NOTE: Accessmilton.com does not take positions on letters to the editor. Here, we encourage all citizens to share their opinions on various issues related to Milton, GA.
The following letter is from Milton Parent Kathy Johnson in response to an article written earlier this month by Accessmilton.com titled "Questions Fly Regarding Alternative Energies Class Taught At Birmingham Falls Elementary."
To the Editor:
I am writing this letter to set the record straight on issues associated with my role and involvement with the environmental education program at Birmingham Falls, as well as my intentions during the May 18 community meeting held by Katie Reeves.
This is the first time I have commented on this story. Tim Enloe did leave me an e-mail asking for commentary prior to posting his article. I attempted to contact him twice before departing for a family vacation out of the country a couple of weeks ago. Unfortunately, we did not connect before I left and Tim decided to proceed with posting the article. A number of comments posted in response to that article contain what in my opinion are some significant inaccuracies and misconceptions about my conduct and the environmental program, as well as some broader issues of concern that I hope I can clear up in this letter.
During the recently ended school year, I worked with many people to develop and deliver three separate environmentally oriented lessons. One was on storm water drains and the water cycle. The second was on aquifers.
These first two lessons were delivered to different grade levels in the same month earlier in the school year. They were not delivered to students until they had been reviewed and approved by the school’s CST and the Principal. After approval, I and approximately 35 other parent volunteers delivered the lessons in class rooms with teachers present. Lisa Cauley, a Birmingham Falls parent and locally active community member, was one of the parent volunteers who taught the storm water and water cycle lesson.
These first two lessons proceeded without any controversy that I am aware of. In fact, there was substantial praise from parents, students and teachers for the quality and content of the lessons.
The third proposed lesson was on alternative energy and climate change. I was interested in delivering this lesson because I believed that students would benefit from an introduction to these topical issues. I also found in my research that these topics are currently being taught in many school systems across the nation.
I followed the same review and approval process for this lesson as I did with the earlier lessons. I think it is important to note that this process did not and does not include parental review and consent. No supplemental lessons or programs, including science lab, school assemblies, et. al., currently require that kind of prior approval. I also want to be absolutely clear that I would not have had any problem at all with that kind of review, and would have happily done so if the Principal (Tracy Trussell) had asked me to do so. I certainly wasn't attempting to hide anything from anyone. I was just following the process that was laid out for me.
The CST and Principal approved the third set of lessons on alternative energy and climate change. I then sent an e-mail to the group of 35 parent volunteers with the title of the lesson so that they could begin to work with teachers for scheduling classroom delivery. The lesson plan was going to be sent to these volunteers prior to delivery, as we did with the first two lessons.
It was at that point that Ms. Cauley noted the title of the topic and raised her concerns. She wrote me an e-mail saying that she may have a problem with the topic. However, within 24 hours of sending the e-mail to me and before I even saw it in my inbox, Ms. Cauley emailed Cindy Loe and the entire school board (including the superintendent’ s office) to voice her concerns directly to them. She also did not contact the Principal prior to sending her note to the school board. In a subsequent meeting, Ms. Cauley admitted to both me and the Principal that she "went straight to the top" and bypassed us regarding her concerns with the topic.
I then met with Area Superintendent Bob Lynch to discuss Ms. Cauley's concerns and the actual lessons. Mr. Lynch directed me to review the material with the head science CST for all grades for Fulton County. She suggested I modify the lesson, not due to any subject matter deemed as controversial material, but due to potential issues of grade appropriateness (especially understanding certain scientific concepts in the lower grades). I did so, and she approved the revised lesson.
Despite the modifications to this third lesson, at that point the Principal decided that there was still too much consternation about the lesson from Ms. Cauley and the people that she was lobbying at the school board, in particular Katie Reeves. He directed me to remove any references to climate change, up to and including references to the greenhouse effect. I and the school's CST then worked together to comply with Principal Trussell's instructions.
We then delivered the revised lesson, which dealt solely with energy and alternative energies (including fossil fuels), to grades 2 - 5. This lesson was delivered in a lab format with the assistance of The Science Academy, a fee-based outside after-school program.
There was no concern that I know of expressed by Ms. Cauley or anyone else with the delivery of this lesson to the higher grades. Again, as with earlier lessons and maybe even to a greater degree, there was much praise and appreciation for this lesson and the way it was delivered. Again, to be clear, this lesson did not address the topics of climate change or global warming in any way.
This lesson was too academically advanced to present to the lower grades. So the CST and I revised the alternative energies lesson for those grades. These revised lessons were also approved by the school’s CST and the Principal. Upon my recommendation, we also took the extra and unprecedented step to send the lessons (a two to three page document) to Ms. Cauley prior to sending it to other parent volunteers and prior to classroom delivery.
Ms. Cauley complained to Principal Trussell and Katie Reeves that she was not given a full week to review the material prior to scheduled classroom delivery. Principal Trussell then informed me that he was told to cancel the lesson. He informed me of the cancellation one hour prior to classroom delivery during the final week of the school year.
I must emphasize that Principal Trussell strongly implied that he was instructed to cancel the lessons by his superiors. I assumed, based on much prior involvement by Katie Reeves in this matter, that he was including Ms. Reeves in this group who directed the lessons to be cancelled.
That is everything I can tell anyone about the chronology of the green lessons during the just completed school year at BFES. From this point, I will relate how the circumstances behind the cancellation of the last lesson snowballed into a larger issue that is still ongoing.
Right after the last lesson was cancelled, I learned that there was a discussion during the May 11 school board meeting about amending the “Controversial Material” policy to include reference to "widely disputed scientific theories," a phrase which was specifically mentioned by Ms. Cauley during the same earlier meeting when she told me she was going "straight to the top" and "bypassing the chain of command."
This is when I became greatly concerned not just about the fate of the environmental lessons I had worked to deliver, but that that despite the extensive review and approval of the lessons from all levels of the system the opinions expressed by Ms. Cauley about these lessons were going to be written into county wide school board policy.
It is for that reason that I chose to question and confront Ms. Reeves at her community meeting on May 18. Obviously, with the environmental lessons I had developed so intertwined with this broader issue, I questioned Ms. Reeves about them as well. And, yes, I accused Ms. Reeves of cancelling the lessons (again, based primarily on the strong implications made by Principal Trussell and Ms. Reeves’ level of involvement with this issue prior to this time), a charge she vehemently denied.
After the meeting, I told Ms. Reeves that if I had incorrectly blamed her for the cancellation that I was sorry. Based on Ms. Reeves’ strong denial, I still do not know for certain who actually cancelled the final lessons.
For those of you who have suggested that I was too angry or animated at that meeting…sorry. But I had strictly adhered to the official and proper channels prescribed to me by the school’s principal and CST, as well as other higher ranking and county level school board members and educators. I made modifications when requested to do so and every lesson I delivered was approved by them, contributing in excess of 500 volunteer hours this past school year across the process. Then I saw all of that work and collaboration, which was met with almost unanimous praise and appreciation from students and teachers at the school, unilaterally upended based upon the concern of a single parent who had chosen to completely bypass me, the Principal and this same established process. Who wouldn’t be just a little mad?
Again, to be clear, I had concerns with two issues on her meeting agenda (the Controversial Material issue and the Volunteer issue) and I went, as a parent (as is my right or any parent’s right) to question these policies. I have seen many parents and community members talk at these meetings and express their opinions on policy. This is why, I believe, that Ms. Reeves has the meetings…so she can hear from parents themselves. So to anyone who is questioning my motives or rights in questioning Ms. Reeves at the meeting, I would say that you don’t have the right to complain and don’t understand why the meeting exists in the first place. If you don’t agree with my opinions, that’s fine. But I have every right, as well as a proper forum, to express them publically and directly. That’s what I did.
I have been accused on the Access Milton blog of enlisting sympathetic supporters to come that same meeting and attack Ms. Reeves. Not true. I was contacted by two concerned and like-minded parents who did attend but there was no conspiracy against Katie Reeves. The PTA members present were there to discuss and comment on the volunteer issue which substantially changes or removes the current volunteer policy. These PTA members regularly attend these Katie Reeves meetings. They did not attend based on any invitation from me or concern about the green lessons or the "controversial materials" policy I was there to discuss.
Which brings me to a set of final points…at least, for now. A number of people have suggested on the Access Milton blog that I am wrong to question Ms. Cauley's motives or tactics in opposing the third lesson, and mean-spirited in removing her from the volunteer program. I fully respect Ms. Cauley’s right to express her opinion and make her voice heard. I just think that she did not show the same respect to me in the process. When it became clear that we were not going to work together on the environmental program, and that Ms. Cauley was going attempt to dictate the content of the lessons by circumventing the process, I removed her from the volunteer program. If she had simply met with me to discuss her concerns prior to escalating her complaints to the entire school board, we may have been able to avoid a lot of grief for many people. But she didn’t. She made her call; I made mine.
Beyond that, some people have ridiculed the notion that Ms. Cauley or any single parent could use their relationships with school board members to strongly influence policy. I don’t know about any parent, but I will tell you Ms. Cauley has and is using her relationship with Ms. Reeves in particular to rewrite county wide policy. This statement is not based on conjecture. I have requested and received copies of numerous emails and draft documents on this matter from the Fulton County superintendent's office that corroborate my position. Many of these e-mails are between Reeves and Cauley regarding the specific topics discussed in this letter, including one that Reeves sent to Cauley during the middle of the May 11 school board meeting to get her opinion on proposed language in the revised "Controversial Material" policy. Other e-mails further confirm the uniquely personal and collaborative nature of Ms. Cauley’s relationship with Ms. Reeves.
In addition, Ms. Cauley has requested that the school board require parental review and consent for all outside materials presented to students. This wording is now in the proposed policy which was scheduled to be voted on during a June 14 meeting.
As I stated earlier, I have no problem with prior review and consent by parents for the materials I developed and presented this past year. I would have happily given it had I been required or asked to do so. However, as in my experience, I believe that Ms. Cauley is less interested in review and consent for all than she is in establishing herself as a final authority on any matter she chooses to weigh in on. I respect her passion. I do not care for her tactics or her presumption to “deserve” the final say.
Again, I have no problem with Ms. Cauley expressing her opinions on any of these topics. She has every right to do so. I also have no problem with her expressing an opinion in opposition to mine. I am perfectly comfortable supporting and defending my case to her or anyone else.
I do have, however, a large problem with any school board member or parent who doesn’t respect established chains of command, ignores or circumvents existing county school board-prescribed processes for developing, approving and delivering supplemental materials and conducts closed conversations regarding written policies that are not open to all concerned. My problem with this kind of conduct multiplies exponentially when these same people suggest that I have a damaging, ulterior agenda or desire to keep matters out of the public forum. Those charges are both false and hypocritical.
I believe the details I have laid out in this letter underscore the validity of my complaint. Even more, I hope they let anyone who reads this know that they can trust me to be open, candid and honest about anything we might work on together in the future.
I appreciate Tim Enloe for inviting me to send this letter and give my side of the story. Bridges have been burnt and feelings hurt on all sides throughout this process. That’s going to happen sometimes in life. But hopefully, for the sake of both personal and civic pride for everyone involved, the ties that bind us as parents, neighbors and citizens of Milton are resilient enough see us past our differences and allow us all to move forward with respect and civility.
- Kathy Johnson, Birmingham Falls parent and volunteer.