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Opinion | Baldwin County school board sues state Superintendent Eric Mackey

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 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.

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.

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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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