A Closer Look at Baldwin County and the Matt Brown Blunder

Governor Bentley stunned Alabama educators with his July 16 announcement that he was appointing 28 year old Matt Brown of Fairhope to replace Al Thompson on the state board of education. The fact that he never attended public schools, has said his children will not attend them and has no known involvement of supporting public schools was like setting a match to dry kindling. Within two days of posting an article on this blog about the appointment I had 20,000 “hits.”

The reaction was loudest in Baldwin County, where Brown is from. And it is yet to die down along the coast. This is hardly a surprise since Brown was the face of an active effort last March to defeat a school tax vote. The campaign preceding the vote was contentious and divisive.  Supporters of the measure felt that Brown and his followers were less than honest and forthright with their information.  The Secretary of State’s office said the Brown troops were in violation of the Fair Campaign Practices Act.

Whereas losing candidates for office may lick their wounds for a spell after election day, then go about their business, mothers who feel that someone took aim at their child’s education hold grudges much, much longer.

The governor was aware of this. People told the governor’s staff that Brown carried too much baggage and should not be appointed. Obviously this advice was ignored.

While many places in Alabama are just treading water, not Baldwin County. It had slightly less than 100,000 population in 1990. That has now doubled. The growth is putting extreme pressure on its school system where enrollment has jumped 25 percent in the last 10 years. The Foley feeder pattern has increased 36 percent, Gulf Shores 40 percent and Spanish Fort 71 percent in nine years.

To see what this means, drive around the county. According to figures from the state department of education, Baldwin County has more portable classrooms than all but Mobile County–which has nearly twice as many students. More than Jefferson County, more than Birmingham, more than Montgomery or Huntsville.

And another 17 were added this summer. At Gulf Shores Elementary, the school parking lot is now filled with portable classrooms. Portables that cost more to heat and cool than conventional classrooms.

Most school systems rent portables for $400-$450 per month. Baldwin County does as well–where possible. But because of concern about high winds, the system must buy all portables used south of U.S. Highway 98. These cost $35,000 each. Those built to withstand high winds cannot be rented. Nearly 25 percent of all students go to school south of Highway 98.

As a rule, portables are used eight to ten years. They have no resale value. Most educators consider expenditures for portables as simply “money down a black hole.”

But Matt Brown worked hard to make sure the county school system did not have adequate resources to handle this growth.

It’s hardly any surprise that all the governor’s appointment really did was knock the scab off a wound yet to heal.

And now the governor expects the same educators who Brown said went around the county putting on a “dog and pony show” to drum up support for the tax vote to embrace him? Ain’t gonna happen.



12 Responses to A Closer Look at Baldwin County and the Matt Brown Blunder

  1. Thought Gov. Don Siegelman outlawed portable classrooms several years ago. If this is the case, how is this legal?
    If I were these parents, I would be camped on the capitol steps.

  2. Larry:
    Appreciate you staying on this topic. Your comments are right on target. I’ve written the Governor and his education adviser with no response from either party.
    Perhaps you could query some of the former holders of this seat (or other State BOE seats) for advice they might offer Mr. Brown? It would be interesting to hear some of their opinions, and listen to the real challenges of the job.
    In any case, please keep on writing as it is refreshing to hear on outsiders view on our situation.

    • Thanks for stopping by. I know all the other seven state board members very well. Have spoken with three of them in the last week about what is necessary to give the job justice. LOTS of time is the common refrain. They all devote many hours to visiting schools in their district, attending events, sitting down with superintendents. For example, last Wednesday there was an event at the Statehouse to recognize the students from Russellville and their accomplishments in rocketry. Their state school board member, Jeff Newman from Lamar County, was there. It is nearly three hours from his home in Millport to Montgomery. He drove down that morning.

      And while speaking to the group at the event, he made the point strongly that Russellville high school and middle school are public, not charter schools or private schools. Had these students been from Atmore or Evergreen, would Matt Brown have driven to Montgomery to attend such an event. And obviously he would not have said anything about charter or private schools since he is already on record, by words and actions, of supporting them.

      Matt Brown has gotten TWO new jobs in the last few days. One with the county pays him $72,000 a year. One with the state pays $18,000 (plus expenses). Both require a tremendous amount of time. Unless he is superhuman, he can not do both at the same time and do them well.

      I do not know Matt Brown. I’m sure he is a fine young man with good intentions. But as I’ve pointed out time and again, this isn’t about him. It’s about the 90,000 students in District 1 who deserve good representation in Montgomery. And it is about the fact that my friends Trip Pittman and Robert Bentley are willing to play politics with school children. In my book, you don’t do that.

  3. Our students in Alabama have never been and never will be of ANY consequence to the governor! He lied to get elected, and all he has done is set Alabama schools back 50 years! It is shameful, and he is a laughing stock from coast to coast. So sad that our kids suffer while he plays political games!!! Our best and brightest teachers are exiting the state in droves if they cannot retire. He will produce exactly the quality of student that will stagger bleakly into a world for which he/she is not prepared. This “governor” has cut, cut, cut, everything from educatuion funding, teacher pay, benefits, and schools have struggled, students and teachers have struggled, yet, he appoints someone who is more ignorant on school issues than he is. God help our kids!!!

  4. Thank you for calling Governor Bentley out on his appointment of 28 year old Matt Brown of Fairhope to replace Al Thompson on the state board of education.

    Another absurd action by a “Leader” of our state. No wonder we re the laughing stock of the Country!

  5. I was educated from 4th-12th grades in Alabama public schools. The public school systems are so grossly underfunded they are merely factories for churning out high school students who are usually not inspired or encouraged to get a degree or a vocation. Having said that, I feel my teachers probably did the very best they could do with what little resources they were provided. The reason the schools are underfunded is there appears to be little positive social and political regard given to supporting education and a strange narrative promoted by particular political elements that denies providing a basic public education is the responsibility of the government to its people.

    There is a more effective way: fully fund the public schools system, resource it appropriately, and don’t implement a voucher system that further segregates and takes public monies from public schools. In this manner, Alabama can improve its economy and brighten its future in doing so, but not by pursuing such mad schemes, like this one.

    The people of Alabama can choose a different way, they must choose to stop listening to those who have miserably failed to demonstrate leadership that is inclusive of all people.

  6. It’s sad to see that Larry and his supporters seem more interested in partisan attacks and holding on to grudges than to act in the best interest of the children who should be the focus of the matter. Instead of reaching out to Mr. Brown, you’ve written a hit piece, knowing nothing of the man. A more mature action to take would have been to reach out and invite him to lunch to seek ways you can work together to the common good of the districts. I wouldn’t respond to a request to answer ‘loaded questions’ in a charged inquiry if I were him, if that’s what transpired. The modern politicized world is too full of partisan acts of that kind and we see it all too often in the ‘media’ today.

    Seems pretty impressive to me that this young man has accomplished a law degree, passing the Bar Exam, and also becoming a Professional Engineer. Apparently, Larry, a self-proclaimed education expert, is not able to recognize the achievement and education needed to accomplish these things- especially by one’s early 20’s. Rather than simply have a knee jerk rejection to someone with a different point of view as it relates to the education system, perhaps you should embrace some fresh perspective and seek ways to use that perspective to better the education system. Don’t try to play ‘gotcha games’ with the situation- engage with each other and work together to improve things.

    • David, appreciate you stopping by as I welcome other views. However, this is classic if you don’t like the message then go after the messenger. partisan attacks? Please explain?

      And yes, children should be the focus as I’ve stated many times. There are 90,000 students in 10 school systems in District 1. Should they have someone representing them in Montgomery on the state school board who has demonstrated they have a passion for public schools and have always supported them-or someone who has not?

      Written a “hit” piece? Please show it to me.

      “Loaded” questions? Here are some I emailed to Matt that he told me he would not answer. What is your position in regards to the Alabama College & Career Ready Standards? Have you been in a classroom where ACCR was being used? Are you familiar with the Alabama Accountability Act. Are you familiar with the Rolling Reserve Act? What is your opinion of charter schools? What do you consider to be the biggest issue facing public schools?

      These are critical issues for every educator in Alabama. But he as of yet has not answered any of them.

      And please tell me when and where I proclaimed to be “education expert?”

      I have stated in several writings that Matt Brown seems to be, or has been described as, a fine young man. I applaud him for being both a lawyer and an engineer. But I don’t see how either of these prepare him to be on the SBOE. The education department already has several attorneys on staff and local school boards deal with engineers.

    • Mr. Rhine, what is sad is that a man who has no connection to public education and never went to a public school, was appointed by Governor Bentley to serve in a role that controls public education. It is an insult to every educator in the state. How arrogant to think there was not a person in the district with experience in public education qualified to do the job of state board member.
      How many teachers do you think sit on the Bar or medical boards. I have been in several law offices and doctor’s offices. That should qualify me to be a member of either board. It appears that Mr. Brown’s only qualification is that he has driven past a few public schools in his life
      I am not impressed that Mr. Brown accomplished his study in law and engineering at an early age. I and all of my friends did too. My degree is in mathematics education with 44 years of experience in Alabama and Mississippi. The fact that he has a law degree or engineering degree doesn’t qualify him any more to serve on the state education board than my degree qualifies me to serve on the Bar or medical boards.
      Exposing what is going on in Montgomery is not attacking someone. Mr. Lee, in all of his writing, has not attacked anyone, but informed the public of the rotten politics taking place. I don’t know what you are referring to when you say “grudges”. While I have never met Larry Lee, I have read his writings for a long time and there is no doubt in my mind that he has the best interest of the children and public schools at heart. Many of the issues that confront our schools today are caused by political appointees who have no expertise in education making bad decisions.

  7. Mr. Rhine: It is not partisan to oppose a lousy appointment. Matt Brown is by all accounts a great guy, but that doesn’t mean he is capable and able to represent me and others like me on the state school board. He doesn’t reflect a single attribute that says, “I support public education and the children of Alabama.” Where has he ever stated that he supports public education and children other than his own? I was perfectly alright with the governor’s appointment of (non-educator) Al Thompson before him. Mr. Thompson went to public schools and a public university. He has a great business background that would have contributed greatly to our current funding issues. I see why the governor wanted Mr. Thompson on the new junior college board. Mr. Brown is narrow in his scope and prejudiced against public school. I’m afraid as more and more information comes out, we will see Mr. Brown’s agenda is indeed to pay for his children’s private schooling with taxpayer monies. His engineering concentration is not an engineering degree. The Parent Choice national movement is underway and moving in on its newest victims-Alabama children.

  8. What happens when we focus on moving the bottom up, we inevitably move the top down. We have some of the highest, if not the highest, graduation rates we’ve ever had in the state, but at what cost? We’re still ranking near the bottom of the nation on college ready benchmarks. The goal from a policy standpoint shouldn’t be inflated graduation rates, but higher expectations and making a diploma mean something.

    Mr. Lee, with all due respect if you’re going to create a litmus test, at least make it more meaningful than the graduation exit exam. The Rolling Reserve Act and the Alabama Accountability Act really shouldn’t be included in the same discussion. One has put the ETF on stable footing, while the other provides greater flexibility of choice. I’m sure you’d rather have a policy wonk from an education coalition in lieu of Mr. Brown, but understanding education policy, taxes and finance doesn’t require one to serve in a classroom or be a product of public education. It does require an analytical mind with an understanding of our legal process.

    Having read more bills than I’d like to I can tell you engineers may be socially awkward, but they’re excellent problem solvers. Attorneys may not be the best people to discuss religion or politics with, but they do understand why sunset laws take precedent in the special order calendar, why budget deliberations invariably last until the end of the session, and why a standing senator talks about his child’s tee ball game on the floor of the senate instead of the bill before him.

    Those with a special interest will defend that interest vehemently, but writing off an individual simply because they come from a different background shows a lack of character and narrow mindedness. Political ideology can be rather blinding. Gore Vidal absolutely loathed Bill Buckley, but that didn’t stop the pair from providing some of the most intriguing and pointed public debate the country has ever seen.

  9. Just read your article on Matt Brown. Who should we vote for tomorrow? I value your suggestion. Thanks for all that you do for education.

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