By Larry Lee
“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.
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