Cobb County School Board Post 3 Candidates

There are two candidates for Cobb County school board Post 3: incumbent David Morgan and challenger Albert McRae.  They engaged in a question and answer session at the 2016  candidate forum organized by the Mableton Improvement Coalition and the Austell Community Taskforce.

First, the candidates introduced themselves.  David Morgan, the incumbent, said,

“My name is David Morgan, and I am running for reelection. The primary reason that I’m running for reelection is this: I mean what I say, and I say what I mean.  When I stood before MIC four years ago, these are the things that I said that I wanted to accomplish. I said I wanted an academic audit, to keep the district honest in terms of academic achievement.  I said I wanted a summer bridge program, to give kids something to do in the summer.  I said I wanted to do compensation reform, and a third grade literacy policy.

Now, I’m not up here talking rhetoric.  Those are facts. Those are things that have been accomplished.  Today, we’ve spent over $600,000 in the last three years for summer bridge programs for students in south Cobb County.”

Albert McRae, the challenger, said,

“I feel a sense of community here. I see a lot of family and friends here.  And I’d like to thank MIC and Austell Community Taskforce for putting this forum on … I’ve been living in this community for 33 years as a resident of south Cobb.  My name is Albert McCrae  and I’m running for Cobb County school board Post 3.  That is Pebblebrook High School, South Cobb High School … I want to emphasize that I’m also an alumni of Clay Elementary, Lindley Middle School, and Pebblebrook High School, just to show my love for my community, and where I stay. I attended the University of Southern Mississippi, and earned a bachelor’s of science degree in mechanical engineering technology.  And alongside a fifteen year engineering career in the metro Atlanta area, I found my passion for championing programs and initiatives like the following over the last 20 years: Pebblebrook Jr. Falcons Youth Association … South Cobb School Council Workshop , and Mableton Day …”

The first question from the moderators was, “Do you support the Opportunity School District concept which will be on the ballot this fall?  Why or why not?”

McRae said,

“This is a very heated subject matter. But I want to break it down to you in another way.  Because I believe in community, OSD is an attack on community…. When you look at OSD, and you support OSD, you’re saying that you don’t have confidence in your neighbors, in your citizens of Cobb County.  When you support the OSD, you’re saying that you don’t have confidence in your team members that’s on your school board … managing your tax dollars.  Our school board has the same power to make any changes necessary, the same as Governor Deal does.  But Governor Deal’s not giving you a clear plan, to say that his way is going to be better than our current seven board members. So I could never ask you for your vote, and then turn around and give that responsibility to the current governor, or a future governor, to govern our schools.  So it’s just plain and simple, local control. “

Morgan said,

“My answer to that question is yes. I support the Opportunity School District.  And this is why.  First, sometimes to get to the best answer you have to ask the right question.  First the schools that would be taken over if it passes in November are schools that have been failing for decades.  We’re not talking about two or three years of failure, we’re talking about decades of under-performance for schools.  Secondly, it’s also important to understand, where else have they done an Opportunity School District?  Do your research.  It’s been done in Louisiana, and it’s been done in Tennessee.  And what has happened in both of those cases?  Schools that have chronically under-performed have turned around.   This is about helping children.  And if a local school board, regardless of where it is in this state, if they have not done the job of educating communities that have chronically been under-performing, then I think it is right by children to ask another entity to step in with a proven model to help those children.  So yes, I do support the Opportunity School District, and I encourage us all to get beyond talking points, and actually look at the legislation.”

The candidates were then asked, “What concrete steps have you taken in order to bring to reality the desires of Harmony-Leland families to have their school rebuilt?”

Morgan said,

“Thank you for that opportunity … we took 10 million dollars, which has never been done in Cobb County school district, out of the general operating fund, and set it aside for Harmony-Leland. That has never been done.  Not only that … if you go up on Factory Shoals, the school district has purchased land for $1.8 million, for a new school building for Harmony-Leland/Clay … so what I have done is made sure, even when I was in the minority on the school board to stay persistent, to hold the district’s feet to the fire, and make sure that we do right by the children in the communities for Clay and Harmony-Leland. “

McRae said,

 “First of all, it is a team effort.  I hear my opponent saying I did this, I did that, and I did all this right here. And the summer bridge program.  But I guess it was ‘they’ who put us to the back of the line (for the) $40 million school budget … at Harmony-Leland.  I guess it was ‘they’ that didn’t fund our 12 classroom addition at Riverside Primary.  So building a coalition of the community, and working with your board members as a team, and letting them know your issues, and making sure that you have a structure in your community to advocate for what the community wants, not what I want or my opponent wants, or his lobbying firm, that he works for wants.  This is about what this community wants. And that’s why I want to empower our community, and keep that local control right here, and work for things that are meaningful, like investment in our schools.”

The next question was, “What would you say to parents who have the financial means to leave this area, and try to persuade them to stay in a school with lower test scores, rather than either go to another school in our same district or attend a local private school?”

McRae said,

“First of all, everyone has their free will, and I’m not going to tell everyone … what to do with their child.  But I can tell you this much right here.  To create a relationship with your school, or your principal, or your board member.  That creates a shared responsibility, where all can be part of a solution that can build the pride that this community needs, and the trust that this community needs in its local public school.  And that’s why I’m so proud of the things MIC is doing.  These are local volunteers that are feeling prideful about their local community, and taking steps to make everyone else feel that this is a great place to live, work, and play.  And the same thing with ACT, and Power Springs Taskforce, and that’s the same thing that we need in our school, people that are involved in local school council, so they can know what’s going on it their school, whether their kid’s in public school or not.  But they are part of the solution.  And they’re building that pride to say ‘You know what?  I don’t mind going to school with my neighbor.’ And then they may make that decision to stay right here.”

Morgan said.

“First thing we’re going to do is have a conversation as to why. Why do you want to leave the district?  And they very well might point out very plausible reasons.  And for those plausible reasons the first thing I’m going to do is say well, ‘This is what we’re doing to remedy that particular issue that you might have.’  Whether it’s achievement. Whether it’s safety.  Whether it’s teacher quality.  Whether it’s funding.  I’m going to say ‘these are the specific things we’re doing to remedy the issues that you might have.’  Secondly, and I had this conversation today with a parent. Her child is zoned for sixth grade academy at Lindley.  She wants her child to go to Lovinggood.  And she says if her child doesn’t get into Lovinggood, she’s going to go to Fulton County.  I posed this question.  I said ‘have you visited the school at the sixth grade academy?’  She said no.  So this is the type of representative that I am.  I said well this is what I’m going to do.  I’m going to put you on an email chain with the principal, so that you can have a face-to-face conversation with that principal, and also tour the school.  I said that way prior to making your decision, at least at the very minimum, you’ve stepped foot in that school, you’ve talked with the principal, and then you can see if you feel like that’s the best learning environment for your child.  It is about listening, having a conversation, and giving real answers to challenges or perceived challenges that that parent or family might have.”

The candidates were asked, “Is it not the responsibility of the school board to prevent failing schools?”

Morgan said,

“It’s not only the responsibility of the school board, it’s the responsibility of all stakeholders. And the responsibility means you have to raise standards across the board.  And let me give an example of how I have … worked really hard to raise standards across the board, with teachers.  For example.  If you receive a three, or a four, on your evaluation, we’re going to be giving $2500 bonuses. That’s for teachers.  For parents, we just passed the parental involvement proposal.  For students, I led the march to put $2 million in … this year’s budget, for diagnostic testing.  See, that’s not only for children who might be behind, but it’s also for children who are at the higher end of the learning spectrum. Too often, too many of our children come to school, and we have no idea where they might be on the learning spectrum.  So by putting $2 million in the budget, and everybody having to take the diagnostic, if you are a high achiever, we can customize the curriculum in that way.  If you are behind, we can customize the curriculum in that way.  So those are ways that all stakeholders have to be held responsible when it comes to improving our schools.”

McRae said,

“What I’m going to say is we have 200,000 people in the south Cobb area.  And I’m not going to say that I have all the answers.  It takes a shared responsibility.  And creating a platform where we’re having a dialogue at each school, about the policies that we want to put in place.  Instead of moving our control further away from our community, with OSD, let’s move it a little closer to our community, with strengthening school council, so we can have dialogue here at our school, so we can solve our problems and solve what’s going on in our school.  I hear my opponent, David Morgan.  He’s telling you what he’s done.  I done this, I done this.  What have we done as a team, as a community, to say that we have a shared responsibility, a shared relationship with our schools, to where we take pride in our schools, and we want to stay here and defend our schools?”

The next question was, “There are many challenges and opportunities in the schools in south Cobb.  More times than not the voice of our students themselves are not heard.  What role, if any, do you see students playing in addressing some of these issues?  Also can you specifically articulate how you would engage the students themselves to help improve our schools?”

Morgan said,

“That’s a very good question.  One part of doing this job well requires the ability to listen well.  And that question was posed to me.  And listening to a constituent pose that very question, what I decided to do was this.  Create a student advisory council, that speaks to me. We will meet quarterly, so that I can hear their vantage points, and their perspectives, as it relates to the type of education that they are getting. When you’re talking about the community, students, parents, teachers, and principals, school board members, you have to make sure that you are getting the perspective of the children that are being taught on a daily basis.  So if reelected, and hold me accountable for it, I will have quarterly meetings with students from the south Cobb area.  It will be a diverse group, to say ‘Hey, what is your learning experience like?  How can we do it better?  What do you think we do well?’ Ask the right questions, you can get the best answers.  Most importantly, then you’re able to act in a more definitive and effective way.”

McRae said

“I’m so happy that this dialogue has moved towards empowering our community, and empowering our community versus what I’m doing, what I’m achieving, or what not.  This is about what we’re doing as a community. In regards to our students, I’ve been working with students for over thirty years now, listening to them and their parents, empowering them to do newsletters, empowering them to present monthly newsletters and supporting them to volunteer with the Mableton Day, volunteer with cleanups.  Have pride about their schools.  So that is a platform that is my general theme.  We’re going to bring our community together, so we’re proud of the place that we stay.  And we’re going to stop running from our schools, and promoting running from our schools, and start promoting

let’s run towards our schools, and taking our own collective responsibility to make the schools that we want …”

The next question was, “What is your plan to improve the school buildings in south Cobb County, and what is your plan to help prepare pre-K students for kindergarten.  Will you push to improve Georgia pre-K standards?”

Morgan said,

“First let me say this.  When you put $600,000 into summer bridge programs, you are helping the community.  When you lead the fight for a putting $28 million in the budget for teacher raises, you are helping the community.  Now to answer your particular question: I want people to challenge me in this sense.  Two months ago I brought up the issue of pre-K at a school board meeting … put it on the agenda to help our community. What has happened since?  August 2017, the Cobb County school district will be opening five pre-K centers in our school district because what I heard from teachers and principals in listening were too many kids come  to school, and they are not coming from a print literate environment.  So taking that information from the community, and then actualizing that into results, so that has already been addressed in terms of making sure that pre-K, we will have five schools, five pre-K programs in our district.  Secondly, by the end of July, this year, we will have a new gym at Pebblebrook High School, we will have a new track at South Cobb High School, we will have a new track at Pebblebrook High School, and not only that, we will have a completely revamped concession area, and there are more things in terms of capital improvements.  Now to get those things passed you have to work with people and you have to listen to the needs of the community.  So those things were put in SPLOST, and one other thing I’ll say. Another $30 was put in SPLOST for the creation of a college and career academy.  That comes from listening to the community, working with my colleagues, but most importantly, producing results to make this an environment where everyone wants to send their children.”

McRae said,

“I’m so happy to be able to start talking about listening to the community, but let’s put an infrastructure in place like a school council.  When it comes to the investment of the SPLOST dollars, it’s the school council that helps the principal, and assists the principal, and lay out the issues and the projects that we need to invest in.  And if your school concil is not strong, and is not robust enough, it takes over 10 years to implement a SPLOST.  And if your school council is being recreated every year, those parents and community don’t know what to advocate for. And see, that’s the same thing that happened when Harmony-Leland came up you didn’t have a robust school council and a community mobilized to make sure that we stayed at the front of the list. And just like you didn’t have a school council mobilized to make sure that we had that 12 classroom addition.  And then we also had a representative that was asleep at the wheel while things that was at the front of the list moved to the back of the list and was defunded and was not funded for our 12 classroom addition.  That’s $40 million that we lost.  $80 million if you count being at the back of the line on our Harmony-Leland rebuild.”

The candidates were then asked, “What are your specific plans to encourage parental involvement on the school council, and what is not being done now?”

Morgan said,

“First let me say this.  It is my hope that I’m connecting with you. That I take this job seriously, and I bring back results. Very specific things.  I’ve yet to hear my opponent lay out one specific item.  One thing. Now having said that, as it relates to the school councils, which need to be more robust in our district, I will concede that. Through the parent involvement plan policy that has been passed for the district, that I led the fight on, every school will have a rubric.  Every school in this school district, will have a uniform rubric.  One of the things on the rubric will be school councils and principals will have to spell out in detail ‘what are you doing around school councils?’. Now that’s not the only part because we have to think about this systemically.  This also impacts the principal’s evaluation and the superintendent’s evaluation. These are things that I’ve led the fight over, more importantly I have accomplished to make sure that people are held accountable so valuable entities like school councils are welcomed in the school, and a part of the decision-making body.  It’s one thing to talk about it.  But as a former teacher, and as a former principal, I not only have the compassion for our community, but I also have the competence, and the specific ideas and plans, when it comes to continuing the momentum that we have since I’ve been fortunate enough to be elected to this position.”

McRae said,

“School council. I can see how we’re going to strengthen school council.  First, by saying that you’ve created an advisory committee for your school, that says that you have some type of respect for the community that they can be on the school council. The first time I spoke of this with my representative, he said that it would run amuck, because he had some kind of contentment for our community’s ability to govern itself.  And I said, “Run amuck? Are you saying that our community’s not smart enough to be on a school council, and help their school, and then this thing about this OSD, where you try to take power away from our community. This is still showing that same path where he doesn’t have confidence in our community.  But let’s start where you got to have levels. You got to have deacons on the board. You got to have civic organizations on the board. Regular citizens and homeowners on the board, to support those parents that’s on the board.  To where they feel like it’s a community collective, that we’re all in this together. That’s what I would do as a school board member, which is the job description of a school board member, is to connect the community to the vision of our goals and as our government in running our schools.  And so I will be out in the community, like I already am, on the Wellstar board, South Cobb Business Association Board, ACT board, Powder Springs board,  and all these boards, to make sure that our citizens have taken a concerted effort to be a part of the success of our school and school council.”

The next question to the candidates was, “Do you have specific plans for helping non-English speaking students and parents entering the school to make sure that they can learn and communicate?”

McRae said,

“One of the things is when you have a little pride about your school and you feel comfortable that your voice is heard, and that people respect your voice, that stops that transience.  People want to stay where they feel comfortable, and feel empowered  at.  And one of the things that I ran into when I was working with Riverside Primary. One of the Latino parents came to me and said, ‘I want to be on the PTA, but all they want me to do is clean the tables, and do some cupcakes or whatnot, but they don’t want to hear my opinion. And that’s when we say we want to empower those Latino parents to be a part of the school council, and the PTA and be a part of the solution to where they feel like they are stakeholders.  Like they have a buy-in.  And those are the kind of things I would advocate for on that board with my colleagues, and move those obstacles out of the way so that everyone can feel a part of the collective success of our community.  And they know they have a school board member, that is passionate about listening to them, working alongside them, and getting out there in the trenches, and they’ll see me, and they’ll know my name, and they’ll know that I’ll respond to their needs.”

Morgan said,

“We did say a plan, right?  Let me tell you what’s currently happening. First, as I say, because we have so many of our students coming in who are non-English speaking, and there parents very well might be, that’s the reason that I have led the fight, and it’s going to manifest August 2017, for pre-K program, so that we can get to these children earlier in terms of getting them in print-rich environments.  But see, that’s not the only thing. The second thing, and I mentioned this earlier: diagnostic testing.  We have too many kids slipping through the cracks because we don’t know where they are academically. So now we’re investing another $2 million, $2 million last year, $2 million this year, so that’s $4 million for every child to be tested so that we can get to those deficits earlier. But, when you’re in this position you have to think about systems.  You can’t think about trying to put out fires.  You have to think about systems.  But, the only way that those things are effective, is if people are being held accountable for them.  That’s why, as I said, our superintendent, on his evaluation, one of the things that’s on there, will be the pre-K programs and not only that, but making sure that diagnostic funding continues to be in the budget. You have to think in systems.  People have to be held accountable, and that’s how you bring about wholesale change, as opposed to thinking about trying to put out a fire here, or put out a fire there.”

The candidates were then asked, “What do you see as the biggest impediments to higher test scores in the schools in this area of Cobb?”

McRae said,

“One of the biggest impediments is our brain drain, and our family drain, that’s being created by all this chaos, and our neighbors feeling like our schools are not good enough.  See if we can do some things to where our community would trust our schools, because they have a say in our schools, we can keep our best families here and that will move the test scores by itself. When we’re creating avenues to where our families feel more confidence in our next door neighbor’s school, than they have in our school, and when they’re saying things that’s degrading their property value, by repeating these negative policies and things, it’s hurting our community, and it’s hurting our test scores.  I know that our graduation rate is at 74 right now, but if get rid of this transiency, and this absentee, we’ll be at 80.  Our community and our schools are second to none. We have Rhodes scholars that come from south Cobb schools, we have  valedictorian at University of Georgia that come from our south Cobb schools.  Our south Cobb schools are great schools.  And that’s what I want to promote.”

Morgan said,

“It’s multi-layered.  So when you think about raising test scores, again you have to think about systems. You have to have a plan for elementary aged kids, middle school kids, and high school kids.  Let’s start from the top: high school.  First thing that you have to do is make sure that we have a credit recovery system in place, that we have in Cobb County, to one, make sure that the kids are graduating on time.  If you look at test scores, if you look at graduation rates, the two schools that have made the biggest leaps in graduation rates: Pebblebrook High School, South Cobb High School. Now, you have to have credit recovery at that level.  In middle school, what do you have to do?  You have to make sure that the following things are in place.  You have strong principals … I have put forth a plan for a new principal pipeline program in our district.  You have to have strong teachers.  But you also have to have that third component, parents involved in that.  That’s why you have to think in systems.  We passed the parental involvement proposal.  Elementary age: you have to have diagnostic testing.  Not only do you have to have diagnostic testing, but you also have to have a pre-K program so children can hit the ground running when they get into kindergarten.  Last thing I’ll say, I put into place a third grade literacy policy.  Studies show this: if a child is not a proficient reader by the third grade, he or she’s opportunity to graduate on time significantly decreases. So I passed a policy, with the board’s approval, to have a third grade policy, that holds people accountable, to make sure that we have systems in place to massively move a district.  It is not sexy and it’s not rhetoric, but those are proven models that work in terms of highly improved test scores.”

Listen to the complete audio of the question-and-answer with school board Post 3 candidates: