Tax increase for Montgomery Public Schools is a challenge well met, and a cause for new hope

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On September 11, 2015, I spoke to the Montgomery Lions Club about a book on the founding of Lee High School, which I’d co-authored with several River Region educators, including retired Superintendent of Education Clinton Carter and former Trinity School Head Kerry Palmer, now dean of education at Troy University. 

Since I’m a product of Montgomery Public Schools who attended seven of its schools from 1948-1960, I discovered anew that day that I couldn’t speak about my Alma Mater’s founding without talking also about the other public schools in the county.

As a retired college professor, lawyer, and former university president, and as an ex-Kiwanian and Rotarian, I felt inspired to depart from my text to say something about the MPS that my friend Julian McPhillips, “the people’s lawyer,” thus related in his 2016 NewSouth Book, Civil Rights in My Bones:  “Vickrey prophetically challenged the listening audience about the future viability of K-12 public education in Montgomery and in Alabama … (quoting) Franklin D. Roosevelt to the dual effect that the quality of democratic choice-making at the ballot box and the quality and quantity of future workforces in the area … (are) dependent upon the state of public education.” 

He then quoted me:  “In Alabama and in its capital city, the two greatest barriers to progress in education are the 1901 Constitution — the ultimate source of every single major problem Alabama faces — and white flight from public education.  As long as the white economic base of Montgomery continues to flee from public schools because of their racial composition (and their perceived poor quality), our city will suffer.  If we leave it mainly to Black students from families with fewer resources to pay more in taxes (and other forms of funding), our public schools will continue to erode.  To the extent that that is true, the economy of the Montgomery area will continue to be adversely affected, if not stunted.  Everyone living and working here, without regard to race, will be negatively impacted.”  Julian concluded:  “So Vickrey challenged our Lions to confront and reverse inept local and state leadership, pass a new constitution, and fund public education (adequately).  Cheers!  I couldn’t agree with him more.”

When I spoke those words, inspired by the moment, I was not feeling optimistic.  After all, many other Montgomerians had been challenging their fellow citizens even more eloquently for decades without evident success.  Some even warned that Maxwell Air Force Base could lose Air University if local schools were not made more attractive to its faculty and students. 

Flash forward to November 3, 2020.

A solid majority of voters, in one of the largest plebiscites in local history, affirmed that day a modest increase in the county property tax, thereby taking a big first step toward funding local public schools adequately.Get the Storm Watch newsletter in your inbox.

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In all candor, I was pleasantly surprised.  While I tend to be optimistic by nature and nurture, I assumed that my vote and my wife Lenore’s for the tax would once again be futilely cast.  I was thrilled to be thus surprised.  Now, what?

The ball is now in the leadership court of the Board of Education and the superintendent of education to continue to implement their on-going educational improvements to the end of using the new funding wisely when it begins to be made available.  I would be encouraged if they would adopt and promulgate a mission and goals-related set of annual objectives to inform the rest of us what they are working on in a given time-frame.  There are peaks of excellence in the MPS now. The Magnet Program and specialized school-based initiatives throughout the system are continuing sources of encouragement and enthusiasm.  But more remains to be accomplished before the new funding is expended.

As a product of MPS, I find the tax increase for schools a cause for new hope.  That is especially so in light of the widespread support throughout the county in support of it — from local elected leaders like Mayor Steven Reed and business-men and -women such as Dixie Electric’s John Yelverton to parents and grandparents who do not presently have children and grandchildren in our public schools.  They and taxpayers generally have struck a resounding blow for enhancing the quality of  public education in the River Region.  I commend them all.

Noted nineteenth century preacher Henry Ward Beecher, well said of such moments:  “Victories that are easy are cheap.  Those only are worth having which come as the result of hard fighting.”  He might have added:  “… fighting over a number of decades.”