After nearly 40 years in education, Mobile County School Commissioner Dr. William “Bill” Foster says he knows the needs of students and is hoping to bring his experience back to the school board in a second term next year.
On Oct. 5, Foster qualified to run for reelection in the District 5 seat of the Mobile County Board of School Commissioners, and with the Nov. 6 deadline to qualify only a week away, it’s likely he’ll do so unopposed. The election process will run concurrently to the 2016 presidential cycle with a primary in March and a general election in November.
Foster has taught or been a principal at multiple elementary schools in and around the county system during his career in education. He has experience at Martha Thomas, Chickasaw and Burroughs elementary schools as well as Rosa A. Lott and Semmes middle schools. He was also the first principal at Hutchins Elementary, which opened in 1999.
After retiring for the second time in 2010, Foster immediately ran for a seat on the school board, where, according to him, that first-hand knowledge of the school system served him well.
“It really is an advantage. Having been a principal, you can really bring some insight into how local schools operate,” Foster said. “You know the needs of the children, and you understand what’s going on in the schools. That’s anything from test reports to knowing how big of an impact a broken air conditioner can have on teachers and the children.”
Foster said he wants to maintain his position on the board because he believes he and his colleagues have been able to accomplish some important tasks over the past six years. He specifically pointed to the multifaceted building program the school system is still undertaking.
Paid for with a $100 million construction bond, that program has funded the construction of two new schools — Citronelle High School and Fourier Chastang Middle School. It’s also paid for additional renovations at 14 other schools including the exterior renovations at Barton Academy.
According to Foster, there’s still work to be done, with major roof renovations needed at several schools and more capacity needed in some areas to address the continuing growth in West Mobile. He said that growth is a “major issue” that will likely require another new high school be built somewhere in District 5 or District 1 in the system’s next building campaign.
Though that is definitely a long-range plan, Foster said the school system is on “better financial footing than it has been on in some time,” which will help when addressing those types of issues in the future.
There’s no doubt Foster cares for the children in District 5, as evidenced by his Facebook page and in the donations he’s made personally to projects at schools such as Baker and Theodore high schools.
He also has two grandchildren in the district, but Foster said as a board member, he focuses his efforts system-wide.
“You have to put your own personal feelings aside in order to do what you know to be the greater need,” Foster said. “You have to understand that it’s five people that make the decisions, not the individual, and I think we’ve worked together really well as a board over the last few years. Yes, you lobby for your districts — and we’ve gotten a lot done in District 5 — but at the same time, you have to know what the needs of the whole system are.”
Foster said his cooperation also extends to Superintendent Martha Peek, who he’s known since they grew up together in Bayou La Batre and throughout a shared career in elementary education. He said they may not agree on every individual issue that comes before the board, but they work well together because of a mutual respect and a shared goal of doing what’s best for the children.
According to Foster, the rising graduation rate is an example of that shared vision between Peek and the members of the board.
“There was a time when only 56 percent of our students were graduating,” he said. “Now, 82 percent are graduating, and that number has grown every year since I’ve been a member of the board.”
Another issue that marked Foster’s first term in office was the development of charter school legislation in Alabama. While several attempts to allow charter programs failed in the legislature — all of which were formally opposed by the local school board — a change occurred this spring to pave the way for charter schools in 2016.
Since then, the school system has gone back and forth on whether to become an authorizer for charter schools in the area. Prospective charters are approved by an authorizer, which identifies the needs of local students and may approve or deny applications based on a school’s ability to meet those needs.
In July, Foster and the other board members voted to submit an application to become the county’s authorizer, but later reneged on that decision due to a lack of time to properly prepare the system for the responsibility. The board does plan to apply for authorizer status in 2016, however, and Foster said the delay was necessary to make the proper preparations.
“In my opinion, we are going to be an authorizer, which I really believe we should be. It connects the charter school more to the local board, and I believe problems are best solved locally,” Foster said. “In addition to that, we’re able to exercise some degree of oversight in what they’re providing for our children and see what direction they want to take those schools.”
Even though a charter program would technically not be a part of the system, Foster said if it was populated by students who were previously in the system, the board would still “have an obligation to those children and those families.”
“My focus is stated in my [campaign] signs — ‘Every child, every day,” Foster said. “I’ve had that slogan personally for year, and that’s how I look at things. Each child is important.”