In response to some area schools being deemed “failing” by the state, city officials have been privately discussing conducting a feasibility study into a city school system for Mobile.
City spokesman George Talbot told Lagniappe Mayor Sandy Stimpson has recently discussed the matter with some members of the Mobile City Council, though there has not yet been any formal move to put a proposal up for consideration.
While the city does appear to be involved in discussing how a feasibility study might come to fruition, Stimpson and Councilwoman Gina Gregory both suggested the interest in evaluating a city school system has been mostly community driven.
“I think the conversation that’s going on in the community has to do with the information that came out about the failing schools. Any time there’s a conversation about that, somebody asks, ‘Well, what are we going to do?’” Stimpson said. “Ten years ago there wasn’t a model of what to do, other than try to do better. Now you’ve seen different schools split from the school system, and there are people curious as to whether a city school system makes sense for Mobile.”
Nine schools in the Mobile County Public School System were deemed “failing” under the Alabama Accountability Act this year. Of those, all but two fall within the city limits of Mobile. The other two are located within the city of Prichard.
It’s currently unclear how, or if, the city will proceed with conducting such a study, but Talbot did confirm rumors that some individuals and civic organizations have mentioned privately funding a feasibility study. He did not disclose the names of the organizations, however.
With more than 53,000 students, MCPSS is the largest school system in the state of Alabama, and speaking to Lagniappe, Stimpson said that’s a factor in evaluating the best option for public school students in the city.
“Knowing we have the largest school system in the state, is that an impediment to being successful?” Stimpson asked. “I just think a study needs to be done to let those in leadership know what the options are. Until you do the study, you don’t know what to do other than continuing to do the same thing and just try to do it better.”
In addition to the mayor’s office, many city councilors have expressed support for analyzing how a city school system might function in Mobile. Councilman Fred Richardson has publicly advocated for a city system in the past but did not return a call seeking comment for this report and was not available at a council pre-conference meeting Tuesday.
Councilman Joel Daves said this week he supports the idea of a feasibility study but would like it to focus on two main points: whether a city school system would “make sense from a fiscal standpoint” and whether it would improve educational opportunities for students in Mobile.
Asked about the possibility of a private study, Daves said, “I don’t see anything wrong with that.”
Gregory said she’d support any study that would analyze where the money going to MCPSS is being spent, though she said there’s currently not enough information to determine if separating from MCPSS would be a positive move for Mobile. She also said any momentum toward such a split shouldn’t come from the city, but should be “community driven” and should include the Mobile County Board of School Commissioners.
“I’m thinking about an analysis, not some study done with the intent to automatically do something. That’s not the way it should work,” Gregory said. “Finding out where things are and starting a conversation may be what it takes for the school system, especially with a new superintendent, to look internally and see what they need to do differently. If anybody’s against research and information, that tells you something right there.”
If Mobile were to split from the county school system it would be the fourth city to do so since 2012 — following Saraland, Satsuma and Chickasaw. However, given the number of students within the city limits, it could essentially halve the MCPSS student population and its funding from the state.
However, it does appear MCPSS could be gearing up for a response to a proposal if one is made.
In recent weeks, the district has been developing a “Better Together” campaign that includes a pamphlet Lagniappe obtained with a headline reading: “Our students have more opportunities and more choices when our city and county work together.”
Among other information about the school system’s “challengers,” the same pamphlet claims “families are moving westward, leaving schools inside the cities of Mobile and Prichard.” It does not directly mention the talks of studying a city school system in Mobile, though.
Outgoing Superintendent Martha Peek, who will retire in July, said no one with MCPSS has been involved in conversations with the city. While she’s heard the same “rumblings” about a possible feasibility study as others, Peek said she has not received any concrete information so far.
“There does seem to be some discussions happening on the city’s part but we’ve not been involved in those,” Peek said. “At this time our main focus is making sure our students are prepared to take the annual state tests. That’s where our energy is right now, but we’re definitely listening and trying to get what information we can.”
Dale Liesch contributed to this report.