, 2017, in the Muscogee County Public Education Center.

After an hour of another passionate debate about the best way to provide alternative education, the Muscogee County School Board ended two months of public argument and, in a split decision with a one-vote margin, rejected superintendent David Lewis’ controversial recommendation to hire Camelot Education, a private, for-profit company based in Austin, Texas, for $6.4 million annually.

In the 4-5 vote Monday night, supporting the plan were board chairwoman Pat Hugley Green of District 1, Naomi Buckner of District 4, Laurie McRae of District 5 and Cathy Williams of District 7. Voting against the plan were vice chairwoman and countywide representative Kia Chambers, John Thomas of District 2, Vanessa Jackson of District 3, Mark Cantrell of District 6 and Frank Myers of District 8.

Following the meeting, Lewis told the Ledger-Enquirer, “I’m very sorry for the students and the teachers that I think would have benefited from the program. But this is part of the process, and we move on.”

Asked why he thinks his plan didn’t generate enough support, Lewis said, “There was a lot of misinformation, a lot of people who didn’t really understand or comprehend or don’t know some of the situations our teachers and students are in.”

Asked whether he could have done anything differently to get his proposal passed, Lewis said, “You always reflect on that, but the short answer is no. I think the staff did diligent research on the situation for 18 months, based on some of the needs we saw and based on my initial recommendation report. So I think we did a very comprehensive review. We provided opportunity for people who wanted to know and wanted to learn and wanted to have questions answered. I think we provided multiple opportunities for that to be done.”

The 5-3 vote April 10 to table superintendent Lewis’ recommendation to hire Camelot included the promise to form a community advisory committee, which would further explore the Muscogee County School District’s options to solve the problem that both sides of this proposal agree should be addressed: MCSD must change the way it educates students with severe emotional or behavioral problems, severe discipline violations and those who are over-age and under-credited.

Monday night, the board put the superintendent’s recommendation back on the table with a 5-4 vote, split the same way the board rejected it 37 minutes later.

Myers made the motion to reconsider tabling the recommendation. He also made the motion to vote on it. Thomas seconded both motions.

“This issue needs to be done with,” Myers said. “… This is an albatross around our necks.”

Several board members explained their rationale for why they voted for or against hiring Camelot. In order of when they spoke, here is some of what they said:

▪ Williams: “I believe this program is the best for our children, our staff and our taxpayers. … This program is the missing piece to ensuring the Muscogee County School District is a district that believes and invests in all of our children, the academic, athletic, artistic, autistic and troubled – all.”

▪ Chambers: “I do think we need to watch out for all of our students. Where I disagree is that this program is the best for all our students. As I said before, there are some great parts of the program. … Everyone who has talked about the program and the highlights of it, it all points back to one of those contracts. It is the other students that is the majority of the contracts that I am not sure. … Therapeutic, I understand, we’ve got to do something. … But you are grouping three separate groups of students who need three totally different things, and I just am not convinced that this totality is what is best for all students.”

▪ Myers: “You’re going to love this. I think it’s all been said.”

▪ Jackson: “Camelot impresses me as being almost as good as the program we already have, which is AIM and Woodall. … I do not recall anyone ever outlining what is broken with the current programs we have now.”

▪ Buckner: “When I initially hear something like Camelot, I’ve resisted that because it’s not something typically that I would vote for. … Why couldn’t we do it? And then the association with the company being private. … So I asked a lot of questions, and the bottom line was that the superintendent said we needed something we couldn’t do efficiently at the cost Camelot is doing it for. … I actually had to trust the superintendent to do the right thing. … I wanted to make sure that Camelot was not a place that was going to abuse our kids, and I wanted to make sure that we weren’t throwing our kids away, that they were still our kids. … But the main thing for me is I was relying on his recommendation.”

▪ McRae: “We’re not trying necessarily to replace; we’re trying to expand these services. … In order to offer all these programs, we need an economy of scale. We need a provider that can do all of these things and share the cost of the therapists and teachers and specialty services. I have struggled with this decision. I’ve asked questions, gathered information. … If it’s voted down, I sincerely hope that I am proven wrong, but I fear we will be sitting here again in a year or two with no improvement in the area of alternative education, and it’s the students and the teachers who will suffer.”

▪ Green: “I do want to express my sincere gratitude for all the hard work that you all (Lewis and his chief administrators) have put into this. You’ve done your due diligence to do all the research you needed to make the recommendation that will be in the best interest of our students and to present the information and to answer all of our questions.”

Earlier at the meeting, Chambers, empowered by Green to form the committee, presented the board a report outlining the committee’s parameters. It will comprise 15-17 members, including the following individuals who already agreed to serve:

▪ Waleisah Wilson, founder and president of NewLife-Second Chance Outreach Inc., a nonprofit organization helping former inmates transition back into the Columbus community

▪ Marianne Young, vice president of the Arnold Magnet Academy PTA and mother of a special-needs student.

▪ Charles Redd, Muscogee County office of Department of Family & Children Services.

▪ Tollie Strode, leader of the Columbus Consolidated Government watchdog organization called CCG Accountability Forum.

▪ J.A. Hud, director of Project Rebound, which facilitates psychosocial development for those disrupted by social conditions.

▪ Olive Vidal-Kendall, Columbus Technical College director of counseling and special services.

▪ Carolyn Randolph, former educator.

▪ The Rev. Ralph Huling, president of the local Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance and pastor of St. James Missionary Baptist Church in Columbus and New Hope Baptist Church in Lumpkin.

▪ Lisa Jenkins, parent of a special-needs student.

▪ Tonza Thomas, Columbus chapter of the NAACP president.

Chambers asked each board representative to recommend committee members. The committee will select its chairman or chairwoman and “produce a feedback document” for the board in three months, Chambers said.

Williams is the only representative who accepted the invitation to visit Camelot schools in Chicago or Pensacola. Jenkins, whose son has autism, accompanied Williams to Chicago last week and was among the 18 citizens who traveled Monday to Pensacola. She urged the board during the public agenda portion of Monday night’s meeting to not vote on the superintendent’s recommendation now but to keep the issue tabled and follow through on the promise to establish a community advisory committee.

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.