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A new state superintendent, more controversy

Josh Moon

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Board of Education member Mary Scott Hunter speaks to reporters after a board meeting that saw former state Superintendent Michael Sentance receive low marks on his evaluation. (Samuel Mattison/APR)

If the State Board of Education is picking a new superintendent, count on controversy.

Eric Mackey, the head of the Superintendents of Alabama group, was selected as the state’s newest superintendent on Friday, and almost immediately there was controversy. There are also currently at least two groups considering lawsuits to challenge Friday’s vote.

According to sources familiar with the process, there are two main complaints about Friday’s vote: That board member Mary Scott Hunter was allowed to participate despite an obvious conflict of interest, and Mackey’s various conflicts from serving as a lobbyist for the Superintendents of Alabama.

“There are some serious questions being raised the more people find about some of this stuff,” said a source.

In what was a very odd selection process, which included zero discussion by board members of the candidates, and ended with Mackey earning five votes and Jefferson County superintendent Craig Pouncey receiving four.

As such, the vote of Hunter became critical, which many see as a problem. That’s because Pouncey currently has an active lawsuit against Hunter, claiming that she defamed him by participating in a smear campaign prior to the last superintendent selection process.

Through the course of the lawsuit and a parallel legislative committee inquiry into the matter, it became fairly obvious that Hunter and others at ALSDE were working to prevent Pouncey from obtaining the job. They pushed an anonymous ethics complaint, which turned out to be well outside of the statute of limitations and 100 percent false, and Hunter was spreading the rumors of a Pouncey ethics issue at a legislative retreat.

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Pouncey’s lawsuit has cleared a number of hurdles, including having the judge dismiss several parties because they enjoyed immunity in their state jobs. But Hunter has remained, as has another ALSDE attorney, James Ward.

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And yet, there was Hunter voting against Pouncey again, with her vote swinging the results.

“Why was (Hunter) allowed to vote?” school board member Ella Bell asked after the vote was announced.

More questions have followed — mostly concerning Mackey’s position as a registered lobbyist and Gov. Kay Ivey’s potential conflict of interest.

As the head of the Superintendents of Alabama group, Mackey was required to register as a lobbyist, since he was a lobbyist for that group. Last July, Ivey went after lobbyists, signing an executive order that prevents lobbyists from being appointed to boards or to lead executive agencies.

In that executive order, Ivey went to great lengths to explain why appointing lobbyists to those lofty  positions was wrong: “it is essential to the proper operation of a Democratic government that government servants be independent and impartial….”

Ivey, who voted for Mackey, had an apparent change of heart.

Dr. Mackey is the most qualified candidate to lead the State Department of Education in a new direction, which will focus on student achievement at high levels,” Ivey’s office wrote in an response to questions from APR. “His selection by the State Board of Education, through a independent competitive process, is not a gubernatorial appointment as referenced in Executive Order 706. Dr. Mackey’s previous position with School Superintendents of Alabama required him to register as a lobbyist, it also provided him with experience working closely with legislators, a vital part of the State Superintendent’s job. Also, his appointment is not effective until a contract is executed and once that happens, he will no longer be a registered lobbyist.”

However, there was also one other matter: In August, Mackey personally donated $4,000 to the Alabama Group PAC — a PAC that is used by the Superintendents of Alabama to make donations.

Five days after Mackey’s contribution, $2,000 was sent from that PAC to Ivey’s campaign account.

In response to a question about her potential conflict of interest because of the donation, Ivey’s office said: “Governor Ivey remains committed to the highest ethical standards and she expects nothing less from the newly selected state superintendent.”

 

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