BELGREEN | The following is not in its entirety a word-for-word transcript of the debate between candidates for Franklin County Schools superintendent, held Thursday, Oct. 13 at Belgreen High School. The paragraphs below either directly quote the candidates or paraphrase what they said, though we have tried to keep the paraphrasing to a minimum to preserve the integrity of the candidates’ statements. At the same time we have condensed their statements to limit some of the responses to save space and eliminate information we did not deem to be vital to presenting the candidate’s view. Nothing below represents the views and opinions of The Red Bay News, and it is presented to give readers who were unable to attend the event an opportunity to view the candidates’ positions on the questions that were asked.
The questions were submitted prior to the debate by residents of the county. The debate was presented by Russellville radio station WGOL and the Franklin Free Press newspaper, and was moderated by Free Press Publisher John Pilati.
The candidates include Bart Moss, Republican; Donald Borden, Democrat; and Greg Hamilton, Independent. The three will face off in the November 8 general election, and the one who receives the most votes will win; there will be no runoff.
For brevity, the candidates’ remarks are denoted below by their initials to identify who said what. The questions are listed above each section in bold. After each candidate spoke, the first one speaking was given a minute for rebuttal.
Moss is a teacher at Tharptown, Borden is the assistant superintendent, and Hamilton is the assistant principal and coach at Vina.
BM: I want to talk about the future while others want to talk about the past. I want to talk about our school system, where we’re strong and where we can improve. I am focused on three things: people, process and product. Our people (teachers) are good. Our product is the students. The process, I believe, is broken. This includes our hiring, our expectations, our transparency, and yes, our leadership.
DB: I hope to show you that experience matters. We can talk about what we’re going to do in the future, but sometimes talking about what we’re going to do in the future might just be talk.
GH: This is my 21st year in the system. I’ve been a teacher, a coach and an assistant principal. I am seeking the office as an independent candidate because I don’t believe there should be any politics in this office, period. My first act, if elected, will be to change the hiring process.
Question: What are your feelings about school consolidation, and whether it’s needed in Franklin County?
BM: We hear about this a lot. I’ve never heard a single candidate say they were ever going to close a school. I hear it most about East Franklin and Vina. My answer is where are you going to put the students? It’s not as easy as just shutting a school down. You have to build somewhere for them to go. If you were going to close East Franklin, where would you put them? Not at Tharptown; we’re maxed out. Phil Campbell couldn’t handle an influx of new students.
DB: This has been happening for many years. We did a study about school consolidation. I agree with Bart; there’s nowhere to put them. I’m not interested in trying to consolidate any schools because the schools are the hub of their communities. I can just see no consolidation. I want to see every community be strong. I want that to continue for the next several years.
GH: I’m not for consolidating any of the schools. Just like Donald said, the school is the backbone of the community. I’ve been at Vina 21 years; I can’t imagine what it would be like for a small community like that to lose their school. But at the same time you have to have a plan. Like with the influx of students at Tharptown, you have to be ready. But hopefully consolidation won’t have to be a part of one of those.
BM: I believe you do have to have a plan. I don’t think anyone was blindsided by what happened in Russellville. Russellville has been talking about doing this kind of thing for years, and Tharptown has some very pressing needs right now because of this. Every day I see how crowded our schools are.
Discussion then was held on the one-cent sales tax that was voted on by county residents, with 75 percent going to the schools and the County Commission receiving 25 percent of it to go toward road and bridge construction through ATRIP. The questioner pressed the candidates on whether it was fair for the county to take 25 percent instead of the full amount going to the schools.
DB: The Franklin County Commission had the opportunity to get ATRIP funding. I’ve supported that tax every time it’s been voted on. That has kept students from riding extra miles on buses because we had several bridges that had to be repaired or replaced because buses could not pass over them before they were fixed. Hwy. 16 was really, really bad. It helps keep wear and tear off our buses. I would have loved to have the entire amount of the one-cent sales tax.
GH: It would be financial suicide to give up the one-cent sales tax. The people voted more than 70 percent in favor of the tax. Anytime I’ve ever called the county, they’ve helped me. Hopefully one day we’ll get all of it.
BM: The one-cent sales tax has helped. It’s one of the reasons we’re in a little bit better financial shape. When it comes to the 25 percent that goes to the County Commission, I think we all need to remember we’re working together in a county that doesn’t have a great tax base by any stretch of the imagination. If we don’t work together our county will literally fall apart. When you look at where our primary businesses and industries are, they are in Red Bay and Russellville. The other communities just don’t produce any kind of the revenue we need. Right now we vote on it once every two years. Maybe at some point we look at this as something that has to be permanent.
DB: I think we’re all in agreement. I’d like to thank the county commission and the highway department for the work they’ve done. We worked with the highway department at Phil Campbell on a parking lot and they didn’t charge us a whole lot of money. As Bart said, we’ve all got to work together.
Question: What is the connection, if any, of party affiliation, particularly at the state and national level, to the superintendent’s race.?
GH: I don’t know of any connection. You can’t get state politics and national politics intertwined in the superintendent’s race. This office, in my opinion – this might sound like a cliché – you can’t have politics in it. We’re dealing with our most precious asset, our children. Every way we can eliminate (politics in our education), we need to do it.
BM: I believe you have to choose. I chose based on the values that I hold dear. Anyone who knows me knows I’m a conservative. That’s what the Republican party stands for. How that relates to our local schools, whoever is elected up here, when it’s over with we’re not Republicans or Democrats. We are superintendent of education for every student in the school system. To me I think it’s more reflective of the values you hold, when you look at a party platform. It’s easy to say I’m an independent and it should be about politics. But the moment you ask for that person’s vote it’s about politics. After the vote is when you have to operate as an independent. That’s when you have to treat every student as an equal.
DB: From a national standpoint, maybe we do deal with some of the national politics and politicians occasionally, but from my standpoint, I just ask for everybody’s vote. I don’t care if you’re Democrat, Republican, Independent, Libertarian – I just ask for everyone’s vote. Like they said, once we’re elected we need to represent everyone. I have conservative values myself; I’m a very conservative person. I always have been. I was raised by conservative parents who taught me to be that way. I have family values, Franklin County values.
GH: I have nothing against politics. I know all about it. I just think this office should not be tied to a political party.
Question: Now that we’re not building at Tharptown and Phil Campbell, why do we need an assistant super?
BM: That’s been one of the most asked questions of this campaign. The question of who is your assistant superintendent going to be. It doesn’t really matter who the second person is. I haven’t promised this job to anyone because I’m concerned about this job. I don’t know that we really need one. He said he was in favor of not having an assistant for the first year or two to see if the position was actually necessary.
DB: The superintendent is the most important person in the system. He’s the CEO of the system. If I make an error on a report, they don’t call me (current assistant superintendent); they call him. All questions fall back to the superintendent. As assistant, I’ve got a lot to do. I’m over transportation, over facilities. But the superintendent has to work with finances.
GH: I think we need one. We’ve been down this road before. I think it’s imperative. The superintendent has so many decisions to make. There were ways to cut costs in the district to afford the position.
BM: Why not go without one for a couple of years and save the money? He disagreed with Borden that the position was a CEO position, saying it is instead a leadership position. “Our students don’t even know who the superintendent is. If I’m elected, I’ll be in the classrooms. We don’t need to interfere with the teachers’ jobs, but we need to let them know who is leading them.
Question: How do you address the perception of Franklin County Schools is there is a clique and it’s the same families and people being hired.
DB: I don’t know that there is a clique. I just want to hire the best people possible. I don’t want anyone who isn’t capable of doing the job. There’s been a lot said about our hiring. I think Mr. (Gary) Williams (outgoing superintendent) has worked with the principals more than any other superintendent on hiring the right people. For many of us it might have been a friend who hired you. Was there anything wrong with that?
GH: With all due respect to Mr. Borden, there have been some very fine people who have been overlooked in the past. He said if he’s elected the very best people would be hired.
BM: We need to reform the hiring process. Like it or not, it’s broken and I think anyone who looks at it knows it is. He said he and Greg Hamilton had both applied for administrative jobs in the county, but had not been considered. He said the questions asked during the interview process for a principal’s job were bland, non-informative questions. He said some jobs were interviewed for while some were not. He said he believes everyone who had been hired for the positions he sought were good people and good hires, but the process was still broken.
DB: I consider myself a person of high moral values. I want to surround myself with good people. This summer we hired close to 50 people. I think we hired some excellent teachers. I think every one of them interviewed with a principal before they were hired.
Question: How do you feel about volunteer coaches, specifically coaches who don’t teach at the school?
GH: It’s a recipe for trouble. You have got to be on campus if you’re going to be a head coach. It will work to some degree, but you’re not going to get the best for your school. I believe strongly that you have to have your teacher on campus with the students to build relationships.
BM: I agree with most everything Greg said. Your head coaches have to be teachers at your school. You do need volunteer coaches; they are important. If I’m elected I’m not going to fire any of them, but when they resign or retire, that’s when you swap them. You have to be on campus to develop those relationships with the students. If there is someone at the school willing to take on a job or a role, you hire them because they are there building those relationships.
DB: I’m like Bart; I’m not going in to fire any of them. But I will say this: Sometimes it’s very hard to find people who are willing to coach and spend that much time away from their families, and that’s why you have a lot of volunteer coaches. Years ago teachers were hired out-of-field because coaches were more important than teachers. That’s got to change. I’m in favor of coaches being employees of the county.
Question: Why can’t phone lines run into all buildings at each campus? (This was asked by a radio announcer whose primary complaint was the lack of phone lines made it a challenge to broadcast games.)
BM: We need to do more as a system to utilize all methods of communication, especially social media, to communicate with our communities. We need to move beyond email; email is over. We need someone who understands these new tools that are available free of charge. That’s one thing we’re going to do. If you’re not communicating with parents, it looks like you have something to hide.
DB: We have tried to do it in the past. I’m not sure how many gyms don’t have phone lines. I know it’s great for parents or grandparents who can’t go to a game to be able to hear it. There were a couple of times where we looked at doing that but it was going to cost a few thousand dollars. We’ve gotten grant monies to rewire and upgrade East Franklin, Thatptown, Vina and Red Bay. We haven’t gotten any technology money to speak of in the last few years since the great recession. But I wish every school had those capabilities.
GH: It’s finances. There’s no excess money to pay for it.
BM: When you have free technology, use it. You have to use the tools that are available to you free of charge to promote your school system. We have to take advantage of those free opportunities and we don’t do that. Teachers do an excellent job and they deserve to be promoted.
Question: Student safety is an important issue. What can be done on our campuses to make them safer?
DB: Safety is the utmost importance. There is no way to say 100 percent they will be safe. Every school has a safety plan and they are updated from time to time through the State of Alabama through Virtual Alabama. Even school resource officers help. That’s a start. I have spoken to the Franklin County Sheriff about ways to work with his department and acquire funds and grants to get his deputies to randomly visit the schools. Red Bay does a good job of putting a police car at the schools.
GH: God forbid it happens here, but we have to be prepared. Virtual Alabama helps us in the sense of having law enforcement ready. But in a situation like (the remote location of) Vina and East Franklin, Virtual Alabama is not going to do any good because it’s going to be too late. We had a situation at Vina where a parent called and said she thought her son was going to harm the principal. We called 911 and were able to reach the student before he came into the school and get him calmed down and nobody got hurt. But 19 minutes later, after we made the 911 call, the first responder finally got there. We’ve got to get a school resource officer at Vina and East Franklin; there’s no other choice. Door locks also need to be replaced at the schools. I’ve got a first grader and he can pick the locks or yank the doors open. It’s not only at Vina, it’s at every school. We have got to come up with the finances to get some new doors and possibly some new locks.
BM: School resource officers are a big priority, not just at Vina and East Franklin, but at Tharptown too. We talk about money, but the money is there. If you’ve got $22,000 to pay a part-time coach, you’ve got the money to hire a part-time resource officer. The money is there to take care of this problem. To me it’s three schools that need this immediately. Red Bay and Phil Campbell have police who can be there. Bad things can happen if we waste too much time. I don’t want to sound the alarm that we’re going to have a mass shooting. The biggest problem is drugs. We live in a society where drugs are rampant and we have a lot of broken homes. Our schools need to really be on top of who is supposed to be getting these children, being in contact with them because there is where the recipe for disaster can happen. It’s more of a realistic chance of that happening in our schools than a school shooting.
DB: There are a lot of things that go on in the schools. The wrong parent or grandparent trying to pick up a child, and that’s where a resource officer could help. But if I’m not mistaken at Sandy Hook there was a resource officer on duty and wasn’t unable to prevent that. As I said earlier there is no 100 percent way to prevent it. There are grants and ways we can pursue to help with that.
Question: A previous superintendent tried to micromanage the administrators of each school. Will you let the principals run their schools without interference?
BM: I think it’s important for the superintendent to be on each campus regularly, but not to tell the principals or the teachers how to do their jobs. You need to be at the schools to know what’s going on there. I’m not going to micromanage anything. Why someone would want to add that stress to themselves, I don’t know. We should be in the lunchrooms, on the school buses. It’s an important job for the superintendent to be in the classrooms and to promote the teachers.
DB: If you’ve ever been a principal, it’s the hardest job in the system. I’m not going to micromanage. I’m going to be in schools, I’m going to be on the buses. I was in a school this morning and yesterday, saw a lot of students and teachers. I don’t believe a superintendent necessarily needs to be in a classroom, though there’s nothing wrong with it. From a superintendent’s standpoint, you need to be making sure the principal is doing what they need to do, but not micromanaging.
GH: No micromanaging. We have a principal and assistant principal. If you’ve hired a quality administrator, they’re going to take care of things.
BM: You hire the best and let them do their jobs. But still I think it’s important for the superintendent and the board members to be in those schools. We work for those kids. You do need to visit with them, see how things are going. To me that’s engagement. You’ve got to be engaged with your students and your schools.
Question: Coaching supplements are low in Franklin County. Are you concerned about this turnover?
DB: Being a former coach, you don’t go into it for the money. I know these coaches and yes they would like a little more money. But when we’re talking about the need for school resource officers, do we give these coaches more money before we pay school resource officers?
GH: There’s no doubt about it that coaches are underpaid because you’re looking at one. No I couldn’t commit to giving them more money when I’m worried about getting doors locked and getting resource officers. If these other schools have more resources and booster clubs can do it, then that’s fine for them.
BM: I thinks academics are more important than coaching. You can think about sports, but you have to look at where students are competing academically. He touted the robotics teams at county schools as an example of competing academically.
Question: Russellville charges students $600 to attend from outside the city limits. If they’re going to charge money, should we be paying to bus them out?
GH: Until we can get out of the (financial) hole, we need to get the enrollment up as high as we can. We can’t give away money. More students equals more revenue for the system.
BM: I don’t believe we should be running buses in Russellville. Parents at Tharptown drive from Colbert and Lawrence counties.
DB: I think we should continue because we’ve been doing that. Every day 52 students from Russellville are bused to Tharptown; 75 to Belgreen. Every bus route we have is funded by the state board of education. We have the same thing with students coming out of Mississippi to go to Red Bay. That’s not costing us anything. These children who are coming out of the city to these schools are going there for a reason.
GH: These 52 students (at Tharptown) mean more than $300,000 of increased revenue to the county school system.
Question: What is your stance on transgender bathrooms?
BM: If it costs me my job, that’s never going to happen. I’ve got a little girl back there (in the audience) and I would never put her or any other student in harm’s way. It makes no sense and it will not happen under my watch.
DB: I agree; there’s no way it can happen. Just yesterday I was reading in an administration journal I get and there has already been a case about that. The courts ruled that that child had to use the bathroom that was his biological gender. I’m 100 percent against it.
GH: It’s not going to happen. You’ve seen my bulletins. I’ll fight it to the bitter end. It’s absurd.
Question: How do the candidates feel about charter schools and losing students to them?
DB: I don’t think we’ve lost any students to charter schools, but that hits a nerve with me. Taking any money from public schools and giving it to charter schools or private schools is wrong. Charter Schools don’t have to play be the rules we do.
GH: I’m opposed to charter schools being funded with public dollars. The civics books we use are way out of date.
BM: Charter schools won’t happen in Franklin County. I know why they did it. There are inner city schools that are failing. They’re going in the larger cities.
DB: The legislature has taken money from our public schools and I think they’re trying to kill our public schools. Teachers today are making less than they did seven or eight years ago.
Question: Do you have plans for major personnel changes?
GH: I have plans, but for different positions. The status quo will not be the same.
BM: I don’t plan on going in and firing anyone, but yes, things are going to change. We’re going to be more engaged with parents, industry. That’s where things are going to change. We get caught up in this hiring and firing. Change is an attitude; it’s the way you treat people. You treat people the way you want to be treated. You don’t create conflict. That’s the way I’m going to operate. It’s not about going in to fire people; it’s an attitude adjustment.
DB: We’ve got really good administrators and people. It would be wrong to go in and make major changes. He praised the advanced education team. In accreditation, they praised us and said we do so much with so little. You surround yourself with good people.
GH: If someone needs firing, that usually takes care of itself. I wouldn’t explicitly say I’m coming in with a big sword. Just want to be clear on that.
Question: What are your plans to address growing Hispanic enrollment?
BM: Same thing we do at Tharptown; we have the highest enrollment. They have been some of our best students. Even if it’s unpopular, I love those students.
DB: As Bart said, they’re some of the best students you’ll have. They’re humans too. We want to have parent nights to get parents involved. They are sometimes reluctant to get involved.
GH: They’re both right. There are a lot of great students. We just have to have a plan. We have to think outside the box. If they get sent back (to their parents’ country of origin), what are we going to do with the resources we’ve committed to those schools? The administration is off to a good start, and I give them credit for that. But what if they are all gone?
BM: I disagree a little. It won’t be all of the students gone; it’ll be the criminal element that’s gone. That leaves a lot of really good students here.
Pilati praised the candidates for how they presented themselves as opposed to the presidential debates.
BM: This crowd is a testament to how much you care about education and this race. A lot of good questions have been asked. We’ve heard a lot of talk about making America great again. But while the focus has been on the White House, making America great again starts in our homes, and in our communities. I want to do my part to make our schools, communities and country great.
DB: Thanks for the good attendance. It shows you care for the students of Franklin County as us three do. There will be change; none of us are superintendent. We’ve talked about experience. I’ve got a lot of experience. I’ve been there. I understand what it takes. I think that’s so important. These guys have great ideas and I applaud them, but our system needs experience.
GH: It’s time to break away from the past and find some new blood with different ideas. Consider me, pray about this election, and make me your next superintendent.