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Doing it for the kids

Larry Lee

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By Larry Lee
Education Matters

“I did not know the rules.”

These words won’t leave my head. Round and round, “I did not know the rules.” The reply given by state school board member Mary Scott Hunter to State Senator Gerald Dial when asked in a Nov. 10 committee meeting if she knew the Ethics Committee does not investigate anonymous complaints.
The words hung over the room like an anvil.

Did I just hear what I just heard? An attorney who has been on the state school board since 2011 says she is unaware of a very basic tenant of how the Ethics Commission works?

The issue this day was an anonymous “smear sheet” injected into last summer’s search for a new state school chief. A legislative committee is digging through the carnage to find out how this info, which cannot be investigated by the Ethics Commission because the so-called “complaint” is not attributable to anyone, and if it could be would not be investigated because the time between when the alleged misdeed took place and now have long since passed the prosecution threshold.

The allegations were directed toward Craig Pouncey, superintendent of the Jefferson County school system and one of the leading contenders to replace Tommy Bice.

Obviously someone was trying to make sure Pouncey would not get the job. Why did they not want him? An email from Rep. Terri Collins, who chairs the House Education Policy Committee offers a clue. Collins wrote all state board members last summer saying that they should not consider Pouncey because the then Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard sent a letter to Tommy Bice telling him to keep Pouncey out of the Statehouse.

There was no such letter.

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And what was Pouncey’s “sin?” When Rep. Ed Henry attacked our public schools in a meeting, Pouncey defended them. So Henry ran to the Speaker’s office whining about an educator standing him down.

One does not have to be a Rhodes Scholar to see that the legislative leadership who took control of the Statehouse in 2010 is no friend of public schools. The Alabama Accountability Act, a charter school bill and the much maligned A-F school report cards are testimony to what is afoot.

And the last thing our 740,000 public school students need is someone as state superintendent who will stand up for them.

So someone concocts a bogus set of allegations in hopes of putting doubt in the minds of members of the state school board. Now all they need is someone to make sure the right strings get pulled.

Is this someone Mary Scott Hunter? At this point this seems to be the case. While other board members told the legislative committee they basically ignored the complaint and that it should never have been given credence, Hunter says she was very concerned when she read the allegations and gave a copy to Phillip Cleveland, interim state superintendent so that he could give it to Juliana Dean, his legal counsel.

She then contacted Tom Albritton, who runs the Ethics Commission and told him about it. And though she is just one of eight elected members of the state board, she did not confer with other members about what she was doing–or what she should be doing.

Albritton told his legal counsel Hugh Evans, III , they needed a copy of the smear sheet. He calls Dean who soon hand delivers it. Evans then sends Dean a letter naming Pouncey as the object of the anonymous letter, which Dean sends to all board members. And not long afterwards, copies of this letter end up in news articles.

So now the public knows. Pouncey has been fingered. Rightly or wrongly makes no difference. His name got in the paper. And given the intense politicization of the superintendent selection process that is all that is needed. Because surely the state board members and the governor would not pick a state superintendent who is suspected of wrong doing.
And the children of Alabama get Mike Sentence, an attorney from Massachusetts, to look out for them.

Mary Scott Hunter was on the board in 2011 when Tommy Bice was picked as state superintendent. One of the seven applicants that year was Mike Sentence. Ms. Hunter, nor any other board members, were impressed enough to bring him in to interview.

Yet, now Ms. Hunter says his resume” just “grew on her.” The same resume’ she trashed five years ago. Ms. Hunter spoke repeatedly of Pouncey in glowing terms to the legislative committee. She voted for four of the six candidates who applied–but not him..
This selection process was poisoned.
We now all know that. But by WHO and WHY? Someone is playing games with our children and our teachers and our school administrators.

I like Mary Scott Hunter. She is not a bad person. But she has become caught up in something bigger than she is and from this point on, simply saying “I did not know the rules” will not suffice.

The fact that the committee meeting audience included the governor’s legal counsel and the attorney general’s chief deputy indicates that others are looking for answers as well.

Larry Lee led the study Lessons Learned from Rural Schools and is a longtime advocate for public education. [email protected] Read his blog: larryeducation.com

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Opinion | Finding the new normal

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I spent my professional career getting dressed, usually in business attire, leaving my house and driving to another location – office tower, free standing building, hospital – to begin my work day. All of that changed late last year, when I joined the Business Council of Alabama as Regional Director, a newly created role in the organization. One of the best perks (among many) of joining BCA is my ability to work from home. The past four months have been filled with transition and some trial and error. Making the shift from an “office” office to a home office environment can be seamless, but it takes effort, discipline and a healthy dose of humor.

Before the Coronavirus pandemic, remote work in the United States was already on the rise. According to the Federal Reserve, the share of the labor force that works from home has tripled in the past 15 years. Prior to the outbreak, the Bureau of Labor and Statistics noted 29% of the American workforce could and did work from home. This has only increased as “social distancing” has become the new normal. In our current coronavirus reality, hundreds of thousands of workers across multiple disciplines and industries are now joining me in my slippers in front of my computer first thing in the morning. Before I made my transition, I asked friends and colleagues for advice. The overwhelming response was “it’s great; you’ll love it”, quickly followed by “make sure you’re organized; it’s very different.”  That advice is 100 % true – It’s great, AND it’s quite an adjustment. Their advice has never been more pertinent, and I thought it timely to share it with you. Here are my best suggestions for making the transition:

  • Have a defined workspace: An actual home office, the dining room table, a set up on the back porch – it’s critical to have a dedicated space where you work that isn’t your bedroom. (Although, an occasional conference call from your bed isn’t the end of the world.)
  • Maintain a routine: Wake up at a consistent time, have breakfast, get dressed, spend some time preparing for your day just as you would if you were leaving the house. The same way you use your drive to make calls or ease into your day, do it at home. Same with the end of the day – download the day’s events and prepare for the next day, just as you would before you leave the office. In these very uncertain times, routine not only helps maintain productivity, but it provides a sense of normalcy.
  • Have defined work time: This was one of my biggest challenges. It’s so easy to jump into work as soon as you open your eyes and find you are still at it when the 9:00 news is on. Conversely, it’s tempting to do a few loads of laundry or run a quick errand, and the next thing you know, your day is off the rails.  It’s important to take breaks (just as you would if you were in an office) but work time is for work.  
  • Get out of the house: *Disclaimer: this was much easier before COVID-19 became a part of our daily vocabulary* Looking ahead to the day we return to some semblance of normalcy, set appointments outside your home – at a coffee shop, a colleague’s office, etc. For now, take a walk, go to Starbucks drive through – something to break the monotony of being inside all day, every day.
  • Be patient with yourself: Working from home requires a different type of discipline than going into the office, especially with kids and others likely in the house also. Be kind to yourself and others. Allow yourself time to adjust to the new routine.
  • Stay connected: Communicate with colleagues and peers through the multitude of available outlets – video conference, webinars, conference calls, group chats. This helps maintain the rapport and productive teamwork that exists in the office environment. Connection also benefits our mental and emotional well-being, which we should all pay attention to, especially now.
  • Enjoy the perks!: Jeans instead of a business suit – that’s great! If you aren’t going out, wear your cozy slippers or flip flops all day. If the weather is nice, make calls or handle emails from your backyard or patio and get your daily dose of vitamin D. (Multitasking!) There is wonderful flexibility and creativity when working from home. Enjoy it!

Countless tips and strategies to make the work-from-home transition a success are readily accessible. A quick Google search will yield all sorts of articles and helpful hints. My transition to working from home was the right decision for me and my family.  Coronavirus made that decision for so many others in the last few weeks. It’s important that you find a strategy that works best for you and your family, and just do it! Good luck and best wishes.

Kellie Hope is the Business Council of Alabama’s regional director based out of Mobile.

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Guest Columnists

Opinion | Slush fund for congressmen included in coronavirus relief bill

Craig Ford

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Having served in the State House of Representatives, as opposed to the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C., I usually limit my editorials to state politics rather than national politics. But I cannot stay silent about the most recent piece of legislation to come out of the national Congress.

Most of what’s in that bill is good. There’s a lot of help for families that are struggling to get by during these difficult times; help that is essential for those who get paid by the hour.

But hidden within that $2 trillion bill is a $25 million line item for Congress. No, it’s not a pay raise for congressman. But it’s almost just as bad.

The majority of that $25 million is so our congressmen can buy new laptops, technology for video town halls and tech support to help them with their new toys.

It’s deeply disturbing that our representatives in Washington, D.C., including our own congressman, Robert Aderholt, would include such a blatant slush fund in a piece of legislation that is otherwise a good and desperately needed bill.

First, I find it hard to believe that our congressmen don’t already have laptops provided by the taxpayers. And even if they don’t, congressmen get paid $174,000 a year for their service in Congress (and most also own their own businesses or make millions of dollars playing the stock market).

So if they need a new laptop so badly why can’t they just go buy one with the money we are already giving them? You can buy a laptop for $230 at Best Buy. But a congressman with a $174,000 a year salary can’t afford to order one on his or her taxpayer-funded salary?

As bad as that is, though, what’s worse is the money being spent for technology for video town halls.

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For one thing, a town hall is as much as political event as it is a public service event. It’s an opportunity for elected officials to talk with the voters, and therefore it as much a campaign expense as it is a public policy one.

And what about candidates running against sitting congressmen or candidates running for “open” seats where the current congressman is retiring? They aren’t getting the benefit of a taxpayer-funded video camera and computer software so that they can talk to voters during this time where people are staying home as much as possible.

At the very least, spending money for town hall equipment and software just doesn’t pass the smell test. At worst, it’s a taxpayer-funded campaign donation that won’t get reported and only helps those who are already in congress.

And at a time like this, our congressmen need to be talking to everyone, not just those who they choose to allow to participate in a video town hall (the benefit of a video town hall is that you can mute people and only allow those who are asking pre-approved questions to speak).

Any information our congressmen have to share with us regarding the coronavirus or anything else should be shared through the normal public channels so that everyone can hear it. And our tax dollars shouldn’t be going to technology that allows congressmen to dodge the tough questions.

I expect better than this from Congressman Aderholt and the other members of Congress. I encourage him to refuse to accept any new technology funded with this $25 million and, instead, insist that that money be donated to a hospital in our district to help fund medical supplies.

Congress should not use this national disaster as an excuse to buy themselves new laptops and free technology to benefit their political careers. Every dollar should go toward helping fight this virus and supporting hardworking families that are struggling to survive during this crisis.

Craig Ford is the owner of Hodges-Ford Insurance and the Gadsden Messenger. He represented Gadsden and Etowah County in the Alabama House of Representatives for 18 years.

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Opinion | Hope in the time of the Coronavirus

Bradley Byrne

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In Genesis 2, God says “It is not good that the man should be alone.”  He made us for Himself, but he also made us for one another.  Separation is painful for us all.

This fight against the coronavirus called COVID-19 is hard.  We are forced to separate from one another.  Our economy is sorely wounded.  Worse, our neighbors are infected with this disease, some fighting for their lives, some tragically losing that fight.

We are better, stronger than this disease.  All of us have a role to play, to responsibly social distance from one another, to practice proper hygiene and to know when it’s time to be tested and/or to quarantine ourselves.

Meanwhile, all levels of government play an important role.  Our governors and mayors, as well as public health officers, must issue the appropriate orders to protect us.  Closing restaurants and bars, beaches and parks, small retailers and large group meetings, are each hard decisions.   They must start and end based upon sound medical and professional advice, and plain common sense.  We at the Federal government must work with state and local leaders to inform their difficult decisions and help them, where appropriate, carry out these tough decisions.

When last week’s unemployment insurance filings were reported at over 3 million, the highest ever by far in our history, and when the number of cases and deaths dramatically expanded, it was clear we had entered truly extraordinary times, calling for extraordinary government action.

So, with broad and deep bipartisan support, we passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Security Act (CARES Act), providing over $2 trillion in support for individual citizens, workers who have lost their jobs, small businesses so that they will not close or lay off their workers, larger businesses in the way of loans and not bailouts, healthcare, education, transit, and more.  Unprecedented resources have been quickly directed for more tests, more personal protective equipment, research and development for treatments and even a cure, and ultimately a vaccine.

I don’t like everything in the bill.  But, our people are hurting, our way of life threatened, and this is no time to let these issues slow down the effort to get the job done.

My staff and I are working from home and maintaining social distance.  We have helped repatriate a number of citizens from our district who have found themselves stuck in a foreign country closing its borders.  We are answering many calls on the laws we have passed to respond to this disease and with questions about the disease itself.

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Last week I was on several conference calls with groups in the district and a telephone town hall with nearly 4,000 constituents.  In one, a person asked me to give them hope.

So, here goes.

We are a great and powerful nation.  We were born in an uncertain and dangerous revolution, invaded even in our Capitol by the greatest power in the world just 40 years after our founding, suffered a civil war costing 600,000 of our lives, fought two desperate world wars, watched our economy nearly disappear in a Great Depression, tore ourselves apart in the social upheavals of the 60s, and endured an attack by terrorists on our largest city and the center of our national defense.  And yet, after each one, we Americans not only survived but learned how to make our country greater.

 Isaiah, writing during the Babylonian captivity, put it in beautiful language:

But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.  They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.

As we approach Passover and Easter, let us remember the hope expressed in the miraculous delivery of the Jewish people from slavery and the resurrection of Christ who defeated death itself.  And as we continue this difficult fight, let us be confident in the ultimate result, using our own strength and leaning on God’s.

 

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Guest Columnists

Opinion | Success in Coronavirus response must be defined and coordinated

Phil Williams

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Isn’t it amazing to see the grandstanders who show up in a crisis that have the luxury of not having to own a plan?

I’ve heard a bevy of pundits and those not actually in charge of anything (elected and unelected) shouting that the sky is falling.

None of them have offered a solution other than to yell louder so that they can be known for having yelled.

Knuckleheads. Every one. 

I’m not going to be one of those knuckleheads.

I don’t have all of the solutions. I’m not as privy to the latest science, nor the latest intelligence. All of the other good-idea-fairies that flutter in and flutter out just provide background noise for the media. As an alternative train of thought I’m speaking here from my experiences in coordinated operational planning, something I have been a part of many times.

You’ve likely heard the catch phrases before: “A failure to plan is a plan to fail” or, “no decision is a decision for no”, and even, “tell me what right looks like so I’ll know it when I see it”. All these well-worn phrases mean is that decision makers have the responsibility of not only reacting, but of pro-acting. An attack calls for a plan, and plans call for phase lines.

During your quarantine time take a quick look at Operation Desert Storm. One of the most successful military operations in modern history was planned and executed in lightning fashion and coordinated in part by benchmarks for the advance that the military calls phase lines. I use this analogy because it is apt and accurate.

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We are on a war footing and the enemy is an invisible virus that wants to diminish our quality of life.

In military parlance a “phase line” is an operational command and control measure that is drawn across the battlefield. As troops advance against the enemy the pre-established phase lines provide two purposes: they offer a milestone that must be reached before the next phase of the advance, and they help keep all of the various combatant units on line and advancing in synch against the enemy.

We have hunkered in the face of assault for weeks now. We have begun to regroup. If we are to advance against our enemy then our leadership needs to begin setting phase lines for the march to recovery that will define what right looks like as we move forward.

Most importantly, we will also be able to coordinate a synchronized advance as a whole-of-society approach. That’s right – a “whole-of-society” approach. It’s not just government.

We are all in this together.

This past week Governor Ivey, in conjunction with State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris, issued certain proclamations designed to further the defense of the State against Covid-19. Depending on who you listen to it was either too much or not enough. I for one believe that she took the better measured approach by shuttering and restraining only select areas of society. I also read Mayor Stimpson’s most recent update in which he took a similar approach for Mobile and stressed that he is coordinating with the Governor’s office.

It is my understanding that not every elected official in the State has chosen to coordinate their efforts with anyone but themselves and their own agendas. I suspect that many of them are hoping that no one actually asks them what their plan is.

To ably move Alabama forward leaders absolutely need to begin telling us what the phase lines will be for the counterattack.

Just by example: what are the triggers for more restrictive measures? At the same time what are the metrics we are looking for at which point non-essential retail businesses can reopen? How much of a decrease in positive CV-19 tests must we see before we reopen schools? If we achieve a certain level of reliability in testing and containment will Dentists be able to return to practice? If Dentists can practice then should churches also reopen? Private sector businesses, the school systems, churches, the Courts, the medical community, the whole-of-society, is willing and able to work within defined parameters but they must be told what those parameters are. 

And to be honest we all know that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. We will adapt the plan. Phase lines might even shift to the left or right as the operational environment becomes clearer.

So be it.

But people, businesses, the markets, all respond stronger to the confident presentation of a plan than they ever will in the face of an undefined and uncoordinated response to a crisis.

This difficult time we live in is not our new normal. Not at all. At a point that we all pray is near, we will return to a life that looks strikingly similar to what it was before we ever heard of the Coronavirus. But in the interim we must march together with well-defined phase lines that keep us all focused and show us what the measuring sticks for success look like on the road to victory.


Phil Williams, API Director of Policy Strategy and General Counsel, is a former State Senator from Gadsden and a practicing attorney. For updates, follow him on Twitter at @SenPhilWilliams and visit alabamapolicy.org.

 

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