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Leader of the Opposition

Evert Mol leads the remonstrance against FWCS’ $500 million building project

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2007-03-20


As dangerous firebrands go, Evert Mol doesn’t really fit the stereotype. A retired chemical engineer who volunteers at Elmhurst High School and Indian Village Elementary School several days a week, Mol is one of the last people you can imagine perched on the proverbial soapbox. Yet his measured and reasonable criticism of Fort Wayne Community Schools’ $500 million building project has put him in the spotlight as one of the leaders of a remonstrance against the project, and earned him a ban from FWCS buildings.

The ban was revoked almost as soon as it was in place, with FWCS Superintendent Dr. Wendy Robinson calling Mol to apologize and ask him back, saying that what had happened was a mistake.

Though the ban was short-lived (and no one seems to know who exactly gave the order), it illustrates some of the tension and controversy surrounding the massive $500 million project. Approved late February in a 6-1 vote by the FWCS’ board of trustees, the renovation plan covers 42 schools (about 71% of the district), and includes upgrades in heating and air conditioning, expanding classroom size, and construction of a new science and technology center. Many of the planned renovations are based on recommendations by a Yellow Ribbon Task Force formed to study the physical condition of the district’s schools.

Plenty of people are in favor of the project. Supporters packed the room at Anthis Career Center where the vote of approval took place, and Mayor Richard and organizations like the Fort Wayne-Allen County Economic Development Alliance have expressed their approval.

But a vocal opposition alleges that the project is extravagant, puts an undue tax burden on property owners (the project could cost some homeowners up to $400/year), and exaggerates the physical condition of the school buildings. Most importantly, they say the project fails to address what should be the primary mission of FWCS: academic achievement. ISTEP test scores for our district lag slightly behind the Indiana average.

Evert Mol has been one of the leading critics of the project since it was first proposed. He launched www.codeblueschools.org as part of the remonstrance process. Mol is not a teacher by profession, and he believes that gives him a different perspective than somebody who has seen the school system change gradually over time. A former ExxonMobil engineer, Mol began working as a substitute teacher at Fort Wayne Community Schools after he retired. “I graduated from the Fort Wayne school system, and I’m one of these guys that thought maybe I should try to give something back,” he says. “I have the time, I know math, and I can teach people who want to learn.”

But Mol was appalled by what he saw when he went back to teach at his old high school. As a substitute, he felt that he was spending all his time on discipline rather than actual teaching. “It didn’t work,” he says. “So I volunteered my services to a couple of teachers as a second teacher in the classroom, as a tutor who could walk around and help kids if they wanted help, and I just tried to teach math to the ones that wanted to learn.”
Though that seemed to work pretty well, he encountered a range of issues he hadn’t expected — students who couldn’t read at grade level, so they couldn’t use their textbooks; students unable to do simple multiplication without a calculator, and lack of just the basic skills to succeed in school. “In other words, they have no business being in algebra class, but we’re just moving them right on up through the system to just try to get them out the door,” Mol says. As a chemical engineer for Exxon Mobile, Mol built, started-up, ran, and maintained petrol-chemical plants. He hired engineers, operators, technicians, maintenance people, secretaries, clerks… “I looked for people who could do math,” he says. “No matter what the job was, if someone could do math, they could solve problems and they could contribute to the bottom line. So I don’t know what (the students) prospects are when they get out of high school, but they’re going to be in trouble.”

As a teacher for kindergarten and high school, Mol sees the students coming in to the system and he sees them on their way out. The point of no return for most of these students is 3rd grade. “If we don’t get them by then, we’ve lost them,” he says. “If they don’t pass their first ISTEP by the end of the 3rd grade, the chances are they will never pass it from there on out.”

What it all comes down to, according to Mol, is that the teachers are swamped. The kids coming in to the system have a lot of problems — broken families, parents who don’t support them with their school work, kids on medication, discipline problems, kids who can’t speak English… They come in to the lower grades, and there aren’t enough people to deal with them.

Mol, who ran for school board several years ago, says that practically everyone who works in the school system knows the school district is facing huge problems with its academics, but that no one has a plan. When Dr. Robinson took the position of FWCS Superintendent, Mol was anxious to hear what she had to say. “She talked about the budget, she talked about getting air conditioning in the schools, and she said nothing about test scores,” Mol says. “So I asked her: ‘Dr. Robinson, what is your plan to raise test scores and improve academic achievement?’ and she said ‘well, we have a lot of issues, we have a lot of diversity, we have a lot of changing demographics here, so it’s very difficult.’ In other words, she didn’t have a plan. That was never her priority. So instead of trying to get test scores up and complying with No Child Left Behind, she went after no building left behind. That was her priority from day one, no building left behind, and she started working on this building plan.”

As to the claim that the buildings are caving in, the wiring is faulty, and all the pipes are rusted and broken, Mol calls it a gross exaggeration. The buildings are not in bad shape, and they’re certainly not dangerous. Any repairs that need doing could be taken care of with the annual maintenance budget. Mol says that some of those repairs have been neglected for years because maintenance money has been diverted to pensions and bussing, but even so, there isn’t $500 million worth of repairs needed. “There’s a lot more that they’re asking for besides just fixing what’s broken,” Mol explains. “They want a high tech career center — for kids who can’t do math. They want to enlarge classrooms, and once you start breaking out walls inside buildings, that’s where the money really starts piling up.”

“They want to tear down schools and consolidate them and build new ones. Personally, I don’t think that’s necessary. I don’t even think that’s wise, because to me, the school is like the bastion of a neighborhood, and making schools bigger with the kind of demographics and issues we have is not the way to go. We need to keep schools small so these kids get the attention that they need.”

Whether anything is torn down or consolidated in the near future all depends on the battles of the blues and yellows. Those against the project need 100 signatures. After that, there’s a 30-day break where both side can muster their forces before launching in to a 30-day petition drive. Those against the project will sign a blue petition; those in favor sign a yellow. The color with the most signatures wins, and if there are more blues than yellows, the project is dead for a year.

Mol and his supporters are hardly against spending money on education. They’re all for it. But Mol says he would like to see FWCS to settle for a reasonable amount to tackle what needs repair, and then have spending linked to a demonstrable improvement in test scores, especially in the lower grades. “That’s going to cost some money, and I don’t have a problem with that,” he says. “I think a $500 million project would be worth it to the city if they could compete with the suburban schools. But this isn’t going to do that.”

“Spending $300 million more than we need to, on the buildings, is not going to give us any payback. It’s just going to drive business owners out of the city; they’re going to close up shop and leave. And it‘s going to drive homeowners out. It’s going to keep people out that don’t want to pay high taxes for a failing school system. It’s one thing to have a failing school system; it’s another thing to have an expensive failing school system.”

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