Morgan superintendent candidates disagree on who improved student performance more
By Wes Tomlinson
For the Enquirer
Morgan County Schools administrators Tracie Turrentine and Layne Dillard are running to become the system’s first elected female superintendent, and they disagree over which of them has been more effective turning around student performance.
Dillard, principal at Sparkman Elementary, and Turrentine, principal at Eva School, are each making their first bid for elected office as superintendent candidates in the May 24 Republican primary. They’re running to replace Superintendent Robert Elliott Jr., who was appointed to fill an unexpired term in September 2020 but decided not to seek election to a full term.
Turrentine said she has the ability to “turn schools around,” touting her success with Priceville Junior High and its performance on the state report card when she was assistant principal there from 2016-19. Priceville Junior High scored a B in 2016 and an A the next two school years.
Turrentine criticized Dillard for not raising Sparkman Elementary’s test scores during this time, but data shows Sparkman went from an F to a C during those years.
Dillard said it was unfair for Turrentine to make comparisons to her school because of Sparkman’s demographics.
“Our school has a poverty rate of over 80 percent,” Dillard said. “There’s no way you can compare it to other schools in the district.”
Dillard went on to say it was wrong for Turrentine to single out schools in the district for their academic performance.
“Her campaign against schools shocks me,” Dillard said. “You have to be for all schools and never degrade them.”
Turrentine, 42, has spent the past 18 years in education, first teaching in the Tuscaloosa City Schools system before being hired as Priceville Junior High’s assistant principal. She has served in her current role as Eva School principal since 2020.
She said one of her motivations for running stems from the debate over recent state legislation that regulates discussion of transgender issues and the state school board ban on teaching divisive concepts.
“I’m not for critical race theory, and I believe your gender is the gender you were born with,” Turrentine said. “That’s one of the reasons I’m running for superintendent; I don’t want that pushed on my kids. I don’t think politics should be pushing anything on our kids.”
Turrentine said that if elected, she will focus on building stronger capital needs plans for the district and modifying both a traditional and technology-based curriculum.
“A lot of the work we’re going to put our kids through is going to involve technology, but at the same time, I like hands-on (teaching) also,” Turrentine said. “I think when we went virtual, we went very heavy on using Chromebooks all the time. Why are we sending our kids to school if they could be on a Chromebook at home?”
Turrentine said the biggest part of her capital plan would be to begin construction of a new Priceville Junior High School that the school board first brought to the public’s attention in a meeting earlier this year.
She and Dillard both said it is important to develop a strong capital plan and spend money at one time on a project rather than gradually expanding a building over time.
Dillard, 47, has spent 25 years in education and 17 of those years as an administrator. She said if elected, some of her top priorities will be to start preparing all Morgan County students to enter the workforce when they leave school.
“The whole goal is, ‘What are we doing to get kids ready for their jobs and their future?’” Dillard said.
Dillard said as part of her efforts to develop students’ interests in the workforce, she will require students to shadow a professional at their job beginning in the 10th grade.
“I’m huge on real-world experiences because college is expensive, and changing your major is also expensive,” Dillard said. “I don’t want kids to change their major in college because they didn’t know what to expect.”
Dillard said she also wants to make safety a new priority for the district by installing a school resource officer in every school and increasing the amount of “life-saving medical equipment” like automatic external defibrillators.
Both candidates said they are in favor of local control of their school districts, but Turrentine said Dillard has sided with state legislators over local officials. Dillard replied that it is necessary to have a good relationship with the state in order to maintain local control.
“If you don’t think that what is happening in Montgomery is affecting your local schools, it is,” Dillard said. “The whole reason you have relationships with (legislators) is so that, locally, you can do the things you need to do. It’s not the opposite.”
The Republican primary winner in the superintendent’s race has no announced opposition in the Nov. 8 general election.