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Opinion | Baldwin County school board sues state Superintendent Eric Mackey

Larry Lee

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Three weeks ago, we told you about the mess in Baldwin County regarding the effort of Gulf Shores to start its own city school system. The county school board was not happy at all with the way in which state superintendent, Eric Mackey, seemed to be tipping the scales in favor of Gulf Shores.

They felt he was overstepping his authority as to how he thought funding and other issues should be handled.

It all came to a head in late afternoon on Feb. 15 when the board filed a 73-page law suit against Mackey in Baldwin County circuit court.

The straw that may well have broken the camel’s back was when Mackey sent the board a letter in which he implied that he has the authority to fire Baldwin County superintendent Eddie Tyler. He made several references to Alabama code section 16-4-4, which states:

“The State Superintendent of Education shall explain the true intent and meaning of the school laws and of the rules and regulations of the State Board of Education. He shall decide, without expense to the parties concerned, all controversies and disputes involving the proper administration of the public school system. The State Superintendent of Education shall enforce all the provisions of this title and the rules and regulations of the State Board of Education. He shall file charges with the State Board of Education or other controlling authority and shall recommend for removal or institute proceedings for the removal of any person appointed under the provisions of this title for immorality, misconduct in office, insubordination, incompetency or willful neglect of duty.”

The last line of this code section is the one Baldwin board members took great issue with. Mackey and Gulf Shores superintendent Matt Akin have a relationship dating back to their days at Jacksonville State University. Mackey was later superintendent of the Jacksonville city school system while Akin was 12 miles away as superintendent of Piedmont city. And when Mackey applied for state superintendent in 2018, Akin wrote a letter of recommendation for him.

And though Mackey told AL.com that this relationship had nothing to do with how he was handling the controversy, Baldwin County board members were not buying it. Reportedly, Mackey told a Mobile TV station on Feb. 14 that he had no intention of trying to terminate Tyler. But again, the Baldwin board was not convinced.

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Feb. 15 was the latest “drop dead” date Mackey gave both Gulf Shores and Baldwin County to sign his agreement. Instead of signing, Baldwin County went to court.

I know Eddie Tyler. He is a veteran of more than 40 years in education. He is definitely a “work horse” and not a “show horse.” The kind of guy people call “solid.” When the bullets start flying, you know Eddie will still be in the fox hole with you. Since he has the fastest growing system in the state, adding 500 students each year, he is drinking from a fire hydrant every day.

By comparison, this is a world Mackey can hardly relate to. Ten years ago when Mackey was in Jacksonville, they had 1,694 students..Today, they have 1,575, while Baldwin County has 31,519.

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This lack of experience in working with large school systems is one reason the majority of local superintendents favored Craig Pouncey as state school chief when the state board picked Mackey in a 5-4 vote last year.

The suit filed in Baldwin County circuit court is very direct in its statements about Mackey.

For example: “Plaintiff alleges that Mackey acted willfully, knowingly, maliciously, in bad faith, beyond his authority, and/or under a mistaken interpretation of the law and is not immune from civil action. The State Superintendent has failed to follow the procedural requirements for conducting a review of actions or orders of a local board. Mackey has failed to comply with the law, as well as his own rules, practices, policies and procedure with regard to the Baldwin County Board of Education, thereby acting wrongfully and in violation of the laws of the State of Alabama.”

In a nutshell, Mackey is being accused of incompetence.

And my layman’s interpretation after reading the suit and all supporting documentation is that Baldwin County has made a very good case.

I am constantly amazed at how some grown ups act when the issue is about children. The fact that a brand new state superintendent has become so embroiled in an issue that one side feels their only relief is in court is mind boggling. Local school boards employ local superintendents. They DO NOT work for the state department of education.

The ONLY reason for a state superintendent, state department and state school board to exist is to do everything they can to help what goes on in our classrooms.

Education takes place in classrooms when a teacher and her students interact.  Education does not happen in the Gordon Persons Building, which houses the state department in Montgomery. Just as it does not occur in any local system central office anywhere in the state.

In 2016, the state board embarrassed itself by hiring Mike Sentance to head our schools on a 5-4 vote. They were part of a process that was so flawed one of the board members at that time faces legal action this summer from Jefferson County superintendent Craig Pouncey to defend her actions during the selection.

In 2018, when someone was being picked to take Sentance’s place, the top three contenders were Mackey, Pouncey and Hoover city superintendent Kathy Murphy.  And though she was being sued by Pouncey, the above referenced board member DID NOT recuse herself from voting, and the vote was 5 for Mackey and 4 for Pouncey.

And now, we get THIS. OWN it or not, this is ultimately the obligation of the state board to straighten out.

 

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Education

Opinion | Instead of fixing a school for military kids, how about just fixing the schools for all kids?

Josh Moon

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The education of police officers’ kids isn’t worth any extra effort. 

Same for the kids of nurses and firefighters. Ditto for the kids of preachers and social workers. 

No, in the eyes of the Republican-led Alabama Legislature, the children of this state get what they get and lawmakers aren’t going to go out of their way to make sure any of them get a particularly good public education. 

Except, that is, for the kids of active duty military members stationed at bases in this state. 

They matter more. 

So much so that the Alabama Senate last week passed a bill that would create a special school to serve those kids — and only those kids. To provide those kids — and only those kids — with a quality education. 

An education better than the one available right now to the thousands of children who attend troubled school systems, such as the one in Montgomery. 

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The charter school bill pushed by Sen. Will Barfoot at the request of Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth carves out a narrow exception in the Alabama Charter School law, and it gives the right to start a charter school located at or near a military base — a school that will be populated almost exclusively (and in some cases, absolutely exclusively) by the kids of military members. 

The explanation for this bill from Barfoot was surprisingly straightforward. On Tuesday, Ainsworth’s office sent information packets around to House members to explain the necessity of the bill. 

In each case, the explanation was essentially this: the Maxwell Air Force Base folks don’t like the schools in Montgomery and it’s costing the state additional federal dollars because top-level personnel and programs don’t want to be in Montgomery. 

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And in what has to be the most Alabama response to a public education problem, the solution our lawmakers came up with was to suck millions of dollars out of the budget of the State Education Department budget and hundreds of thousands out of the budget of a struggling district and use it to build a special school that will provide a better level of education to a small group of kids simply because it might generate more federal tax dollars. 

And because having your name attached to a bill that supposedly aids the military looks good, so long as no one thinks about it too hard. 

But in the meantime, as this special school is being built, the hardworking, good people of Montgomery — some of them veterans and Reservists themselves — are left with a school district that is so recognizably bad that the Legislature is about to build a special school to accommodate these kids. 

Seriously, wrap your head around that. 

Look, this will come as a shock to many people, but I like Will Ainsworth. While we disagree on many, many things, I think he’s a genuine person who believes he’s helping people. 

The problem is that he is too often surrounded by conservatives who think every issue can be solved with a bumper sticker slogan and screaming “free market!” And who too often worry too much about the political optics and too little about the real life effects. 

And Montgomery Public Schools is as real life as it gets.

Right now, there are nearly 30,000 kids in that system. And they need some real, actual help — not the window dressing, money pit BS they’ve been handed so far through LEAD Academy and the other destined-for-doom charters. And they sure as hell don’t need a special charter for military kids to remind them that the school system they attend isn’t good enough for the out-of-towners. 

Stop with the facade and fix the school system. 

You people literally have the power and the money to do this. Given the rollbacks of tenure laws and the passage of charter school laws and the Accountability Act, there is nothing that can’t be done. 

Listen to your colleagues on the other side, who took tours recently of charter schools in other states — charters that work with underprivileged students and that have remarkable success rates. Hell, visit those charters yourself. Or, even better, visit some states that have high performing public schools in high poverty areas, and steal their ideas. 

But the one thing you cannot do is leave children behind. Whatever your solution, it cannot exclude some segment of the population. It cannot sacrifice this many to save that many. 

That sort of illogical thinking is what landed Montgomery — and many other areas of the state — in their current predicaments. Carving out narrow pathways for a handful of students has never, ever worked. 

Let’s stop trying it.

 

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Education

Leadership in child care scholarships now available year-round

Staff

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A full-tuition scholarship that grants current childcare professionals the opportunity to obtain certifications and degrees to best care for Alabama’s children is now available year-round.

The Leadership in Child Care Scholarship, which covers students’ tuition and a number of fees required to pursue child development credentials is now available in the fall, spring, and summer semesters at the state’s participating community colleges and Athens State University.

Qualified students must be currently employed at a childcare center or family and group home, and must be seeking one of the following certifications or degrees:

  • Child Development Associate (CDA) 
  • Short-term certificate, certificate, or Associate of Applied Science (AAS) in Child Development/Early Care and Education Studies
  • Bachelor of Science in Education – Early Childhood Education Major
  • Bachelor of Science in Education – Technical Education: Early Instructor

“Those who work with young children have a special calling and we’re thrilled that this scholarship program has helped so many students earn the credentials they need to better care for Alabama’s children,” said Virginia Frazer, Program Assistant for the Leadership in Child Care Scholarship. “Expanding this scholarship to the summer semester will allow even more childcare providers the opportunity and flexibility to apply and complete their course of study in early childhood development.”

The scholarships originated in 1999 and are made available through funding from the Department of Human Resources.

For additional information, the list of participating colleges, and the Leadership in Child  Care Scholarship application, visit: www.accs.edu/childcare. Scholarship applications for Summer Semester are due April 1, 2020.

 

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Education

House passes Tier III retirement for education employees

Brandon Moseley

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Tuesday, the Alabama House of Representatives passed a bill to expand retirement benefits for education employees.

House Bill 76 is sponsored by State Representative Alan Baker (R-Brewton).

Baker said that Tier III benefits for educators is necessary to encourage teachers to stay in education and to recruit new teachers to the state.

Rep. Thomas Jackson (D-Thomasville) said that this bill addresses “the brain drain on our educators.”

In the wake of the Great Recession, legislators stripped education employees of the ability to retire with full benefits before age 62. This was a cost savings measure as every retired education employee is an enormous drain on the state’s education budget, particularly since the cost of healthcare benefits skyrocketed after the passage of the affordable care act in 2010. At age 65 education retirees are less costly to the state because Medicare picks up roughly 80 percent of their healthcare cost. A retired teacher younger than that, under tier III, would cost the state as much for healthcare as a current employee.

Baker said that his bill, titled the Education Workforce Investment Act, would cost less than a one percent pay raise would.

HB76 would change the retirement structure for public education employees hired after 2013. These changes include allowing employees to retire with benefits after 30 years of service even if they haven’t reached age 62 and would basically undue the cost savings package passed eight years ago.

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Baker said that this was necessary to address the growing teacher shortage in the state.

“We have a shortage among educators, particularly we recognize the teachers in the classroom,” Baker said.

Rep. Harry Shiver (R-Stockton) thanked Baker for bringing that bill, “We need to help the education community.”

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Representatives voted unanimously 105 to 0 for the bill.

The bill now moves to the Alabama Senate, where it is controversial.

Thursday, Alabama Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh (R-Anniston) said that the House bill goes too far. The Senate favors Tier III benefits for teachers, but opposes them for other education employees. The Baker bill includes: bus drivers, education aids, school lunchroom workers, security guards, nurses, clerical people, janitors, etc.

Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon (R-Monrovia) defended the House bill.

“They are all part of the education profession because of that we are trying to recruit people to fill all of the pool for the whole of education,” McCutcheon told reporters on Thursday.

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Education

Alabama voters will decide whether to fire the state school board

Jessa Reid Bolling

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The fate of the state school board will be decided by Alabama voters on March 3. 

A proposed constitutional amendment, Amendment One, asks if voters want to change how the folks in charge of education at the state level are selected. 

A yes vote would abolish the elected State Board of Education and the Board-appointed position of State Superintendent of Education. Instead, there will be a Governor-appointed Commission, the Alabama Commission on Elementary and Secondary Education. The Commission would appoint a Secretary of Elementary and Secondary Education, to replace the existing state Superintendent’s position.

A no vote would leave the current system in place, meaning school board members would still be elected by voters based on districts. 

The Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA) conducted an analysis of the amendment, highlighting both strengths and weaknesses of the amendment. 

“Proponents say elected boards are more responsive to the public will. As elected officials, board members have their rightful place and, ideally, are only responsible to the people who elected them. They should be more empowered to oppose what they believe is not in the interests of the state’s schools and children.

At the same time, as elected officials, re-election is an important goal, if not the central goal. Thus elected board members may find themselves where the interests and desires of voters conflict with policies, programs and practices that best serve children. 

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Conversely, proponents of appointed boards cite the strength of the vetting process in creating boards with knowledgeable, skilled, effective board members. An appointment process allows the governor to consider the needs of the board and the qualities different candidates would bring. 

Others cite that governor-appointed boards and appointed superintendents create a more efficient, aligned, and harmonious system for setting and implementing education priorities. Ambitious and substantive changes to a state’s school system are more feasible in a more efficient system that encourages collaboration and strengthens the governor’s capacity to effect change. However, while somewhat insulated, appointed boards are not immune from political pressure.”

Earlier this month, Governor Kay Ivey addressed PARCA at the annual Albert Brewer Legacy lunch at the Harbert Center in Birmingham, asking the council to support Amendment One.

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“Alabama is at the bottom in about every education category that can be found,” Ivey said. “Too many of our third graders cannot read and too many of our high school graduates are not ready for a career or college.”

“Vote yes on amendment one when you go to the polls on March 3,” Ivey said. “We have had three superintendents in five years. We can do better.”

 

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