Let me show my age again. Some of us recall in a faraway time of black and white TV when John Cameron Swayze touted the durability of Timex watches. He put them on the blade of a motor boat engine, spun them underwater at 4,500 RPM and then showed us that the watch was still running.
“It takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’,” we were told.
So when I read Josh Moon’s report on The Alabama Political Reporter site about how taxpayers paid thousands of dollars to the Balch & Bingham law firm for their involvement in the “Sentence case,” I thought back to John Cameron Swayze and the fact that the most dreadful hire of a state school chief Alabama has ever had just “keeps on tickin’.”
You can see the entire article here.
Here are excerpts that caught my attention:
“Balch & Bingham attorneys, the records show, also drove to Montgomery and to “coach” both Dean and school board member Mary Scott Hunter before they answered questions from a legislative committee that was investigating the superintendent search process.
Asked about the use of Balch & Bingham attorneys for tasks that appear to be either so mundane that the ALSDE counsel should handle them or that are of a personal nature and outside of the scope of their daily job duties, an ALSDE spokesman declined to answer the specific questions and instead focused on the fact that the information had become public.
Jefferson County superintendent Craig Pouncey, who was considered the frontrunner for the job, has filed a lawsuit against Hunter and others at the state department for concocting and carrying out a scheme to prevent him from landing the job. A Montgomery judge last month dismissed all but Hunter and another ALSDE lawyer from the suit, including Dean.
Pouncey filed his lawsuit in Feb. 2016 and it was announced after that date that because of the legal action, ALSDE would be on the hook for private attorneys to represent Dean, Hunter and two other ALSDE attorneys, James Ward and Susan Crowther.
But the records obtained by APR show that Balch & Bingham attorneys had long been providing legal guidance to the four.
The bills also include several charges related to legal guidance for Hunter, which is, at best, a gray area. School board members clamored for months about hiring an attorney that would represent the board, and ultimately last year moved forward with hiring Lewis Gillis. Prior to that hire, however, it was the policy of the board that it was represented in all legal matters, unless the board took specific action otherwise, by Dean.
But on Nov. 1, 2016, the billing records show a $146.25 charge for a “talk” between Dorman Walker and Hunter about “her prospective testimony before the (legislative) committee.” There was another talk with Hunter on Nov. 8., and a conference on Nov. 9. The related charges totaled $1,170.”
Balch & Bingham is an excellent law firm. I know a number of attorneys who work for them. But to me, the real issue is not so much about the firm involved, as it is about why taxpayers had to foot the bill to “coach” people to go before a legislative committee to answer questions? Both Hunter and Dean are attorneys themselves. Why did they have to be prepped?
There are eight elected members of the state board of education, including Hunter. All eight testified before the legislative committee. Why was Hunter the only board member who got special treatment in this instance?
And remember, this was months before Pouncey filed his lawsuit naming both Hunter and Dean.
As pointed out above, while Dean has been dismissed from the legal action, Hunter has not. Which brings us to a very sticky issue. The state board of education is now conducting a search for a new superintendent. They hope to have someone within the next two months.
One of the applicants is Craig Pouncey. If he is a finalist, Hunter will once again sit in judgment, just as she did in 2016 when she voted for four of the six finalists–but never for Pouncey. How “fair and impartial” will she be with the law suit hanging over her head?
The honorable thing for her to do is to recuse herself from the search process. We know the process in 2016 was tainted. The last thing we need is to give the appearance of doing it again.
By and large the legislature passes laws and seldom looks back to see what impact they are having. Which seems a HUGE mistake to me. The Alabama Accountability Act passed in 2013 being a prime example.
So from time to time I visit the Alabama Department of Revenue web site where they post info about AAA. It’s always an interesting read.
For instance, you find a list current through Feb. 22, 2018 that shows there are now 204 private schools which have signed up to participate in this program that gives vouchers to students to attend private schools. (This does not mean 204 schools have gotten scholarships, just that many have said they would take them.)
The state indicates if these schools are accredited or not. Of the 204, 69 of them are NOT accredited. That’s 33.8 percent. AAA started in 2013 and 12 of the non-accredited schools have been that way since 2013. One has to ask why we allow this to happen? Why are we diverting money from the Education Trust Fund that may go to a school that has had five years to become accredited, but hasn’t? Is this really looking out for the best interest of the young folks of this state?
For instance, the Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund, one of the state’s scholarship granting organizations (SGO), reported that at the end of 2017, they had students at 114 private schools. By my count, 166 of these scholarships are at 27 non-accredited schools.
The Department of Revenue keeps track of how much money is given to SGOs each year. From 2013 through 2017, the total amount is $116,617,919.
Remember that each one of these dollars gets a one for one tax credit from the state. Which means we have now diverted $116 million from the Education Trust Fund for private school scholarships.
Today there are 396,711 elementary students (K-6) in Alabama. So over the past five years we have diverted $294 from ETF for each one of these students. That is $7,000 per elementary classroom.
I visit a lot of elementary schools. I see a lot of classrooms. I don’t know a single elementary teacher who would not have jumped at the chance to have an extra $7,000 for her classroom since 2013.
In this legislative election year, we need to let every candidate, incumbents and challengers alike, know what is going on.
It’s no secret that the last few years have been a challenge for Alabama public education. Certainly we have had legislation passed that has not been helpful.
The best such examples are a bill passed in 2012 requiring that all schools receive a letter grade of A-F and a bill passed in 2013 that allows money to be diverted from the Education Trust Fund to give scholarships to private schools. This is the Alabama Accountability Act.
The A-F report card grades were made public recently.
Educators from one end of the state to the other have denounced this bill. Four local school boards passed resolutions of “no confidence” in the legislation.
A survey of superintendents shows they think the report cards are basically worthless and of no value. The Alabama Accountability Act also requires that we label “failing. schools.” Each January we release a list of what are supposed to be the bottom six percent of all schools for this list. This year there are 75 such schools.
In the last five years AAA has diverted $116 million dollars from the trust fund..
Look at it this way.
There are 396,711 elementary students in Alabama. In five years we have diverted $294 from ETF for each one of these students.. This is $7,000 per classroom. How many elementary teachers could have used $7,000?
But here is the good news. This is an election year and there will be a lot of turnover in both the House and Senate. Because so many legislators are retiring, by my count, this time next year we will have at least 26 new House members and 11 new senators. That is 25 percent of the House and 30 percent of the Senate. That is HUGE.
So this is a tremendous opportunity for education to make new friends and we need to start now.
There are 50 Republicans and 38 Democrats running for vacant House seats. Twenty Republicans, 15 Democrats and one Independent are running for the 11 open Senate seats.
Educators and the groups representing them should be all over these candidates, explaining the details of both A-F report cards and the Alabama Accountability Act. We don’t need to wait until people are elected to try to educate them. We need to do it NOW. Education should be holding meetings with candidates for these open seats all over Alabama.
This means local school boards, the Council for Leaders of Alabama Schools (CLAS), superintendent groups, retired educators, the Alabama Education Association, PTAs and just folks concerned about our schools. Find out what House and Senate seats are open in your area, find out who the various candidates are, then invite them to attend a meeting to discuss education. Hand out fact sheets about A-F and AAA. Ask them to support repealing both of these bills.
As a layperson, I have been frustrated time after time at the reluctance of educators to tell their story. As we see, being REACTIVE has not worked well in the recent past. IT IS TIME TO BE PROACTIVE.
I will be glad to help any way I can.
Give each of them a fact sheet on these issues—as well as others you are interested in. Then ask them where they stand. Will they work to repeal the A-F report card law? Will they work to repeal the Alabama Accountability Act?
Make this a community wide meeting. Have it in the early evening after school is out so teachers and parents can attend.
Let Ryan Hollingsworth and Keith Davis explain why they think A-F report cards are worthless.
Each of you poured your heart and soul into our public schools for many years. You gave the best years of your life to our young people.
Yet today we have people who seem intent on tearing down everything you worked to build.
It is time for education to be PROACTIVE instead of REACTIVE. We have got to tell our story and make friends before they ever set foot in the statehouse.
I think what I have just suggested is a good start at doing this.
Each year the national organization, Rural Schools Collaborative runs a small grant program for rural teachers. (I serve on their board.) And it’s time for teachers to make application.
We have awarded 15 grants in the last few years. While they are usually not larger than $1,000, I have visited a number of the recipients and been quite impressed with how they used their funding. Projects have ranged from outdoor gardens to archeological digs to community histories.
RSC has forged a close relationship with the good folks at the University of West Alabama and their Black Belt Teacher Corps effort and this year grants will be restricted to teachers primarily in the Black Belt region.
The following counties are eligible: Barbour, Bullock, Butler, Choctaw, Clarke, Crenshaw, Dallas, Greene, Hale, Lowndes, Macon, Marengo, Montgomery, Perry, Pickens, Pike, Russell, Sumter and Wilcox.
Recipients will be expected to attend one day of the University of West Alabama’s Digging into Rural Traditions Conference Sept. 17-18. RSC will work with school systems on substitute teacher fees in needed.
For more info on this program and directions as to how to apply, go here.
My jaw dropped recently when I heard someone from the Alabama State Department of Education say that local school systems are using the A-F school report cards to identify strengths and weaknesses.
Wow. I have just surveyed dozens of school system superintendents from one end of the state to the other–and THAT is not what they told me.
Among the questions I asked was: At the end of the day, have these report cards been of benefit to your system in any way?
Here is a sampling of what they told me: “I see no benefit to our school system.” “Not in the least.” “Zero.” “No benefit.” “Not even slightly.” “I can’t see much benefit.” “No benefit at all.” “The report card has further tainted our public perception and has not been helpful.” “Little to none.” “Absolutely none at all.” “Considering the demoralizing effect on individuals who have done a yeoman’s job in the past, this report card is not good for our system or the state.”
I also wanted to know, What was reaction in your community? Or did anyone pay any attention?
The consensus was that hardly anyone noticed. Here are some responses: “Had no reaction.” “Parents and those who support public education were concerned that report cards did not truly depict their schools and their achievements. However, those who oppose public schools used these scores in a negative way.” “Very little attention.” “I had two people ask me about a school grade. One lady at church and one phone call from a local business owner.” “Outside of principals and central office staff, not one single person mentioned the report cards.”
What was reaction from principals and staff in schools that got C, D or F?
“School staffs were dismayed because all work extremely hard. Students were also deeply concerned about lower grades. Even though all recognize that this is an extremely flawed process, everyone wants their school represented with a good grade. The reality is there is no test, no sound measure of progress or anyone at the state department of education who can substantiate this process.” “Our elementary school had a 79 and the principal and staff were heartbroken. Growth and attendance were great, but when you have 200 students who don’t speak English fluently, achievement is nearly impossible.to achieve at the same level of schools without this situation.”
“Most principals and staff were very upset with a C because most of what happens at school is not even considered when the report card grade is issued.” “Principals and staff felt very overwhelmed and disappointed.” “Frustration because of the way the score was calculated and because they see every day what is taking place in their school and what kids are dealing with” “The principal whose school got a D was very disappointed. Her school is in a community with very high poverty, but it is a good school and a negative grade like this does nothing but drive people away”
“Many principals feel they are being portrayed as incompetent. They know they are doing the best they can with the resources they have. One said that if he had 25 years of service, he would retire and leave education.”
I also asked, Should this law be repealed?
As you can imagine, this got a resounding “YES.” Only one superintendent suggested that the process be amended to be more comprehensive.
Some samples: “This law is intended to privatize public education and further segregate our society.” “ABSOLUTELY, it should have never been passed.” “This report card is a very shortsighted attempt to label schools, not improve them.”
A-F was terrible legislation when passed in 2012. Everyone in education knew it. But as is too often the case, no one listened to people who actually understand what is taking places in our schools.
Now we have proof it was terrible.
So do we do what is best for our students and all who work diligently to guide them each day, admit our mistake, and correct it? Or do we cling desperately to false assumptions simply because some politicians put their own pride above the welfare of our children?
That choice is so clear there is no need for debate.