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Ivey, Marsh praise Legislature for passing bill to end elected state school board

Brandon Moseley

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Friday, the Alabama House of Representatives passed Senate Bill 397, which replaces the elected state school board with an appointed commission. The Senate had already passed the bill. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) praised the Legislature’s decision.

“Today, because of strong, bipartisan efforts, the future for Alabama’s education system is extremely promising,” Ivey said. “Every Alabama voter will now have a chance to drastically change the structure for education governance in our state. It is time that bureaucracy no longer stands in the way of our educators, and most importantly, our students.”

“When our voters have the opportunity to support this constitutional amendment on their March 2020 ballots, they will be setting a positive tone for education in Alabama,” Ivey said. “Our current system is simply not working. Statistics prove that. However, through this bold change, I am confident that Alabama will have a system that will work more effectively for our students.“

SB397 was sponsored by State Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston.

“I commend Sen. Del Marsh for his leadership and dedication to finding solutions for Alabama’s education system,” Ivey added. “Additionally, I applaud Speaker (Mac) McCutcheon and the Alabama Legislature for supporting this piece of legislation and showing their willingness to make real, impactful changes. It’s time for Alabama to take the lead in education. I look forward to finding more ways to improve our education system in Alabama.”

“This is a great day for education in Alabama,” Marsh said. “In the spring, the voters will have the opportunity to fundamentally reform education in this state unlike we have seen at any point in the past 50 years and move to a system that has proven to work in the states who are top ranked in education across the country. For far too long our children and our teachers have been held hostage and used as a bargaining chip, and we have seen the sad results — last in the country in education.”

“Next March, the voters will have the chance to send a strong message that enough is enough,” Marsh added. “We want a school board that is capable of making decisions in the best interests of our schools, a school board that has the interests of our teachers and students at heart and a school board this resembles the face of education in this state.”

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“I believe our students learn best when innovation is allowed to take place in the classroom,” Marsh continued. “That is not happening with our current system. If we have a school board that is made up of qualified individuals, we can increase local control and significantly reduce the amount of time the Legislature spends on education reform and put the power back where it belongs, in the hands of educators.”

“Finally, the voters will have the opportunity to remove the last vestiges of the failed common core standards,” Marsh said. “Like many, I wanted to give common core a chance to work, but it is beyond obvious to anyone paying attention that it has not been a success. Repeal and replacing this failed system with strong standards, put forward by a reasonable school board, will only improve the quality of education for our students and put Alabama back on the right track of making our education system competitive on a national level.”

“I want to thank everybody in the Legislature who supported this bold reform,” Marsh concluded. “Change is never easy, yet members of the House and the Senate supported this legislation regardless of political party, economic status, race or gender. Every member of the Legislature who voted for this showed that they believe our children and their education come first, and I thank them all for their support. I also want to thank Gov. Ivey. As I have stated in the past, there is nobody else in the state who could have built such a broad coalition of support. I truly believe that this is a watershed moment for education in Alabama, and I thank her for her leadership.”

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SB397 was carried in the House of Representatives by State Rep. Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa.

Poole is also the chairman of the House Ways and Means Education Committee, which writes the education budget along with the Senate and the governor. The state education trust fund budget that was passed on Friday is the largest in state history.

Poole said money alone will not solve the problems in Alabama’s schools.

“The status quo is not working,” Poole said. “This legislation gives the voters the choice to make a course change in the direction of education in Alabama.”

The voters will decide whether they want to replace the State Board of Education and the Common Core standards on March 3.

Friday was the last day of the 2019 Alabama Legislative Session.

Brandon Moseley is a senior reporter with eight and a half years at Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at bmos[email protected] or follow him on Facebook. Brandon is a native of Moody, Alabama, a graduate of Auburn University, and a seventh generation Alabamian.

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SPLC files complaints in Pike County over suspension of two Black students

Both complaints, filed in Pike County Juvenile Court, ask the court to reverse suspensions of RaQuan Martin and Dakarai Pelton, both Black and former students at Goshen High School. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The Southern Poverty Law Center on Wednesday filed two complaints with an Alabama juvenile court alleging the Pike County Board of Education arbitrarily suspended two students in violation of their due process rights under the U.S. Constitution. 

“Students across Alabama continue to be excluded from school without regard for their due process rights, leading to unwarranted and unlawful suspensions and expulsions,” said Michael Tafelski, senior supervising attorney for the SPLC’s children’s rights project, in a statement. 

“This is particularly troubling for Black students who are three times more likely to be excluded from school for minor and subjective infractions than their white peers. Education is an important aspect of a young person’s life and the decision to exclude them from school should not be taken lightly,” Tafelski continued. 

Both complaints, filed in Pike County Juvenile Court, ask the court to reverse suspensions of RaQuan Martin and Dakarai Pelton, both Black and former students at Goshen High School. 

The complaints state that on Nov. 22, 2019, both students were approached by the school’s principal “in connection with alleged rumors that a group of students had ‘smoked’ that same day in the parking lot at school.” The principal alleged he had video security footage of them doing so, but wouldn’t show the students the footage, according to the complaints. 

Both boys told the principal that they had not used marijuana, but had both accompanied another student to their car in the parking lot, and both left when the other student showed them what appeared to be drug paraphernalia.

“The students, both seniors at the time, denied the allegations and even took drug tests that showed they had no drugs in their system that day. But the school refused to consider this evidence,” the SPLC said in a press release. 

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The complaints state that the district failed to provide the students proper notice, including details about their charges, evidence of wrongdoing, a meaningful opportunity to be heard or to present evidence of their own and question witnesses during their hearings. 

“Only you know what did or didn’t happen in that vehicle … you dodged a bullet here because we didn’t have the proof that we need,” said one school board member to one of the students during his hearing, according to the complaint. 

“There was no proper investigation at all,” said Shatarra Pelton, Dakarai’s mother, in a statement. “It was unorganized and overblown. The school was unable to produce any evidence other than hearsay.” 

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After a brief hearing, both seniors were suspended for the rest of the school year, missing out on a chance to finish their high school athletics and potentially missing out on college football scholarships as a result, the complaints state. 

Prior to their suspensions, both students had no disciplinary referrals and were making good grades, according to the complaints. 

“On Jan. 13, the students appealed the Council’s decision to the Pike County Board of Education, and the board agreed to consider allowing the students to return to GHS if they participated in drug treatment classes, passed urine and hair follicle drug tests and maintained perfect attendance at the alternative school. After completing all the requirements, the students returned to school on Feb. 21 – three months after their removal,” the SPLC said in the release. 

“He had a rough senior year, to say the least,” said Tasha Martin, RaQuan’s mother, in a statement. “He missed senior night, he missed everything.” 

“They didn’t get to play not one game,” Martin said. “They had some coaches visit them while they were in alternative school but when the coaches found out that they couldn’t go back to school, they stopped coming. Our families were devastated; sometimes me and Ms. Pelton would be on the phone and just cry to each other. It has been really tough.”  

“I want schools to understand that it’s not just a moment you’re ruining, you’re ruining a lifetime,” Pelton said. “With no factual basis, only an unproven accusation, you have just completely deterred a student’s life. Most schools say that they are there for their students, but you are showing them the total opposite.”

Pike County Schools during the 2019-2020 school year referred 49 students to a disciplinary hearing, according to the SPLC. Of those, 48 students were either suspended or expelled, and although Black students made up less than 50 percent of the student population, Black students made up 80 percent of the referrals.  On average, Black students make up 77 percent of all students referred for disciplinary hearings in the district, according to the SPLC.

Both complaints can be read here and here.

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Education

Report: Alabama is fourth-least politically engaged state in 2020

The study scored states based on 11 key indicators of political engagement. Those included things like voter turnout, political donations and voter accessibility policies.

Micah Danney

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Alabama was ranked fourth from last in political engagement in the country in 2020 in an analysis done by the personal finance website WalletHub.

The study scored states based on 11 key indicators of political engagement. Those included things like voter turnout, political donations and voter accessibility policies.

A record 137.5 million Americans voted in the 2016 presidential election, but that only accounts for 61.4 percent of citizens who are old enough to vote. The U.S. ranks 26 in voter turnout among the world’s 35 developed nations. 

“That’s no surprise, considering most states don’t emphasize civic education in their schools,” the report points out. “Large proportions of the public fail even simple knowledge tests such as knowing whether one’s state requires identification in order to vote.”

One of the study’s metrics where Alabama scored lowest was the percentage of the electorate that voted in the 2016 election, which was 57.4 percent. That number is low, said Jill Gonzalez, a WalletHub analyst, and is 4.5 percent lower than it was in the 2012 presidential election.

She said that other factors responsible for the state’s low rank were its preparedness for voting in a pandemic and the low percentage of residents who participate in local groups or organizations.

The report’s assessment of the state’s preparedness for voting in a pandemic included voting accessibility metrics.

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“Alabama actually received a negative score here because of the unnecessary obstacles created for voter access, such as: voters need a notary or two witnesses to complete an absentee ballot, voters are required to provide a copy of a photo ID for the mail application and/or ballot, and mail ballots are due before close of polling,” Gonzalez said in an email.

She said that states ranked at the top of the list, like first-place Maine, have higher engagement due to measures taken by state legislatures. 

“Making it easy for people to vote increases engagement,” Gonzalez said. “This can be done through things like automatic voter registration, early voting, or voting by mail. The existence of local civic organizations involved in voter mobilization also plays a part in this.”

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A federal judge ordered Alabama on Sept. 30 to do away with its witnesses or notary requirement for mail-in ballots, and to allow curbside voting for the Nov. 3 election. An appeals court reversed the former ruling on Tuesday, a decision which Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill applauded. It upheld the latter decision, about which Merrill said, “we intend to appeal to the Supreme Court to see that this fraudulent practice is banned in Alabama, as it is not currently allowed by state law.”

Metrics where Alabama ranked below average, with a score of one being best and 25 being average, were as follows:

  • 26th in percentage of registered voters in the 2016 presidential election
  • 35th in voter accessibility policies
  • 37th in percentage of the electorate who voted in the 2018 midterm elections
  • 38th in total political contributions per adult population
  • 42nd in percentage of the electorate who voted in the 2016 presidential election
  • 45th is the change in the percentage of the electorate who actually voted in the 2016 elections versus the 2012 elections

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Education

ASU strips Bibb Graves name from campus building

Workers removed the name of Bibb Graves, a former Alabama governor, from a campus residence hall that also houses the historically Black college’s famed bell tower. 

Josh Moon

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(ASU)

A few months ago, Alabama State University president Quinton Ross promised to remove the names of those with ties to white supremacy or who supported racist causes from campus buildings. 

A former KKK leader was the first to go. 

Workers removed the name of Bibb Graves, a former Alabama governor, from a campus residence hall that also houses the historically Black college’s famed bell tower. 

“This is something that we have planned to do for several months,” said Ross. “I established a committee to research the names that are on our buildings to determine those who were closely associated with racist organizations, such as the Ku Klux Klan. Bibb Graves was a Klan leader at one point, so the decision was made to remove his name from the building.”

The committee was led by Dr. Janice Franklin and university archivist Dr. Howard Robinson. Removal of Graves’ name was unanimously approved by the ASU board of trustees. 

Removing Graves, who was elected governor of Alabama on the strength of his support from the KKK, was a popular decision on campus and among alumni. Getting his name off the building had been a topic of discussion for decades. 

Ross said the university will now begin the process of choosing a new name for the bell tower building. 

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“I am proud that we are able to make this happen during my tenure as president of the university,” Ross said.

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Education

“Worst fear come true:” Two Alabama public school teachers lose parents to COVID-19

Two Alabama high school teachers tell APR about losing loved ones and the struggles they’ve had with school districts they say didn’t do enough to protect them, their students or their families from the deadly disease.

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

She couldn’t taste the M&Ms. The Alabama high teacher said she tested positive for COVID-19 three weeks after classes started, and days later her elderly mother, whom she was caring for, did, too.

“Her oxygen level decreased and she developed pneumonia,” the teacher said. She spoke to APR on the condition that her name not be used, nor her county school district identified, as she’s not yet able to retire. 

Her mother died in late September from COVID-19, and she lives with the knowledge that she believes she got coronavirus at her school and passed it on to her mother. 

It’s one of two stories from Alabama high school teachers who spoke to APR this week about losing a loved one and the struggles they’ve had with school districts they say didn’t do enough to protect them, their students or their loved ones from the deadly disease. 

“I have taken every precaution I possibly could personally, but I feel like my school system let me down as far as not having adequate PPE, not performing adequate cleaning rotations or having proper cleaning supplies,” the teacher said. “Anything that got cleaned in my room I cleaned myself, and I even bought some of my own supplies because we didn’t have any.” 

There’s no social distancing among students during breaks or a lunch, she said, describing kids as “sitting on top of each other without their masks.” It was a maskless culture in her community to begin with, she said, and it has continued after school restarted. 

“Something’s got to change,” she said. 

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She told APR that she understands the scientific data, which shows children are less susceptible to severe outcomes and death from COVID-19, but explained that that doesn’t tell the whole story. 

“You’ve got to consider the people that are in charge of those kids on a daily basis, and are teaching them, that we’re taking that home,” the teacher said. “We’re considered essential workers, but we’re not treated as such.” 

According to an Oct. 2 CDC report, between March 1 and Sept. 19, there were 277,285 confirmed COVID-19 cases among school-aged children in the U.S., and nearly twice as many 12- to 17-year-olds had the disease compared to their younger counterparts. Children, even when asymptomatic, can still transmit coronavirus to others. 

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A separate CDC study in September found that 12 children at three Salt Lake City, Utah, child care centers got COVID-19 in those centers, then spread it to 12 other family members, with one infected parent having to be hospitalized.  

She said teachers weren’t invited in on reopening discussions until two days before the school board’s meeting to vote on the matter, and that despite a promise from the county’s Emergency Management Agency director that teachers would receive training on protective measures, that training hasn’t taken place. 

In late July, school administrators held a video conference meeting with teachers interested in instructing virtually in a plan that would use the state’s Schoology learning system and SchoolsPLP curriculum, she said. 

“Of course, I was part of that, because I had emailed supervisors early on saying, ‘Hey, I’m high risk myself. I take care of elderly high risk parents. If there’s any way that I can teach virtually, have my name on that list,’” she said. “So they kind of gave me the, ‘Well, we don’t really know exactly what direction we’re going in.’” 

In the meeting, teachers were told they’d be paid $75 per student for the entire semester to teach virtually, but that they could not contact those students during school hours, which they considered to be like double-dipping, she said. 

“Even during our planning time right on school campus, so it had to be after hours,” she said. “We just weren’t willing to do that for the amount of money, because we all kind of added up the hours and it was not even minimum wage.” 

When no teachers agreed to such low pay, the system decided to switch from using the state’s learning management system and curriculum to an easier online curriculum called Edgenuity, she said, which was already being used during summer school. 

Instead of paying some teachers to instruct those virtual students, the system required each school’s assistant principal to instruct all of those virtual students, she said, which left vulnerable teachers, and those caring for sick family members like herself, no choice but to teach class in person. 

“So that didn’t even become an option,” she said. 

“We were told that we were getting all this cleaning equipment, and we were using COVID money to pay for extra custodians to come in and help clean the schools,” she said. “And as early as the day before school started we had no cleaning supplies. They had to scramble around just find Clorox wipes and Lysol, which is hard to find anyway.” 

Those extra custodians weren’t hired until last week, she said. Her school started back with in-person, five-day weeks, or virtual learning, on Aug. 19, yet there was no plan to leave a day of the week open for cleaning, she said.  

“So teachers were upset. Concerned about that, because we were feeling like we weren’t being treated like professionals,” she said. “Nobody was communicating. The answer to most questions, even in the first several days of school, was, ‘Well, we don’t know.’ We’re starting school and the plan was ‘there is no plan.’” 

The board of education did allot some money for teachers to select cleaning supplies from a company the system buys from. Three weeks after school started, she received some supplies, but not exactly what she’d ordered. Other teachers tried to hunt down supplies online, but had little luck at the time, when cleaning supplies were in short supply nationwide. 

It was about that time that she tossed several M&M’s into her mouth and couldn’t taste them. She couldn’t smell a candle nearby either. A family member spotted the loss of taste and smell as symptoms of coronavirus and suggested she get tested. 

She tested positive and was sent home to quarantine, but said that although the CDC guidelines call for a classroom to be deep cleaned after a teacher tests positive for COVID-19, the next day her school held ACT tests in her classroom without doing that deep cleaning. 

“They sprayed some Lysol and wiped down desks, but it didn’t get a deep clean,” she said. 

Other schools in her district have had COVID-19 outbreaks, and more than a quarter of her students that attend class in person have either tested positive for coronavirus or were quarantined because of exposure to someone who has, she said. 

The teacher said before either contracted COVID-19 her  mother bought her two large air purifiers “out of her own pocket because she knew the risk was great with my returning to face-to-face classroom instruction.” 

No Choice 

The other Alabama high school teacher who spoke to APR this week also asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation for speaking about her concerns. 

“At our school, we have had so many of our kids have it, and so many of our football players have it,” she said of confirmed cases of COVID-19.

Her father was in his early 80s and she was his only caregiver, having lost her mother years before, she said. 

“So I’ve tried to limit my contact with him as much as possible since we started back to school,” she said. 

Recently, she began having headaches and became concerned, she said. 

“I couldn’t shake my headache. It just wouldn’t go away, and we had all these kids that had COVID at my school,” she said. 

She went for a COVID-19 test on Friday and got the call on Monday that she had tested positive. Two days later her father developed a fever and also tested positive for the coronavirus. 

His fever had come down, but one day she couldn’t get him on the phone. He was found that day, lying on the kitchen floor, she said. 

“I started CPR on him, she said. “I thought maybe I got something but I didn’t. It was just me doing the breathe.” 

“He’s my only person. He’s it. For four years now I’ve tried my very best to take such good care of him,” she said. 

She hadn’t seen him for a week before he got sick, but she suspects she gave it to him before then, when she may have been asymptomatic. 

“I had no choice about it. No choice whatsoever,” she said of having to work in person. 

She’s expressed her concern to the Alabama Education Association about how her school was mishandling the dangers of COVID-19 before she came down with the illness and before her father died, and said the school isn’t following its own guidance. 

“They’ve let parents into the building. They’ve let outside visitors in the building. They let a group take a field trip, even though it was in their plan that they could not,” she said.

Her attempt before school started to warn an administrator about how class schedules would overcrowd classrooms was dismissed outright, she said. 

Numerous people who work in the poorly ventilated administrative offices at her school have contracted COVID-19, she said. 

“Because we have no ventilation in our offices. It’s just like a nursing home,” she said, adding that those offices have windows but the windows can’t be opened. 

She struggled several times during the interview when discussing the loss of her father, and described the entire ordeal as her “worst fear come true.”  

“This is just so shocking. I mean, I just still can’t believe it,” she said. “I’m just heartbroken.” 

“Do the best you can”

A teacher at a Shelby County high school told APR recently that teachers are buying their own safety equipment, and described the community as fighting against keeping their own children and families safe. 

She also asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation for speaking openly about what’s happening in her school.  

“The administration said, ‘You’re not going to be able to keep six feet of distance. This is not going to happen. Period. Do the best you can, but we understand that’s not going to happen,’” she said. 

“There are teachers who have shower curtains hung up all in their rooms. There are teachers who are spending their own money to buy HEPA air filters,” the teacher said. “We’re just kind of left on our own to figure out a way to protect ourselves.” 

The teacher said at first, if a student was found to be positive for COVID-19 and quarantined, custodial staff would do a deep cleaning of that classroom, but that practice, too, has since fallen by the wayside.

Prior to Sept. 29, Shelby County Schools weren’t publishing information on the number of confirmed cases among students or staff, and that was a big point of contention for teachers, she said.

Since they have begun publishing those numbers on the district’s website, teachers are still unsure about their veracity, she said, adding that it was unclear if virtual students are included in the numbers, which would drive down the positivity rate listed in the data and not give a good glimpse as to what’s happening in physical classrooms. 

The teacher said also troubling is how parents of many students are handling COVID-19 in schools, with many pressuring one-another not to report positive COVID-19 test results to the school, so as not to cause other students to miss class and extracurricular activities due to quarantining. 

“So there’s pressure in the community to not report. They don’t care. They don’t think it’s gonna hurt them. They don’t think it’s gonna hurt their children,” she said. 

The teacher said just about every teacher she’s spoken to has had a student who is out of class for a period of time “and then of course we all think, okay so they didn’t report. So they just went home and got better and didn’t report, and I don’t necessarily blame them, because of the pressure.” 

Cindy Warner, a spokesperson for Shelby County Schools, in a response Tuesday to APR regarding the teachers concerns, said that the district includes virtual students in the COVID-19 testing data because many of them come to campus for extracurricular activities including athletics and have contact with other students and faculty. 

Warner said the COVID-19 data isn’t broken down by school “as the district maintains the responsibility to uphold FERPA rights of students and ADA protections for employees” and doing so would increase the risk that a student or teacher could be identified. 

Speaking to the teacher’s concerns about a lack of social distancing, Warner said teachers have been instructed to try to create as much space as possible between them and the students, while also providing quality instruction. 

Maintaining social distancing in the school became harder, Warner said, when the district transitioned on Sept. 14 from a staggered two-day week to a full five-day week. 

“Teachers have not been asked to spend personal money for PPE or supplies for their classrooms, however, they may have voluntarily chosen to do so,” Warner said. “The district has a Concerns Protocol established through our Human Resources Department. This process provides a way for employees to discuss any COVID-19 related concerns. The district has provided appropriate accommodations to address employee concerns, including the purchase of many HEPA air filters for teachers/staff across the district.” 

On cleaning, Warner said enhanced cleaning is done throughout the day, and a deep cleaning is done on Wednesday and Fridays after school. 

Asked about the teacher’s statements about parents pressuring one another to keep positive COVID-19 test results to themselves, Warner said the district and school is unaware of that. 

A protest

On Tuesday, the first day of in-person learning across Montgomery Public Schools, 168 teachers didn’t report to class, and about 60 protested outside the Montgomery Public Schools central office, WSFA 12 News reported

“We do not have a concrete plan. We have an outline but then we have to fill it in. How in the world am I going to sit at my desk and teach kids online and teach a classroom full of students?” one teacher said during the protest, according to the news station. 

In a statement Tuesday, the Alabama Education Association said the association has made great efforts to make sure both students and educators are as safe as possible in their classrooms and schools.

“AEA is aware of the frustration many educators have regarding their health and safety – and although today’s protest was not spearheaded by AEA, the association is focused on the safety of all education employees in Montgomery County as they return to work,” AEA’s statement continues.

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