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Opinion | We already know the danger of an appointed state school board

Josh Moon

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So, you want to appoint the state school board?

According to Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, all of the voting we’ve been doing to elect state school board members is one of the biggest problems with public education in Alabama, and he wants to stop it. The stupid voters have screwed this up enough for him, and so he wants to let the elected leaders in Montgomery — who rarely have managed to stumble and fall into competency when it comes to anything remotely education-related — pick the school board for the stupid voters.

Marsh has a bill in the Legislature that would transform the state school board from an elected board to an appointed commission.

This would be the second education commission that Marsh has created in Alabama — the first being the charter school commission — and his first is a lesson in how appointing a board doesn’t remove the politics, it only increases the likelihood that the commission members will be beholden to a particular politician or ideology and will shirk responsibility and regulations to please both.

Or to use less words: The charter school commission is a joke.

It is a group of people that have, as far as I can tell, ignored pretty much every rule and every promise made in their singular quest to approve charter schools, no matter how unprepared or poorly managed those charter schools might be.

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It’s so bad that on Tuesday, several members of Marsh’s party took turns in the Alabama House criticizing the charter school commission’s lack of oversight, its common and routine mistakes and its lack of due diligence in approving these schools.

Those lawmakers mostly focused on the commission’s approval of a charter school in Washington County. Despite massive public push-back against that charter — and despite the local schools performing quite well — the commission approved Woodland Prep on the basis of an application that was rejected by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and the fabricated endorsements of several educators who later requested their names be removed that application.

But while that Woodland Prep approval is as awful as we first reported at APR, it’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the charter school commission.

In its quest to fulfill its goal of approving charters, the commission has ditched the NACSA and the national standards that lawmakers, including Marsh, promised would be applied to any charter school opening in this state. Instead, the majority of applications are now graded by the Auburn Center for Evaluation.

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If you’ve never heard of the Auburn Center for Evaluation, well, there’s no reason you should have. From all indications, it’s a fine group of people who have contracts with a number of entities, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to evaluate various efficiencies.

The Center picked up a contract with the Alabama Department of Education to review charter school applications last September. At the time, not a single person on the Center’s staff had ever reviewed a charter school applications.

Dan Henry, the executive director of the Center, said that wasn’t a concern, since the Center’s staff was provided a rubric by ALSDE which each application had to meet. If it met the specifications in the rubric, the Center’s staff approved it. If it didn’t, the staff didn’t approve. That simple.

Except that, well, it’s not that simple.

The NACSA was also working off a rubric, and it had experienced evaluators picking the various portions of an application apart. So, while an applicant might meet the rubric’s requirement of a detailed staffing plan, the NACSA was also judging that plan based on the real-world application of the specifics contained in that plan.

That’s why the NACSA was rejecting so many of the applications that flowed through the Alabama Charter School Commission. And that’s why the Auburn Center for Evaluation was approving so many. (To be clear, that doesn’t mean that the Center was doing anything wrong. It was performing the task it was asked to do by ALSDE, and by all accounts was performing it well.)

This is what happens when you appoint a commission. It becomes beholden to an ideology. Opposing viewpoints are nonexistent. And corners get cut in the name of achieving a political goal.

 

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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Alabama Education Association, Board of Medical Examiners meet over excuses to break COVID-19 quarantines

Prior to the meeting, the AEA on Nov. 5 threatened legal action against the board over the matter. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Officials with the Alabama Education Association and the Alabama State Board of Medical Examiners met on Thursday to discuss a concern the association has with doctors who write excuses to allow students to return to school before their mandated COVID-19 quarantine periods expire.

At the meeting between Theron Stokes, associate executive director of the Alabama Education Association, and William Perkins, executive director of the Alabama State Board of Medical Examiners, Stokes learned that the board wasn’t aware of the problem, the AEA said in a press release. 

“Both groups agreed to set up a meeting with educational and medical organizations on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic in Alabama,” the AEA said in the release. “A meeting should be held before the end of the year and will allow the AEA and the Board of Medical Examiners, as well as other educational and medical organizations, to review existing guidelines issued by the Alabama Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control and ensure conformity in following those guidelines.” 

In a letter to Perkins on Thursday, Stokes wrote that it was AEA’s understanding that the board was aware of the problem, but he wrote that during their meeting he became aware that neither the board nor Perkins was aware of the problem. 

“It was not the intent of AEA to cause any unnecessary problems for you, the doctors you represent, or your organization regarding this matter,” Stokes wrote. 

Prior to the meeting, the AEA on Nov. 5 threatened legal action against the board over the matter. 

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“It is our firm belief that there exists no medical scenario under which these students could be written out of quarantine and that to do so is violative of ADPH and CDC quarantine recommendations,” Stokes wrote in the Nov. 5 letter. 

Stokes in his recent letter notes that both agreed in the meeting to bring together representatives of the other organizations to come up with a uniform procedure for following state and federal guidelines. 

“I agree with your plan to conduct this meeting and finalize our goals before the holidays,” Stokes wrote.

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Governor announces more than $298 million for K-12, college projects

$298 million has been awarded to 20 Public School and College Authority projects statewide. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Gov. Kay Ivey on Thursday announced more than $298 million has been awarded to 20 Public School and College Authority projects statewide. 

“The Public School and College Authority was established with the intent on tackling long-standing school infrastructure projects or educational upgrades that have been delayed due to limited funding,” Ivey said in a statement. “I’m pleased to announce these 20 projects with the people of Alabama in full transparency. The announcement today marks a significant investment in the future of this state. I’m grateful to the Alabama Legislature for the enabling legislation which established the PSCA and the astute work of State Finance Director Kelly Butler for positioning the bond sale in the best way possible.”

The PSCA is comprised of Ivey, State Finance Director Kelly Butler and Alabama Superintendent of Education Eric Mackey.

“I am thrilled that the PSCA is able to provide these funds to worthwhile projects throughout the state,” Butler said in a statement. “I am grateful to the legislature for authorizing the sale and to Governor Ivey for her leadership in supporting this transaction. The successful sale is the result of outstanding work by the financing team, and I thank them for all of their efforts.”

The state Legislature in 2019, authorized the PSCA to sell up to $1.25 billion in bonds and allocated money to every city and county K-12 school system and to higher education institutions, with 73 percent of the funds going to K-12 schools and 27 percent going to two-and four-year colleges.

Because of low interest rates, the bond sale resulted in the PSCA receiving over $300 million in premium revenues, according to a press release from Ivey’s office. The true interest cost of the bonds is two percent over the 20-year repayment period.

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The PSCA projects funded from the premium revenue and announced today are:

  • University of Alabama Huntsville: Huntsville Regional Lab and Morgue — 11,000,000
  • HudsonAlpha: Expansion of Biotech Campus/designate Alabama the Discovery Life Sciences Global Headquarters — 15,000,000
  • Auburn University: New STEM & Agricultural Sciences Complex — 50,000,000
  • University of Alabama at Birmingham: Genomic Medical & Data Sciences Building — 50,000,000
  • Troy University: Center for Materials and Manufacturing — 9,450,000
  • Alabama Center for Arts: Dorm — 15,000,000
  • University of South Alabama: New Medical School Building — 50,000,000
  • University of North Alabama: Computer Science & Mathematics Building — 15,000,000
  • Alabama School of Deaf and Blind: North Alabama Campus — 28,519,992
  • Alabama Aviation College: Phase 2 renovations of Barnett Building and upgrade the hanger floor — 500,000
  • Lauderdale County: Workforce Development Center — 8,000,000
  • Alabama Shakespeare Festival: Renovations and Repairs — 5,000,000
  • Alabama School of Math & Science: Science Research Center — 6,000,000; Outdoor Classrooms — 235,000
  • AIDT: Toyota/Mazda — 8,000,000
  • Jacksonville State University: Randy Owen Performance Center — 15,000,000
  • The American Village: Central Independence Hall and Tower Classrooms and Experiences — 5,000,000
  • Alabama A&M University: Library Roofing — 907,500; Wilson Hall, Drake Hall, Carnegie Hall wood restoration project — 605,000
  • University of Montevallo: Residence Halls HVAC/Roof Repair — 1,000,000
  • University of West Alabama: Brock Hall 2nd Floor Renovation — 2,600,000
  • Alabama State University: Friendship Manor — 1,500,000

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Many Alabama schools return to remote learning before Thanksgiving

Alabama school districts reported 1,592 positive cases last week, up 536 cases from the previous week.

John H. Glenn

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Despite the state saying there are no plans for a statewide move to remote learning, numerous local systems across the state have begun transitioning to remote learning after a large number of COVID-19 cases were reported in school systems across the state last week. 

Alabama school districts reported 1,592 positive cases last week, up 536 cases from the previous week, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health and the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) K-12 COVID dashboard.

“We’ve heard about rumors suggesting there would be a statewide move to remote learning after Thanksgiving. Absolutely not true,” ALSDE spokesperson Michael Sibley said. “There have been no plans or discussion concerning any form of statewide shutdown. Local systems, of course, have the autonomy to make their own schedule and react to their individual circumstances. But no statewide plans for this.”

As early as Nov. 9, multiple city and county school systems in Alabama began announcing transitions from in-person to remote learning. Tuscumbia, Oneonta and Alexander City Schools all by Nov. 13 had begun or fully transitioned to remote learning. 

“Over the past three days, Alexander City Schools has seen a surge in positive cases,” Alexander City Schools Superintendent Dr. Keith Lankford said in a statement to The Outlook. “The health and safety of our students, teachers, staff and community are most important to us. After consulting with the Alabama State Department of Education lead nurse and reviewing our data related to COVID-19, we have decided that it is necessary to move all schools to remote learning effective Nov. 16.”

Alexander City Schools have reported 32 positive cases among students and teachers, with 259 students and faculty currently in quarantine.

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East Limestone Middle School and High School said they would also transition to remote learning due to understaffing problems, WAFF 48 reported. Close to 300 students have been quarantined in those schools, with 20 positive cases among teachers and students.

Huntsville’s Goldsmith Schiffman Elementary, Ridgecrest Elementary, Columbia High and Huntsville High followed Friday morning, saying in a press release those schools would transition to remote learning until Nov. 30.

“The district’s Preventative Measures Team worked collaboratively with each school’s leadership team to assess several factors before making the decision to transition to remote learning.” Huntsville City Schools’ press release reads. “Instruction will occur as it did during the remote learning period at the beginning of the school year.”

Birmingham’s Carrie A Tuggle Elementary transitioned to remote Nov. 12th, just three days after Birmingham city schools began reopening in-person classes, WBRC reported. The school recorded 5 new positive cases over the past two weeks.

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Marshall and Colbert county schools fully closed their in-person programs until Jan. 5, WAFF 48 reported. Marshall County Superintendent Cindy Wigley recently tested positive for COVID-19, the news station reported, along with 37 other people in the Marshall system. Nearly 300 others are quarantined.

Colbert County Schools reported 11 positive cases, 10 of them teachers, according to school officials. One Colbert County bus driver, Bobby Stutts, died from COVID-19 earlier in the week, according to several news reports.

Coosa County School System announced on the system’s Facebook page that they would continue virtual learning through the Thanksgiving break before returning Nov. 30. According to the K-12 COVID dashboard, the system has reported no cases. 

Lauderdale County High School will also move to remote learning after increased numbers of students and teachers tested positive for COVID-19, according to a post on the system’s Facebook page. Lauderdale County reported 33 positive cases last week, according to the K-12 COVID dashboard.

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State settles Craig Pouncey defamation suit against Mary Scott Hunter

A defamation suit filed by Pouncey against former school board member Mary Scott Hunter was recently settled with Pouncey being awarded $100,000 by the state.

Bill Britt

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Board of Education member Mary Scott Hunter speaks to reporters after a board meeting. (SAMUEL MATTISON/APR)

More than four years ago, Alabama Political Reporter first exposed what appeared to be suspicious activities aimed at derailing Dr. Craig Pouncey’s selection as Alabama’s State Superintendent of Education.

A defamation suit filed by Pouncey against former school board member Mary Scott Hunter was recently settled with Pouncey being awarded $100,000 by the state. According to Pouncey’s attorney, Kenny Mendelsohn, no admission of liability by Hunter was offered under the terms of the agreement.

It is estimated the state spent as much as a million dollars or more on defense attorneys to protect Hunter and others. APR was able to identify nearly a half-million dollars in attorneys fees paid during the case, but assigning a final dollar figure is nearly impossible, because four contracts with top-tier law firms were for $195 per hour and open-ended.

The settlement puts an end to years of hearings, investigations, lawsuits, and recriminations.

State Board of Education members in July 2016, each received an anonymous package alleging that Pouncey plagiarized his doctoral dissertation and had used state property and personnel in the process.

Except for Hunter, board members ignored the anonymous complaint seeing it as a politically motivated smear campaign against Pouncey, who was the lead contender for the superintendent’s job.

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The move against Pouncey first came to light when two state senators and a lobbyist informed APR that Hunter was telling individuals at the 2016 Business Council of Alabama summer gathering that Pouncey had serious ethics problems and was “out of the running” for State Superintendent.

Later, APR reported that at Hunter’s urging, then-General Counsel for ASDE, Juliana T. Dean, contacted the Ethics Commission.

In a letter sent July 15, via email from Hugh Evans III, then-General Counsel for the State Ethics Commission to the Alabama State Department of Education, Evans wrote, “We have received a complaint alleging certain possible violations of the Ethics Law on the part of Warren Craig Pouncey.”

This was highly unusual as, under the state Ethics Act, ethics complaints are to be guarded with the same secrecy of a grand jury investigation.

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Then-state senators Gerald Dial and Quinton Ross held a series of bipartisan legislative committee meetings to investigate the allegations. Dial and Ross’s efforts cast a bright spotlight on questionable activities at ALSDE.

Pouncey was later cleared of all allegations, but the damage was done, and he was denied the superintendent’s position.

The job went to Micheal Sentance, a New England lawyer who had never been a school superintendent. Sentance’s tenure was short-lived.

An internal investigation conducted by ALSDE attorney, Michael Meyer, concluded that board member Hunter, then-interim Superintendent Philip Cleveland, and ALSDE attorneys Dean, James R. Ward III, and Susan Tudor Crowther had coordinated to deny Pouncey the job as superintendent. The internal investigation also found unnamed individuals who may have participated in the plot.

“Most regrettably, these five participants have caused grave and serious harm,” the report stated, “and cast a major shadow on the veracity and credibility of the State Department of Education and the State Board of Education (through no fault of the majority) that still lingers to the present day.”

Hunter, Cleveland, Dean, Ward, and Crowther denied all of the report’s allegations.

After Meyer released his report, there were allegations of retribution against him and his wife, Tracey, a longtime legislative liaison. Meyer was transferred out of ALSDE and to the state Department of Human Resources, and his wife’s position was eliminated without notice.

Pouncey’s civil defamation claim also included Dean, Cleveland, and Crowther. However, Judge Roman Shaul released them from the suit, saying Pouncey’s lawsuit “fails to allege facts that demonstrate these individual defendants were the source of any information that was disseminated to the public and/or that these individuals made any comments about the plaintiff that was not protected.”

Numerous reports from APR chronicled what appeared to be a haphazard attempt to smear Pouncey.

APR investigative reporter Josh Moon, deceased colleague Sam Mattison and education writer Larry Lee played vital roles in bringing the matter to the public attention.

Pouncey currently serves as president of Coastal Alabama Community College.

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