Houston County’s two-man Republican primary race for school superintendent is among the only local races county residents will have the opportunity to vote on come Tuesday.
Without a Democrat to face off against in the general election in November, Houston County will decide between incumbent David Sewell and Webb Elementary School Assistant Principal Brandy White to take over as leader of the 6,000-student district with nearly 700 employees.
Both candidates sat down with the Dothan Eagle last week to talk about their campaign messages and why they feel they would make the best superintendent.
Eagle: Why did you decide to run for superintendent?
White: “I felt like we needed a change. I have two children in the school system in the second and fourth grade, and that played a lot into my decision.
“I think we need a change in the current leadership.
“I was approached by some people asking me if I would consider running — people within the schools.”
Eagle: What do you think needs to be changed within the school system?
White: “I think an immediate change needs to be better communication. That would be something simple we could change in the beginning, communicating with the board, communication with the other administrators.”
Eagle: How do you plan to address that issue?
White: “Well for instance, our capital plan is technically supposed to be approved by the board before submission. For the last three years … the board has not approved it before it’s been submitted. I would really like to develop a policy for how we develop our capital plan.”
Eagle: Can you give some background about your experience in building that you think would help you in that?
White: “For 17 years, I was a co-owner of Southern Home Builders (residential) and SHB Construction (commercial), so we were licensed in both.
“Recently, I cashed out on my side of the business. It was a situation where I didn’t feel like I’d have time to do both and do a good job with either if I was trying to do both, or I wanted to have time to spend with my children.
“It was a little bit of a gamble, but I was ready to take a break from the homebuilding. It was very, very busy, especially the last two or three years.
Eagle: What are some other plans that you hope to implement should you take office?
White: “I definitely want to make sure that we put technology in the classroom, especially at the secondary level. Most of our elementary schools receive Title I money, but our high schools do not, so we have resources in elementary with technology and tutors and we don’t in secondary.
“We went up on our report card grade simply because of elementary school scores while going down on ACT scores at four of the five high schools. We’ve had the lowest ACT scores that we’ve had in six years. I think, as a county, we have to do something to at least provide the basics as far as technology in the classrooms. If you look at Webb, we’re 1-to-1 (meaning one tablet or computer available per student), and that’s a part of the reason our scores are what they are. I think we have to do something as a county level to make sure that secondary has the resources to be successful.
“Secondary is going backwards. There are almost double the class failures (meaning the number of students failing a class) in high school that there were three years ago.
“My areas of focus going in would obviously be developing a capital plan, address facility issues, improve technology, and academically focus on secondary.”
Eagle: Do you think state-issued report cards paint an accurate picture of how schools are faring in comparison to other schools across the state?
White: The academic proficiency and academic growth do paint a good picture of where they are. Now, you can gain and lose points from attendance, and that’s something that’s hard to control as a school.
“When you start looking at the high school, that’s a little harder because they look at ACT and they have standards that they require for credentialing that determine if they’re college and career ready. … They’re dealing with a little bit of a different animal.”
Eagle: Why do you think you’re in a better position to handle superintendent duties in comparison to your counterpart?
White: “I think my business experience will help me tremendously.
“I still say you have to go back and look at what this is — it’s a $60 million business with 700 employees that you’re managing. There’s all the legal aspects — media, facilities management, dealing with architects. When you look at the whole package, no one person can do that. I think you have to develop the right team and communicate.”
Eagle: You’ve held several town hall forums to get your message out, and I’ve seen several instances when you’ve invited Mr. Sewell to come to debate or be there to answer questions from voters. Why are you so willing to go head to head with him in a public setting?
White: “Yes, he’s refused any debate or any forum for question-and-answer with me. I feel confident in my plans to improve the school system.”
Eagle: What happens if you don’t win this seat?
White: “I remain at Webb Elementary School, and I’m very happy going to work every day.”
Eagle: What inspired you to put your hat in the ring for re-election?
Sewell: “A lot of unfinished business. There are several projects that have started that I would like to see through — the lunchroom at Rehobeth Middle and some athletic facilities, the ones that we were required by the state to complete at Ashford and Houston County. There are a couple other projects as well at Ashford and Cottonwood. I’m just now starting to see some improvement in some areas and, plus, I’m just getting a little more confident in the role of superintendent.”
Eagle: In your campaigning, you’ve talked a lot about school improvement, academically, over the last three years based on state standards. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Sewell: “All of the scores except one have gone up. This is at all the schools, and for the district.”
Eagle: What do you attribute the improvement to?
Sewell: “Just everything in general — the environment, policies, and programs. I’m constantly looking for different programs to help students improve in academics.
“I’d also like to look at the grad rate; we’ve continued to improve our grad rate (from 72% to 91.8% from the 2016-17 school year to the 2018-19 school year). In Houston County, it’s hard to compare one school to another because we have two unit schools that are K-12; we only have one true middle school, which is Rehobeth Middle; and some of our elementary schools are K-6 and some are K-5. It’s hard to compare apples-to-apples because at each one of these schools, the report-card grades are configured a little different. So it’s hard to say what works at one school will work at another.”
Eagle: Do you think report grades paint an accurate picture of school improvement?
Sewell: “No. Really what shows is the students’ and the parents’ satisfaction with the school. It’s just something I’ve experienced. You’ve just got a feeling at each school.”
(Sewell used the example of a concentration of special education students at Ashford Elementary, which he described as the district’s “magnet school for special ed.” The system decided to group many of the district’s special-education students, regardless of zoning, at one school because of funding. It may make strategic sense to spread those students across other schools to counter low test scores, Sewell said, adding that the concentration of resources for the program established at Ashford is what makes it successful.)
“Everyone who’s in this program loves Ashford Elementary. The parents are happy. The students are happy. That, to me, is a lot of times the gauge of success.”
Eagle: What are issues you want to tackle if you win the seat again?
Sewell: “This grad rate could be a little bit better. I can’t say that I did it, but since I’ve been in central office working in accountability, and most of these are programs that I’ve helped institute. Now, the teachers and guidance counselors, they were really the ones that made it work; but they were things I came up with and that I pushed, but in all fairness, they did the work. I’d like to continue to look for programs and things to help our grad rate.
“Also important is our (college and career readiness). Again, each year I have been superintendent, we’ve brought it up. This is because of different programs and stressing to our students how important it is to be college and career ready.
“Our board funded some programs for them to get credentialed in, plus we have more students taking dual enrollment.”
“I would like to say everything is positive, but last year our ACT scores fell a little bit. However, they fell nationwide, so it was a national problem. My biggest issue is that we were below the state level (average). This year, we’re trying a new program called ‘ACT Mas- tery.’”
Eagle: What have you learned about the superintendent’s role over the course of your first term?
Sewell: “Balancing the needs of each school. I kind of had an idea because I had had been at (nearly) every school before coming up here. In each school, they have a different personality. Rehobeth, because of its proximity to Dothan, is kind of suburban. Cottonwood is very rural. Ashford is a small town. … Ashford is the best fundraising school I’ve ever seen.
“So much of my job isn’t about the things that we’re talking about. It’s a lot about teacher relationships. You’ve got the thing about the third-grade teachers at Rehobeth Elementary, the texting (incident) at Ashford High School, and there’s an issue at Rehobeth Middle School. Really, that takes away from what the students need.”
Eagle: Is it difficult running a campaign for superintendent while you’re the superintendent?
Sewell: “Yes, campaigning is worse than having two side jobs because everything I do is scrutinized. It’s a disadvantage. Someone wants to transfer schools and I tell them no, I just lost that vote. I just try to do the right thing. It’s difficult at times. If I have to let someone go or I don’t hire the right person…”
Eagle: Your opponent has invited you to a debate at several of his town hall meetings. You’ve declined all of his invitations. Why is that?
Sewell: “I just want to run my own campaign. Why should I let him run my campaign and dictate to me when and where to show up?
“Again … I’m under a little bit of a handicap because I am the superintendent.”
Eagle: Why do you think you would do a better job in this role than your challenger?
Sewell: “I have 21 years in the classroom, 20 or so years in central office … all 41 of those years in Houston County in many different roles — a teacher-coach, an administrator, data manager, accountability, technology, supervisor for nurses and guidance counselors, federal programs. Over the years, I’ve done a little bit of everything.
“I just have a lot of experience. He likes to talk about him being a businessman. Over the years, I’ve turned down many job opportunities outside of education. My only job, or my biggest job, has been as an educator. …”
Eagle: What happens if you don’t win?
Sewell: “I’ll have to see what other opportunities open up. I’ve had several calls, but I will continue on focusing on making Houston County Schools better.”
Sewell and White will be on the March 3 primary ballot for Houston County residents outside of the Dothan city limits.
Board member Ricky Moore, who has aligned his campaign with Sewell, also is seeking re-election against Republican candidate Scott Long for the board’s District 2 seat.