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Storm Clouds Gather Over State School Board

Larry Lee

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By Larry Lee
Education Matters

Most educators agree that the recent process the state school board went through to replace state superintendent Tommy Bice was more like an episode of the Keystone Kops than anything else. During my career I had five jobs where I reported to a board of directors. Thank goodness they all conducted themselves with far more professionalism than we just saw from the state school board.

One of the more egregious episodes was the attempt to make sure Craig Pouncey, Jefferson County school superintendent and former chief of staff for Tommy Bice, did not get the job. Someone even reached into a political “dirty bag of tricks” and came up with a smear sheet in an attempt to discredit him.
The anonymous info accuses Pouncey of not writing his own doctoral dissertation and having state employees do much of the work. This charge has been vigorously denied by both Pouncey and his major professor who oversaw his graduate work.

Still, the stain remains and Pouncey has retained Montgomery attorney Kenny Mendelsohn to represent him in an effort to find out who was responsible for the smear campaign and why.

WSFA television in Montgomery reported this story on Oct. 5, 2016. You can read about it here. Here are excerpts:

“Certain people did a horrible thing by providing information and accusing him of unethical, and basically an unconscionable conduct,” Mendelsohn said. “All based on some anonymous letter that I believe was fabricated.”

The letter claimed Pouncey cheated and plagiarized his doctoral dissertation, and used state resources, something he flatly denies.

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“They have defamed him and accused him of this conduct,” Mendelsohn said. “It affects any job opportunities in the future, it could affect his job now. He did not plagiarize anything, he did not lie about his dissertation, he did not use state resources in it or anything like that. The accusations were totally false, it accomplished what these people wanted.”

The anonymous letter was also submitted to the Ethics Commission, something Mendelsohn feels strongly about.

“The Ethics Commission doesn’t investigate anonymous complaints,” added Mendelsohn. “Nothing should have been done with this; if someone won’t sign their name to it, they shouldn’t look into it. And somebody in that department had to have contacted the Ethics Commission, there’s a letter back from the Ethics Commission saying they complied with statutory reporting. There’s obviously interplay between.”

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“We’ve requested opportunities to clear it up, and nobody wants to talk to us,” said Mendelsohn. “What I am probably going to do is have to file a lawsuit and getting people under oath. And then get to the bottom of it.”

“There are people at the State Department who don’t want this all to come out,” Mendelsohn said. “Part of the solution is whoever did this, doesn’t need to be associated with education, whether it’s an employee, board member or a secretary; those people need to be exposed for doing something like this.”

At the Sept. 8 board meeting, vice-chair Yvette Richardson wanted to put a resolution on the agenda calling for an internal investigation into the smear sheet episode. This was voted down, 5-4.

We put up a survey on this site shortly after the Aug. 11 vote on the new superintendent. More than 1,250 people responded. Go here to see all responses. After watching this all unfold, it is little wonder that 91 percent of respondents opposed the hire and that 64 percent gave the state school board a failing grade of D or F.

One of the more bizarre parts of all of this is looking at how the board members voted on Aug. 11. There were six candidates. Three were Alabama local superintendents, one was a member of Governor Bentley’s cabinet and two were from outside the state, neither with experience as a superintendent at either the local or state level.

So there were clear differences among the choices. And one would expect that board members would have had a clear understanding on Aug. 11 of what they were looking for. And in most cases this was true. For instance, Matt Brown only voted for Mike Sentence. Yvette Richardson, Jeff Newman and Ella Bell only voted for Craig Pouncey.

But Stephanie Bell voted for Bill Evers, Mike Sentance and Craig Pouncey Mary Scott Hunter outdid her. She voted for four different candidates. Mike Sentence, Dee Fowler, Janet Womack and Jeana Ross.

So there are six candidates and you think four of them are equal? You vote for an Alabama superintendent with 30+ years experience at all levels of education and you also vote for someone with no education credentials which means you think their backgrounds are similar?

And when it is all over the public is told by state school board members that this is “all about the children.” Anyone who believes that needs to call me about some beach front property my family has in Covington County.

I wish Craig Pouncey and Kenny Mendelsohn well.

The 740,000 students in Alabama public schools deserve some answers.

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Opinion | Historic opportunity – Alabama’s chance to change abortion history

Amie Beth Shaver

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Alabama’s Constitution states that the sole purpose of Alabama’s government is to protect the life, liberty, and property, of its people. The State’s Constitution does not mince words—any variance from this mandate is nothing short of “usurpation and oppression.” Alabama’s statutes, courts and Constitution have made it clear that unborn children are people, no different under the law than those that are born. Because, in Alabama, the unborn are persons, they possess an inalienable right to life and are entitled to the protection of it.

Yet, abortion on demand continues without abatement in the state of Alabama. Every day, unborn babies—who have the same rights of all born people under the Alabama Constitution —are deprived of their right to life. In Alabama alone, over 6,000 abortions are performed each year. The horrific nature of these killings happens so often that it has become commonplace. We have been forced to live with the death of the innocent for so long that we have become numb and indifferent to the great and inexcusable injustice which stains the soul of our state. We must wake up and remember that the rights recognized by Alabama’s Constitution pertain to all of its people.

There is a new hope! There is a novel and strong 10th Amendment argument which does not conflict with or fall within the contemplation of the Roe decision—but it will likely rebalance or displace Roe’s power significantly. Roe declared the U.S. Constitution was silent regarding the rights of the unborn. The 10th Amendment, therefore, empowers the states to act where the Constitution is silent. Through this empowerment, a state can recognize and define the rights of the unborn within its borders. With both mother and child finally on an equal footing of rights, both mother and child can be justly protected.

This argument, at this very moment, is in front of the Supreme Court of Alabama.

On January 22, Helen Light—quietly and without fanfare—filed an emergency petition with our highest court. In it she asks the Court to acknowledge that the U.S. Constitution permits, and Alabama’s Constitution requires the protection of unborn children within our state. Further, she asks the Court to clarify the power and legal obligation of Governor Ivey and other officials named as Respondents, to uphold their duty and take immediate action.

The Alabama Supreme Court has discretion to hear petitions like Ms. Light’s. Normally, it would issue its decision to accept or decline a case within a few days. In this case, over four weeks have passed without an utterance from the Court. We believe that the Court is concerned with upholding the separation of powers, and struggles with the propriety of requiring Governor Ivey to take such a significant action to assert Alabama’s right to enforce its Constitution. Ms. Light’s petition asks the Court to walk the razor’s edge of upholding the purpose of our Constitution without fracturing the framework of it. There can be no more difficult a task asked of our judges.

We come here today to ask Governor Ivey to bring relief to the Court so it may act. By voluntarily stepping forward and asking the Court to hear the case, she can remove their conflict. Through this action, the separation of powers will be preserved, and the Court can freely hear Ms. Light’s case. And our Court should hear this case!

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If this argument is ultimately successful, it will not only change the face of abortion on demand in Alabama, but throughout the nation as well. Each state can follow the 10th Amendment path laid by Alabama to speak where Roe has declared the Constitution to be silent. Each state can elevate the legal status of its unborn citizens to protect their lives.
State by state, a change can be made until abortion on demand is a dark memory in
America’s past. All of this can be accomplished if our brave Governor steps forward to seize her moment in history. Certainly, there is a formidable cost each time America has protected the dignity of its forgotten people—yet we do it without regret because we are Americans. We will do what is right, regardless of the sacrifice, because that is who we are as a people. There is no doubt that our brave governor understands this well. No one that has achieved what she has done without pain and blood.

Governor Ivey is good, but she is also human. What we are asking her to do requires great courage and bravery on her part. However, it is a noble thing that we ask of her, and never in the history of our nation, can so many lives be saved with so little ink.

Governor Ivey, we love you. We will support you. We will stand by you. Please push back against the encroaching darkness, stand up for the lives of the innocent and ask the Court to hear this case!

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Amie Beth Dickinson Shaver, a resident of Birmingham, is an author, speaker and former Miss Alabama (’94)

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Opinion | Understanding the role of medical marijuana in the opioid crisis

Benjamin McMichael

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Last week, the Alabama Legislature took some of the first steps on SB165—a bill that would ultimately legalize medical cannabis in Alabama. This bill would move Alabama from the minority of states that continue to prohibit the prescribing of medical marijuana to the majority of states that do. While advocates and proponents of this bill have offered a number of arguments for and against the legalization of medical cannabis, a common thread has come to dominate much of the public debate over this bill. And that thread concerns the impact legalization of medical cannabis would have on the opioid crisis.

As the defining public health crisis of this generation, the opioid crisis has rightly been placed at the forefront of the medical cannabis conversation. In 2017, one American died of an opioid overdose every 11 minutes, and some estimates place the cost of the opioid crisis at over $500 billion. Alabama has not been immune from this crisis, and Blue Cross Blue Shield estimates that its Alabama members were more likely than others across the country to be on a long-duration opioid regime. Given the high stakes involved, the question of how medical cannabis legalization will affect the opioid crisis is obviously an important one.

In a study recently published in the Journal of Health Economics, two co-authors and I investigated the impact of medical cannabis access laws on opioid prescriptions across the country. In that study, we found strong and consistent evidence that enacting medical cannabis access laws reduces opioid prescriptions. In general, these laws decrease opioid prescriptions by 4.2 percent. While this may not, by itself, be enough to reverse the opioid crisis, reducing opioid prescriptions is an important step in addressing this crisis.

Our study was not the first to examine the impact of medical cannabis access laws on opioid prescriptions. However, the strength of our study lies not in its novelty, but in the data it analyzes. Instead of examining counts of opioid prescriptions among Medicare or Medicaid beneficiaries, we analyzed a dataset of over 1.5 billion individual opioid prescriptions across the country. This dataset included approximately 90 percent of all opioid prescriptions written in the United States between 2011 and 2018. And our data came from prescriptions paid for by commercial insurance, Medicaid, Medicare, other government assistance, and even cash.

With such rich data available in our study, we were able to obtain a clearer picture of the effect of medical cannabis access laws than has previously been possible. While we found that these laws reduced opioid prescriptions in general by 4.2 percent, they had larger impacts on certain groups. For example, medical cannabis access laws reduced opioid prescriptions to those with commercial insurance by 4.4 percent and to those with Medicaid by 5.2 percent.

These laws may reduce opioid prescriptions in various ways, and our study found suggestive evidence that one important way may be facilitating the substitution of cannabis for opioids in the treatment of pain. In addition to reducing the use of prescription opioids, our study revealed evidence that medical cannabis access laws also reduce NSAID prescriptions. NSAIDS are often found in common, over-the-counter pain medications. This reduction in another type of medication used in the treatment of pain suggests that the reduction in prescription opioids may be driven by a decreased need for pain treatment once individuals can access medical cannabis. And our results are consistent with the conclusion of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine which found “conclusive. . . evidence that cannabis. . . [is] effective. . . [f]or the treatment of chronic pain in adults.”

As the Alabama Legislature completes its task of debating whether to join the majority of states that allow access to medical cannabis, understanding the role of this law in the opioid crisis will be critically important.

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Guest Columnists

Opinion | Vote “yes” for better education

Jimmy Parnell

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Did you know Alabama’s schools are ranked 52nd in math and 49th in reading? This is unacceptable. Yes on Amendment 1 takes the first step toward improving our schools.

Gov. Kay Ivey has made it abundantly clear. Alabama’s failures in education are not the fault of students or our hardworking teachers, principals and superintendents. The problem is lack of stable, visionary leadership.

Our current system is not working. In Alabama, we’re used to winning. But in education, the state is consistently dead last. We wouldn’t tolerate this kind of performance from our coaches or business leaders, and we must not settle for mediocrity when it comes to our children’s future.

Alabama is one of only six states that still has an elected state school board, and this board has had five superintendents in the last four years.

Amendment 1 gets politicians off the board and replaces them with nine commission members who will bring focus, innovation and accountability to Alabama’s K-12 education system. Our community college system transitioned to this model and has lifted itself out of the mire of scandal by refocusing on student achievement and preparedness.

Commission members will serve no more than two consecutive six-year terms and will be accountable to our elected state senators. They also are required to reflect the diversity of Alabama’s public school students.

Amendment 1 clearly outlines responsibilities for the commission: teacher certification, professional development, student assessment and accountability. In addition, it requires adoption of education standards to replace common core.  

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Amendment 1 does not take control away from local school boards, and it does not diminish the value of our teachers. To the contrary, Amendment 1 will help teachers, students and local schools by bringing strategic, productive leadership to education policy at the state level. 

Gov. Ivey said it best. “For us to prepare today’s students for tomorrow’s opportunities, it is time we get serious: It’s time for creativity. It’s time for accountability. It’s time for stability.

“It’s time to vote YES for Amendment 1 on March 3rd!”

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Opinion | Alabama’s economic boom should be heard and felt across the state

Congressman Robert Aderholt

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When I was growing up in Haleyville, I can remember people in July and August saying, “it’s hotter’n blue blazes outside.”  Well, you could certainly describe America and Alabama’s current economic boom as being “hotter’n blue blazes.”  Alabama’s economy is scorching hot, with the lowest unemployment numbers in our state’s history.  One county economic development director told me that “if you want a job, you can find one right now.”

​I don’t doubt that’s true, but unfortunately it also depends on what part of the state you live in.   If you are willing and able to drive a couple of hours to and from work, then you certainly have many more options.  Our Defense and Space industries are experiencing tremendous growth. Agriculture is booming. Alabama is the nation’s second largest producer of poultry – and that’s a good thing.

But we can do even better. A lot of people can’t commute long distances every day to reach good jobs, so we’ve got bring the jobs to them. I believe we can bring high paying, quality jobs to every corner of the 4th District and Alabama and rural America as a whole.  We need to rebuild our essential manufacturing base – and that’s something that President Trump has focused on.

And to build upon that, we must prioritize building up our infrastructure. We must expand high speed internet to every square mile of the 4th District and North Alabama.  We must protect rural hospitals and clinics to make sure people everywhere have access to high quality healthcare. And we must ensure we have a highly trained work force with the skills employers are looking for.

During a recent visit to a locally owned business in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, I was told they have jobs available, but they can’t find candidates who can pass a drug test.  This is why I worked in Congress to allocate more than a billion dollars to fight the opioid epidemic.  A highly skilled workforce is essential, but we also need a workforce that isn’t dependent on illegal substances to get though the day.  Lack of employment and dependency on drugs is an evil and all-consuming cycle.  We can break that cycle.

We also need to make sure our trade policies are based on common sense.  We want to increase trade by eliminating unfair foreign trade policies.  President Trump did that in the U.S.- Mexico- Canadian (USMCA) trade deal, which opens more markets for American products and helps make America more competitive.  That makes a big difference for our farmers, manufacturers, businesses and for consumers.  We’ll have more opportunities for common-sense trade deals in the coming years.

​It’s also time for us to stop associating social status and class on whether someone has a four-year college degree.  Trust me, I know many people who have bachelors and master’s degrees that aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.  And at the same time, I’ve heard of people who have two-year welding degrees from colleges like Wallace State who are making money we normally associate with a doctor.

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Two-year associate degrees and high school vocational classes are just as valuable to our economic wellbeing than an economics degree from Harvard.  If someone aspires to achieve a four-year degree, that’s great, but they should never be celebrated more than the person who decides to open his own plumbing business.  This is why I’m so supportive of our state’s two-year college system and our vocational schools.

​Alabama has so much economic potential.  I hope you will join me in making sure we see this economic expansion continues in places like Huntsville, but also expands into places like Lamar, DeKalb and Fayette counties.  There’s no reason we shouldn’t all be able to take part in how hot the Alabama economy is right now.   As we also used to say in Haleyville, it’s 100 degrees in the shade!

 

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