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Ella Bell, longtime state school board member, has died

Josh Moon

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Ella Bell, a fixture on the State School Board and champion for public education in Alabama, passed away on Sunday. She was 71. 

Bell served on the School Board for 18 years, often making herself a thorn in the side of any state lawmaker or State Department of Education bureaucrat who she suspected of toying with education budgets or being unfair to students — particularly poor and minority students. 

“The ALSDE is shocked and saddened by the passing of an education icon,” said state superintendent Eric Mackey in a state statement on Sunday. “Bell dedicated her life to the betterment of the students of Alabama. Her tenacity and steadfast resolve in fighting for equity for all students will be her legacy always. Her presence on the Alabama State Board of Education will be sorely missed.”

While Bell suffered from various health issues over the last few years, her ailments rarely affected her work on the school board and they never seemed to dampen her spirits. Her measured words and gravely voice would, at times, bring a state school board meeting to a halt, as she cut to the heart of an issue. 

She was both direct, and at times, laugh-out-loud funny. 

“I detest people who try to tell me that resources in education don’t matter,” Bell once said during a school board meeting in 2013. “If that’s true, let’s all go and tell Nick Saban to give back the money.”

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Bell never failed to get her point across, and she never backed away when she thought she was right. She has taken on more than one governor, in person, and her lack of support ended the careers of countless state department of education officials, including at least one superintendent. 

In 2015, Bell ran for mayor of Montgomery. While she didn’t come close to winning, she approached the race the same way she approached everything else — without nonsense. During a debate in that race, when discussing the topic of poor citizens in the city being locked up indefinitely for being unable to pay fines — an issue that landed Montgomery leaders on the bad end of a federal court ruling — Bell cut straight to the injustice: “You’d be better off to shoot someone in Smiley Court (housing projects). You’d get a bond for that.”

It was the children, though, who drove Bell. Particularly the students Bell felt were getting less than their fair share of education dollars and far less than their share of a decent education. 

She complained often and loudly about the “sorry state” of Montgomery’s public schools, and of the way the inadequacies of the district were forever limiting the poor children who attended those schools. She railed against waste and misuse, but saved her harshest criticisms for those who knowingly withheld resources from the kids who needed them the most. 

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“The schools in Montgomery haven’t ever been equal, and we all know why that is,” Bell said following a contentious press conference to announce the state was taking over Montgomery’s schools. “A lot of people in Montgomery are perfectly happy seeing poor little black children get less. I’m not one of them. And this is the only way I know how to stop it.”

That was indicative of her time on the school board — almost all of it devoted to figuring out ways to get more dollars and resources to the kids in the poorest schools in her district. The rest was spent shaming those who allowed the inequality in the first place.  

“I’ll be in prayer for the family of State Board of Education member, Ella Bell,” Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said in a statement. “We shared a passion for the children of our state. She was an ardent champion of her district and will be missed. May the Lord be with her family and friends during this time.”

Bell’s fighting spirit didn’t come by chance. She grew up in Montgomery during the height of the Civil Rights Movement and she was deeply involved. She marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma and she was a plaintiff in one of the early civil rights lawsuits. 

Bell went on to graduate from Tuskegee University and later received her masters from Alabama State University. She was a 1965 graduate of St. Jude High School.

 

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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