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State Superintendent Mackey addresses concerns about plans for public schools

Josh Moon

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Over the last few days, several public school principals in Alabama — most of them from more rural districts — have spoken with APR about a number of concerns they have about the state’s plan for moving forward with the 2019-2020 school year in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak. 

The principals were not angry or even necessarily critical of the guidance being issued from the Alabama State Department of Education and their local school boards. Instead, they were simply worried about the safety of their staff and faculty, and they were confused, in some cases, about what they can and can’t do to protect themselves and their staff and to provide food and coursework to their students. 

With things moving so quickly in such an unprecedented situation, it probably should be expected that communication isn’t always the best. So, state Superintendent Eric Mackey spoke with APR about the specific concerns of the principals and offered helpful guidance to teachers, principals and superintendents on what he and state leaders expect from them moving forward. 

Q: One of the first questions the principals had was about employees and teachers who have underlying health issues that make them more vulnerable to coronavirus. They’re worried about those staff members coming back to work next week, even in a setting without students. Can anything be done to protect them? 

Mackey: Well, of course. We don’t want anyone who has a health condition like that to be put in danger. I know everybody’s anxious, really scared — some maybe more so than they need to be and others not as much as they should. We have about 10 people in here in the office today. We’re being cautious. Washing hands, wiping down with Clorox wipes. We have some people who need to be more scared about it. One of our vital employees has a heart condition, another is a cancer survivor. We’ve told them not to come in. That’s just how it has to be. They can contribute what they can from home. 

And I suggest that be the case for these schools. If you have an employee with an underlying condition, we need to look at ways for them to contribute — if there’s a concern with everyone pulling their own weight — ways that don’t put them at risk and protects them. Because that is absolutely the first priority. Maybe they can’t come in. But someone needs to be calling parents and making sure they have everything. There are ways to do this.    

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Q: Another concern is the close quarters of the food prep areas for employees working to get lunches out for kids to pick up. 

Mackey: Yeah, that is something that we’ve worked, something we’ve put a lot of thought into and we are concerned about it. But at the end of the day, these things are a balance. It is very important for us to get the meals out to the kids. We know from the response just how important it is. But in doing so, our people have to follow the standards, and being six feet apart is not always practical. What I want people to do is be safe first. Wear gloves and masks and whatever they can to protect themselves and the area around them. 

One thing I’m more concerned about right now is that our cafeteria crews won’t be able to keep up with this pace. It’s one thing to have these folks do this work for two or three weeks. But the same men and women can’t do it forever. They need breaks just like everyone. And as this stretches on, we’re going to have to consider changing people out. You might know already, but a cafeteria worker at one of our schools in north Alabama tested positive for (COVID-19) last week. So far, it doesn’t appear as if any other people were infected. But we closed that school down and stopped the meals from there. As this spreads, it was bound to happen, but it’s another indication of just how cautious we all need to be and how real these concerns are.

Q: Because the schools provide meals to any student who asks for one, some of the schools are running low on meals due to kids from other districts and homeschool kids coming in and getting lunches. Can anything be done to alleviate that situation? 

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Mackey: There should be some help coming on that. We just received our waiver (Wednesday) to start serving meals for pickup at all of our schools, not just the schools in high-poverty areas. So, we’re going to start rotating the schools that serve, maybe do five in a district and rotate them around each week. That plan is still being worked on. 

Q: Teachers and principals are also very concerned about the process of handing out packets, and then having those packets returned to them. Have you heard this from other folks around the state, and what do you tell them? 

Mackey: I’ve gotten quite a few questions about handling packets. Again, a totally understandable concern. We have people doing really innovative things to get packets to students. Some districts are mailing packets if they can afford it — and I understand that is not cheap and I’m not recommending it. Other districts are running a bus route once per week. And we’ve given advice to them on that: Don’t go in the house, keep your safe distance, handle with gloves, use sanitizer as often as possible. And that’s the main advice we’ve given to our superintendents — figure out a way that keeps you and your people safe.  

Q: It seems as if what you’re saying on almost everything is that this is a unique situation and you’re not going to question people who get the job done the best they can and keep people as safe as possible. Accurate? 

Mackey: Absolutely. One of our biggest issues is always communication, and it’s understandable to a degree. I’m telling superintendents and they’re passing that information on to their principals and they’re implementing things with their teachers and staff. We’ve all played that old game, and we know that information just gets twisted sometimes when it goes through several channels. But know this: Safety is always first. If you’re doing something and you don’t feel it’s safe, back out of it, tell your principal you don’t think it’s safe. Hopefully, we can get that resolved at that level, but if need be, take those concerns higher. Don’t do things that you feel are unsafe for you. That’s not what any of us want. 

Q: Is that same level of flexibility there for the actual school work and how principals and teachers get that handled?

Mackey: It is. I had a principal today ask if it was OK if he told his parents that the kids didn’t have to do the work and they’d receive whatever grade they had going into this. But if they did the work, he was giving out bonus points up to 10 full points on the final average. I told him that was absolutely fine. It doesn’t punish the kids because of this situation and it provides them with incentives to continue doing the work and continue learning. And that’s the key here. 

Q: Has there been any thought to altering the way things are done next year — possibly taking a few weeks at the start of the year for review and to get the students back up to speed — and tinkering with the start and end times? 

Mackey: There have been many, many discussions, and they’re still ongoing. I’ve spoken to a number of legislators who have quite a few ideas. At this point, there are basically three main options we’ve discussed. One that I’ve had from legislators is to extend the school year from 180 to 190 days, which would give us 10 extra days, two full weeks at the start to have a review period. And we can absolutely do that, except that costs money. Someone has to pay for that, and a school day in Alabama costs just under $21 million per day. I don’t see us having an extra $210 million at the end of this coronavirus. A second option that legislators have asked about is giving assessments at the start of the year, and working off those. We actually purchased some really great assessment tools last year. And finally, the third option is to compress the school year and take the first three to four weeks and teach what would have been teaching the final month of this school year. We’re still working through those to see what we think is best.

The main thing I want everyone to understand is that this is an unprecedented event that’s taking place. You go into a school year and you expect to deal with things like tornadoes or ice storms that close schools. But not this. We’re all trying to work our way through it and do what’s right for the students. But we also want our teachers and staff and principals to be safe and protect themselves.

 

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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