The Mobile County Public School System will be under new leadership in July, and representatives for many local teachers are hopeful changes at the top might bring attention to concerns on the ground floor.
Across the state, the Alabama Education Association represents the interests of public school teachers and support staff members in a number of matters. Because of the nature of that work, AEA representatives often butt heads with school administrators.
Just last year, AEA took MCPSS to court over a decision outgoing Superintendent Martha Peek Peek made to limit outside groups’ access to school campuses. AEA argued such limitations could negatively affect its ability to represent members in disputes with school administrators.
Ultimately, both sides were able to find a workable solution outside the courtroom.
While Peek acknowledged she’s had a few disagreements with AEA during her six-year tenure as superintendent, she said she has “great respect” for the organization overall.
“With any relationship, there are some times you agree and some times you disagree, but what’s important is that, in the end, we continue to work together,” she said. “It’s a lot like marriage. Sometimes there are bumps in the road, but you work through them.”
Local AEA representative Jesse McDaniel has traveled over some of those “bumps” in recent years. He’s raised many concerns to school administrators on behalf of MCPSS teachers and support staff members, often publicly.
Like Peek, McDaniel said “AEA and MCPSS are just opposite sides of the same coin” and are ultimately working toward the same goal — serving teachers and their students.
“There will always be a degree of friction, but we should not allow that fact to cloud our judgment. Public education is a pretty tough line of work in the first place,” McDaniel said. “We can either work together to improve both morale and student achievement or we can waste energy and resources fighting each other. Fortunately, we have a choice in the matter.”
Though he won’t take the helm at MCPSS for a little more than a month, incoming Superintendent Chresal Threadgill recently participated in a “Q&A” session with AEA that’s featured in the organization’s summer newsletter, published earlier this week.
Unlike Peek, who hasn’t been an AEA member for decades, Threadgill said he plans to maintain the membership he’s had throughout his career. When asked, he said AEA’s role in public schools should be as an advocate for members who “holistically do a great job.”
The interview offered a glimpse into what Threadgill’s management style might be come July, and he didn’t make any secret of the “high expectations” he plans to bring with him.
“I require all employees to give 110 percent each day while maintaining a level of integrity in all that they do,” he said. “Of course, we have those that fall short of those expectations, and when this happens I am disappointed, but, as a leader, it is my responsibility to continue growing all individuals into the productive team members needed for the success of the organization.”
He addressed some key points of concern affecting local AEA members.
Moving forward, McDaniel said, the organization is most interested in “reducing unnecessary paperwork and excessive testing requirements, a strict enforcement of the Student Code of Conduct and strengthening the district’s financial position without layoffs or outsourcing.”
Threadgill said he wants teachers to be able to teach without “the load of cumbersome, time-consuming and unnecessary paperwork” some currently deal with. He did acknowledge that some paperwork, like that required by federal and state programs, is out of MCPSS’ hands.
Threadgill also talked briefly about finances, telling AEA part of his transitional plan will include “an evaluation of all third-party vendors” to determine if maintaining them is in the best interest of MCPSS students.
He also discussed salaries and how they can affect the one-month reserve fund balance MCPSS has failed to meet in recent years.
The Alabama State Department of Education requires all school systems to maintain the equivalent of one month’s operating expenses. For MCPSS, that would be around $36.8 million, though the system has only managed to squirrel away about half of that. Asked how he would bridge the gap, Threadgill said MCPSS has “some obvious personnel overages” that have impacted its budget that it “must begin trimming.”
It’s not the first time Threadgill has suggested personnel expenses could be reined in, and some of his efforts to do so in his current position as chief of staff may already be showing results.
In February, Threadgill pitched the idea of offering a retirement incentive bonus to high-earning administrators. The $20,000 retirement bonus was extended to those making more than $75,000 a year who had at least 30 years in the system or 10 years for those 62 and older.
According to MCPSS Spokeswoman Rena Philips, 20 qualifying employees accepted the bonus, which could equate to between $1 million to $2 million in savings depending on which positions are filled and the salaries those new employees.
It’s unclear which individual employees accepted bonuses, but since the announcement, seven principal vacancies have opened up throughout the district and a handful of the top earners in the central office have announced their intention to retire in 2018.
Asked about AEA’s first impression of Threadgill, McDaniel said it was reassuring to see an incoming superintendent acknowledge some of the concerns of local members, adding that he seems “open to working with the AEA to solve problems of mutual concern.”
He said Threadgill has already met with key AEA staffers and the leadership of the local association with a focus on “building relationships and opening up lines of communication.”
“Threadgill has also indicated a willingness to shake up the status quo at MCPSS central office,” McDaniel added. “So from our perspective, the transition is going well.”