Officials have confirmed an exploratory look at the viability of a city school system was shelved as confidence in Mobile County Schools Superintendent Chresal Threadgill grew.
Last fall, a nonprofit organization called Mobile’s Education First Coalition (MEFC) privately initiated a financial feasibility study into what it would take to support a city school district break away from the Mobile County Public School System (MCPSS).
Support for studying that idea had grown among some city leaders as some local schools continued showing up on the annual list of “failing” schools released by the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) — a list that’s based on state standardized test scores.
Over the past year, some leaders in public and private arenas have expressed support for, if nothing else, exploring the feasibility of a city school system. However, neither Mayor Sandy Stimpson nor the Mobile City Council ever officially endorsed the idea of pulling out of MCPSS.
For the most part, MEFC has operated independently from the city government, though Stimpson did have a small role in spurring the effort forward. It’s currently chaired by Dr. Mark Foley, who served as president of the University of Mobile for 17 years.
The coalition’s full membership is unclear, but it was incorporated by Foley, Trustmark National Bank Regional President Mike Fitzhugh, Mount Hebron Church Pastor Joseph Johnson and his wife, Linda Johnson. Lagniappe has previously discussed its work with Foley and Fitzhugh.
Its broader purpose was to find ways of addressing the challenges facing some public schools in Mobile, but one of the coalition’s earliest goals was clearly determining whether a city school system could work in the Port City.
Like many who’ve weighed that same question, MEFC turned to Ira Harvey.
Harvey is a well-known education consultant whose company, Decision Resources LLC, has studied the feasibility of proposed school systems in a number of Alabama cities including Orange Beach, Gulf Shores, Saraland, Chickasaw, Fairhope and Satsuma.
It’s unclear what Harvey was paid for his efforts in Mobile, but his work usually costs anywhere between $25,000 to $50,000 depending on the size and complexity of the school system being analyzed. Whatever it was, the coalition — not the city — picked up the tab.
Harvey’s study started in September 2018, and the results were initially expected in March, but plans changed as MEFC realized a new school system wasn’t the best option for Mobile. It wasn’t the lack of an adequate tax base or facilities that made it unfeasible.
Instead, Foley said it was the recent shift in leadership at MCPSS. A year into Threadgill’s tenure as superintendent, the coalition shifted its focus from whether Mobile should break away from MCPSS to how it could work in concert with its new administration.
“We have a very good, confident and impressive superintendent of schools. It was our opinion, and we think the prevailing opinion of people we spoke with was that he should have a good shot at handling what he was hired to do,” Foley said. “A city school system wasn’t going to get traction and would likely be a divisive issue that could do more harm than good in our community.”
Speaking with Lagniappe last week, Stimpson expressed similar confidence in Threadgill, whom he’s been having regular one-on-one meetings with for months now. He said that has allowed him and Threadgill to keep tabs on each other’s objectives and where they overlap.
Since then, Stimpson said he and others who’ve raised concerns about the performance of some local schools have come to realize two things: Threadgill needs a chance to implement the vision he has for MCPSS, and he could best do that with the city of Mobile’s full support.
“It’s really that simple. We don’t need a skirmish right now.” Stimpson said. “We’re hopeful the [Mobile County] school board will allow [Threadgill] to do what he believes needs to be done.”
Asked to elaborate on what sold him personally, Stimpson said Threadgill showed he wasn’t afraid to shake things up within MCPSS and recognized the need to put “qualified people in positions of leadership.” On Tuesday, during his annual State of the City address, Stimpson said he was “grateful” for Threadgill.
“In our second meeting, I realized [he] was a vision-focused leader of high integrity. Intolerant of mediocrity and the status quo, he is willing to embrace innovation and change,” he said. “Without any reservation, I know Threadgill will reach the district’s vision of becoming one of the nation’s premier education systems.”
When Threadgill took office in July 2018, talks of Mobile forming its own school system — a split that would have halved MCPSS’ student population and a large portion of its funding — were already underway. From the beginning, he said MCPSS would be “better together.”
In a statement to Lagniappe earlier this week, Threadgill said he was pleased to hear the city was no longer pursuing a split from MCPSS, describing it as “great news” for both parties. He also maintained that “standing together, we can and will accomplish great things.”
“I understand that this decision was based on the desire to support me in my efforts to lead change throughout the district. However, I take no credit,” Threadgill continued. “Credit should be given to those who believe in the Mobile County’s public schools and the notion that it will take ALL of us, working together towards a common goal, to move MCPSS forward.”
While Threadgill clearly has support, the system still faces significant challenges. Despite improvements on ALSDE’s recent school report cards, nine MCPSS schools are still deemed “failing” under the Alabama Accountability Act — all but one of which is in Mobile.
While MEFC is no longer funding efforts to evaluate a city school system, Foley said addressing things like those “failing” schools is still a key focus of the organization going forward.
“Absolutely, the need has not changed, but we believe we’ve got a good guy at the helm. We’ve been talking about the same objectives, just different ways to get there,” he said. “If we raise our sights and put enough energy behind it, we can create a healthy system of education in Mobile.”
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