5 questions for Senator Bill Montford

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Senator Bill Montford is a sixth-generation North Floridian – and sounds it. A lifelong educator with a deep drawl, Montford got his start as a math teacher at Tallahassee’s Belle Vue Middle School. He rose to become a high-school principal, Leon County schools superintendent and now CEO of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents. 

Montford was a Leon County Commissioner from 1982 to 1988. He was first elected to the Senate in 2008 and has a warm friendship with Senate President Don Gaetz that dates to their shared service as superintendents. Gaetz tapped Montford to chair the Senate Agriculture Committee, where one of their top priorities is saving the Apalachicola River Basin. Montford is also vice chairman of the Education Committee and the Appropriations Subcommittee on Education.

The News Service of Florida has five questions for Bill Montford:

Q: What do you foresee the Legislature doing about school security?

MONTFORD: There’s nothing more important to schools than the safety of their children…And that hasn’t changed. It’s always been there. The problem is, we live in such a dangerous world right now – but it’s not just schools. It’s the malls. It’s the theater. It’s everywhere. It’s just a much more violent world today. 

And so you’ll see a lot of discussion, but I think what we need to keep in mind is we need to emphasize the important role and responsibility of the local communities making decisions as to how best to meet the safety needs of their school district. The safety needs of Miami-Dade are far different than they are in Liberty County. Far different.

So I believe that we need a vigorous discussion about what’s required to – well, you can’t guarantee the safety, but what is required of us as a state to ensure as best we can the safety of our children – and then fund that. And then let the local policymakers and parents make those decisions. What works in one school district may not work in another. Some school districts I know feel very strongly about a presence of security, obviously. And then there are others that would like to put that money into surveillance. 

But underlying all of this, we also have to remember that society’s needs and characteristics are far different than they were just 20 years ago. So we’ve got to look at the pressure especially our young people are under today. Our young people are surrounded by an air of hostility, violence if you will. It’s just much more so than it used to be. And it’s not just video games. You can turn on your television now, and you can hear language at eight o’clock in the afternoon that you used to – you didn’t hear anywhere…

The pressure that’s on the young people today is so much greater than it was when we were in school, or even our children.

Q: Does it concern you to see legislation that would put guns in the hands of teachers and administrators?

MONTFORD: I do not support teachers and others arming themselves in schools. I can understand the argument that it may discourage someone from coming on that campus if they know that there are armed people on that campus other than the law enforcement people.

But I believe that the risk is far too great. If you can imagine being in a high school with 2,000, 2,500 students and then you have 10 or 12 teachers that are armed – that’s not a safe environment. It’s just not safe. And we shouldn’t put that responsibility on teachers. Teachers are trained to be teachers. 

Law enforcement people are trained to carry weapons. And they go through extensive training. They go through psychological tests. Just anybody can’t be a law enforcement person…They are screened. They are trained. Our teachers are not trained to be law enforcement people. That’s not their job. So I would hate to put them in that position.

But more importantly, I would hate for my grandchildren to be in a school where there are other adults carrying guns other than law enforcement people.

Q: Teacher evaluations – I have to ask that one.

MONTFORD: Oh, I’m glad. (Chuckles.) One of the most difficult things I had to do as a principal was evaluate teachers. And there’s not a finite science, if you will, as to how to do it. It’s hard to evaluate teachers. But interestingly enough, it’s not hard to know who those great teachers are. It’s not hard to identify great teachers. It is hard to describe ’em. It is hard to explain what they do to make ’em great.

The teacher evaluation system that we have today…the process has more than one glaring error, but let’s look at one: Fifty percent of a teacher’s evaluation is based on student performance. Student growth, if you will. How well they do. How well they improve. 

That makes sense. That’s the way they do it in the business world. You got a chart up there. You look at your sales this month versus last month a year ago. So you look at teachers, and you say, “Well, we’ll use the FCAT.” A fifth-grade teacher’s class will take the FCAT. 

But what happens to the first-grade teacher whose students do not take the FCAT? Well, what we decided to do as a state was 50 percent of that teacher’s grade will be based, simply put, on the school-wide score. So the first-grade teacher says, “Wait a minute. Half of my evaluations will be based on students I’ve never had in my class. I may never have even seen these students. So half of my evaluation is going to be based on that? That’s not fair.”

I don’t think that anybody in the business world would be dismissed or graded based on a product they had nothing to do with, have never even sold any, don’t even know what they are.

Q: As Agriculture Committee chair, you’re pushing to do more for the Apalachicola River Basin. 

MONTFORD: The problem, I’m afraid, is it’s not on the radar, and that’s what concerns me. The Everglades – and I’m glad – is on the radar. You can talk about the Everglades anywhere in the United States, and everybody knows exactly what we’re talking about it. You say the Apalachicola River, some of ’em can’t even pronounce it. So what we’ve got to do is to raise awareness at the federal level as to the damage that’s being done. This is an American treasure that we have, and we’re letting it die. 

Gov. Scott and I were talking one day, and I said, “You know, Governor, this is something that is far greater than a north Florida issue. This is far greater than a Florida issue. This is a national issue, and we need to raise awareness.” And I’m confident the governor will do that. This week, you know, he was down and supporting the efforts and making recommendations for $3 million to be spent immediately. So I’m confident that we’ll do that. President Gaetz has Jackson County now, right on the Apalachicola River. I know he’s intensely concerned about it. 

The Legislature needs to adopt this as a total Floridian cause.

Q: Is the time right for Senator Gaetz’s ethics reform package? 

MONTFORD: It comes down to his own personal and moral compass, which I think is pointed in the right direction. He has said, and I agree with him, “Just because you’re appointed to a committee doesn’t make you an expert in that subject matter.” And that’s true.

The Florida Legislature should not be a place to enrich yourself. It should not be a place to feather your bed, if you will. We’re there for a different reason. We’re there to serve the people of Florida. I believe that, and I think members of the Legislature believe that. But no question about where Don Gaetz is. He wants us to all be on the straight and narrow path. Which is where we should be.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.