In the strongest rebuke possible, the Alabama senate told the state school board and state superintendent Eric Mackey, last week that it is time to have an appointed state board, not an elected one. The vote was 30-0. Not a single, solitary soul said they wanted to stick with our present system, which has been in place about 50 years.
And somewhere in the back of the senate chamber Ray Charles must’ve been humming one of his all-time favorites, “Hit the road Jack and don’t you come back no more, no more.”
While some may not have seen this coming, it was only because they didn’t have their finger in the air to check the way the wind was blowing in the statehouse. I know most of the members of our current state board, some much better than others. I have been telling them that no one at the statehouse separates individual board members from the state superintendent and everything that goes on at the state department. Everything is lumped together. That’s just how things work in politics.
Tommy Bice retired as state superintendent March 31, 2016. That was just a few days shy of 50 months ago. It’s been 50 months of turmoil, missteps and uncertainty–just to put it mildly.
Here is what happened in those 50 months: 1) Mike Sentance, 2). Mary Scott Hunter and 3) Eric Mackey. In a nutshell, this is why any senators who may have once supported the state department changed their minds. The fact that NO ONE voted against the bill supports this contention for sure.
Sentence, a Boston attorney with no experience as a teacher, principal or local superintendent was a disaster from day one. He had applied for the Alabama job in 2011 and did not even get an interview. He applied for jobs in at least nine other states without success. But we ignored all of this and on a 5-4 vote brought him to Montgomery. He had no people skills, looked down his nose at Alabama and refused to try and understand why Alabama ain’t Massachusetts.
He was the beginning of the end with the legislature.
Mingled amongst all of this was state board member Mary Scott Hunter from Huntsville,.who was never a team player and will stand trial in Montgomery in August because of her meddling in the selection of Sentance. A joint Senate-House committee held a number of hearings trying to find out what went awry with the selection process and how info turned up at the Ethics Commission. Hunter was the primary focus of this inquiry.
Then in April 2018, again on a 5-4 vote, the board chose Mackey over two other finalists, Kathy Murphy superintendent of the Hoover city system and Craig Pouncey, superintendent of the Jefferson County system. Mackey’s only experience as a superintendent was directing the small (1,700 students ten years ago) Jacksonville city system.
No doubt one of Mackey’s huge missteps was terminating long time education department legislative liaison Tracey Meyer in his first week as superintendent. He said her position was being eliminated. No one believed him because it is critical this department works constantly with legislators. Especially since they handle the Education Trust Fund budget of billions and billions of dollars.
Meyer was in her position for years, was respected by people in the statehouse and had worked with many legislators through a number of sessions. She had tremendous institutional knowledge. To many in the statehouse, her dismissal made no sense.
The state board released their first year evaluation of Mackey at their May 9 board meeting. It left much to be desired. His composite score was only 3.67 on a 5 point scale. Especially revealing was the score of Governor Kay Ivey. Even though she was one of the five votes who picked him to be state superintendent, her composite score for him was only 3.82. She has been a strong supporter of the legislation to go to an appointed board that will select the state superintendent.
The senate bill now goes to the house. There is little doubt it will easily pass and go to the governor for her signature. Since the legislation is a proposed amendment to the state constitution, it will be placed on the ballot for a statewide vote in the March 2020 presidential primary.
Will voters approve it? While we hear people say they do not want to see a vote taken away from the public, my friend, Tallapoosa County superintendent Joe Windle, makes a valid point. “If we were telling people in Tallapoosa County they could not vote for school board members we would run into a buzz saw,” says Windle. “But this is because they have an emotional tie to the local school board and this is not the case with the state board.”
He makes a good point. Go to the nearest Wal-Mart and ask 100 people who their state school board member is and it is unlikely you would get one correct answer. Yes, this board is important. But far removed from the average voter.
The argument for elected vs. appointed can be debated vigorously both ways.. But the mood of the Alabama senate can not be debated. They are sick and tired of what they have seen for the last four+ years. And for me, that is not a surprise at all.
Editor’s note: Bad, bad timing. The senate vote was on Thursday, May 16. And in what can only be called terrible timing, apparently the state department of education had planned for some time to have a western themed party on Friday, May 17 as part of “employee appreciation day.”. Pictures from the event, including one of Eric Mackey riding an inflatable horse, quickly showed up on the internet. As one emailer said to me, “Mackey must have been practicing riding off into the sunset.”
It is far too easy to get all caught up in education “stuff’ that in the long run, doesn’t really matter so much. (Include me in this group sometimes.) But we fret about what happens at the state department of education, maybe even in Washington with the U.S. department of education. We wring our hands about whether we should have an appointed or elected state school board.
However, education is all about what happens between dedicated teachers and their students in thousands of classrooms throughout Alabama. There are no classrooms at the state department, at the statehouse where the legislature meets or even in the great education bureaucracy in Washington.
Liz Hill is an excellent principal—and a good friend. She works at Bear Elementary in Montgomery. A super school. She recently was on leave for medical reasons and when she came back to school, she found the note above from a fourth-grader.
It is a wonderful reminder of what is really and truly important. The interaction between students and the adults in their building.
Like all good schools I know, there is a culture of expectations at Bear. It is a happy place where smiles and laughter are common. With less than 500 students, it has 800 PTA members who go above and beyond for this faculty and students.
Probably 95 percent of all the educators I know tell me they were “called” to work with children. As a child they sat their brothers and sisters down and was their teacher. They arranged their toys on the bed and read to them.
And bless their hearts, they ignore the noise coming from the state department and the legislature and do all they can to better the lives of the young people in their classrooms and schools.
Right now, state superintendent Eric Mackey is promoting another state strategic plan. But long after it gathers dust in schools and is discarded, notes like the one above will be remembered and cherished.
Which is the way it should be.
Eric Mackey has now been on the job for one year. Which means it is time to grade his performance. So the last thing on the agenda at the May 9 state board meeting was giving him and all board members the results of his first evaluation. There was no discussion.
Trish Crain with AL.com took an extensive look at his scores and how each board member rated Mackey.
Here is my summary. What jumps out is that if you took this report card home to mama, you would probably hand it to her and run. Because after all the numbers are crunched and sorted, his composite score on a scale of 1-5 was only 3.67. If 5 is an A, 4 is a B and 3 is a C, he got a C+. This does not get you on the honor roll or in the Beta Club.
Generally the scores fell into two groups, those who voted for Mackey to become superintendent and those who did not. Of the present board, only Jeff Newman, Cynthia McCarty and Governor Kay Ivey voted for him last year. Both Betty Peters and Mary Scott Hunter who supported Mackey, are no longer on the board.
Tracie West, who replaced Peters and came on the board in January, participated in the evaluation. Wayne Reynolds replaced Mary Scott Hunter. However, due to a lingering illness he did not participate. He did not attend the May 9 meeting.
Newman gave Mackey the highest rating of anyone, 4.62. Next was McCarty with 4.46, Yvette Richardson with 4.38, Trace West with 4.04, Governor Ivey with 3.82, Jackie Zeigler with 3.38, Stephanie Bell with 1.33 and Ella Bell with 1.0. Obviously Mackey has done a poor job of mending fences with Zeigler and Stephanie Bell and Ella Bell. And were I him, I would be very concerned that at this point, the governor doesn’t think he is worthy of the honor roll or the Beta Club.
Mackey was rated in six categories: Goals; Personal qualities; Performance and key job responsibilities,; Relations with the public; Reflective assessment individual and Reflective assessment, board as a whole.
His strongest score with 4.41 was Personal qualities and weakest with 3.32 was Performance and key job responsibilities. In other words, the board has less confidence in him to do his job than anything else. That is certainly a cause for concern.
However, as pointed out by the Montgomery Advertiser here. we do know he likes hotdogs. Though for the life of me I can’t figure out how going to lunch is press worthy or has much of anything to do with making schools better.
HOLY COW BATMAN was my reaction when I came across an op-ed on AL.com by former state school board member, Mary Scott Hunter from Huntsville. Hunter was definitely a lightening rod during her two terms on the board. She was anything but shy and retiring and often ruffled the feathers of other board members.
No doubt she is smart, but I often thought her political ambitions got in the way of her being as effective as she might have been. When we last heard of her in the June 2018 political primary season, she was running for a state senate seat in Huntsville. The same one, in fact, she sought in 2009 before she got on the state school board.
She lost that race to her Republican opponent Sam Givhan. Her decision to run for the senate came after she had already held a kickoff event to run for Lt. Governor. But when public service commissioner Twinkle Cavanaugh got in the light governor’s race, Hunter had a change of plans and dropped back to the senate race.
Earlier this week Governor Ivey announced her support for legislation introduced by Senator Del Marsh to change the governance of the state department of education and abolish the elected state school and switch to an appointed one. Hunter took to Facebook and the pages of AL.com to offer her endorsement of the governor’s plan.
Here is what he had to say:
“I served 8 years on the Alabama State Board of Education (SBOE). When I started, the SBOE governed both K-12 and the Alabama Community College System (ACCS).
During my second term, the legislature moved to an appointed board for the ACCS. I was honored to serve on that newly constituted board as an appointed member, and it worked much better for the ACCS than the previous elected board. Leadership at the colleges stabilized, efficiencies were achieved, needed consolidations occurred, etc. Today, the ACCS is flourishing and continues to strengthen.
My colleagues and I at the Alabama State Board of Education did work hard and had episodes of success for K-12 and for the ACCS, and many know and appreciate our hard work and dedication. Some of my SBOE colleagues have had very long tenures, and that is much appreciated.
However, the level of achievement we want for K-12 requires a very long string of sustained, high-quality leadership decisions. I believe this is best achieved through an appointed Alabama State Board of Education. Local boards will continue electing representatives directly by the people or appointed by city councils who are elected. Our citizens will still continue to have representation and a voice in the direction of their schools in the place where it matters, locally.
I commend Governor Ivey for taking responsibility for K-12 education across Alabama.
This is a bold step because, if the measure passes and Alabama moves to an appointed SBOE, this Governor and all governors who come after her will have to count the success or failure of public education in Alabama as a part of their legacy.”
Now some needed background.
Hunter served on the community college board as an ex-officio member, meaning she could not vote. However, the casual reader of her statement would assume she was a full-fledged voting member. Not true.
And while Hunter speaks here of legacy, she does not mention that her own is the role she played in the 2016 disaster of hiring Mike Sentance of Boston to be state superintendent. As some will recall, this selection process was mired in controversy because someone orchestrated a smear campaign against Jefferson County superintendent Craig Pouncey to prevent him from getting the state job.
This caused such an uproar that the legislature launched an investigation to find out what went on and how info got to the Ethics Commission. They held several hearings. I attended all of them. Certainly to me, the most memorable moment was when Hunter admitted to Senator Gerald Dial that she did not know rules under which the Ethics Commission operates.
When the dust mostly settled from this fracas, Pouncey filled suit against Hunter, plus some state department employees. While several were dismissed from the suit, Hunter is scheduled to stand trial in Montgomery circuit court in August for her conduct.
Since Sentance was picked on a 5-4 vote, with Hunter being one of the 5, it is accurate to say that she had a major say so in this debacle.
Then when Sentance departed, Eric Mackey was chosen in May 2018 to replace him. Again it was a 5-4 vote and again, Hunter was one of the 5. Again, Pouncey was the “runner up” so to speak. Many felt that Hunter should have recused herself from this entire selection process since she was being sued by one of the three finalists. But she did not.
And judging from the evaluations from current board members Mackey received at the May 9th board meeting, (which amounted to a C+) he is hardly off to a flying start. You certainly can’t find anyone in the Washington County charter situation who have much faith in him since he has refused to investigate the antics of the state charter school commission.
Here is the AL.com story detailing Mackey’s evaluation.
Like we said. HOLY COW BATMAN. Why is someone who is going to court about her conduct while a member of the state school board even offering her opinion? But then, Hunter says we should have an appointed state school board instead of an elected one. The fact that she was elected twice may make her case for her.
To be chosen as Alabama Teacher of the Year is a singular honor. I think of it as winning an Oscar. The greatest recognition an Alabama teacher can receive.
This year’s winner will be announced in Montgomery at a ceremony the evening of May 8. It is a special occasion and one that the teacher will remember the rest of their life.
There are eight state school board districts. Both an elementary and secondary teacher are selected from each district. This field is narrowed to four. They compete for the title of Teacher of the Year.
The four finalists this year are: Ana Carolina Behel from Weeden elementary in Florence; Leslie Hughes from Kennedy elementary in Pell City, Leah McRae from Clemens high in Madison city and Jacque Middleton from Auburn high in Auburn.
The other 12 semi-finalists were Scott Parks, Saraland elementary in Saraland, Kathy Hughes from Spanish Fort high in Baldwin County, Laura Traylor from Lisenby Primary in Ozark, Vickey Bailey from Chelsea Park elementary in Shelby County, Kimberly Mitchell from Talladega Career Technical Center in Talladega city, Abby Becker from Hill-Kent elementary in Homewood, Stephanie Huffman from McAdory high in Jefferson County, Catherine Kenny from Pike Road middle in Pike Road, Mashika Tempero-Culliver from Selma high in Selma, Valerie Curtis from Pell City high in Pell City, Pamela Pugh from Mountain Brook junior high in Mountain Brook and Jennifer Perkinson from Goldsmith-Schiffman elementary in Huntsville.
Congratulations to each. They truly represent the best of the best. They do the Good Lord’s work each and every day.
As I read the pontifications of present and former politicians who have all the answers for education in Alabama, my first inclination is to laugh. But I don’t because it is obvious that they have either forgotten the state’s past–or never knew it.
So instead of reason or logic, they only preach fantasy, totally clueless as to who we are, why we are who we are and how we came to this place in time. We only get their Jack and the Beanstalk version of education, draped in simplicity, with no acknowledgement that Alabama is the sum total of all our ancestors, all out trials and tribulations and all our good and bad.
These prophets of never-never land think we can change our DNA and overnight morph into new beings, with new inspirations and aspirations. They are on a fool’s journey.
When Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793 he did more to define the future of Alabama than anything that has happened since. Because in the beginning there was just the land. A large swath of which was deep and black and cut through the middle of the state. It drew the descendants of Barbados slave owners like a moth to a flame. And in 1850, what is today the state’s least-populated county, Greene, was the state’s largest.
This tremendous influx of African-Americans to work the cotton fields established parameters about many things, most certainly education. It led to the charade of “separate, but equal” and laid the foundation for segregation academies. In 1907 Wilcox County spent $10.50 to educate a white child, but only 37 cents on a black one. Lowndes County spent $33.40 on a while student for each $1.00 it spent on a black one in 1912. In Chambers County in 1901. black teachers were paid 60 percent of what white teachers earned.
Couple this with the fact that the state of Alabama has never truly valued education to the degree that some states in New England and the upper Midwest have and you begin to wrap your arms around why we are in our present day dilemma. The majority of Alabama was settled by Scots-Irish whose ancestors were from north England and lowland Scotland ravaged by war for centuries.
Colin Woodward, in his book American Nations describes them this way. “Having no desire to bow to ‘foreign’ rule or to give up their ways, the Borderlanders rushed straight to the isolation of the 18th century frontier to found a society that was, for a time, literally beyond the reach of the law. Across Greater Appalachia local taxes were low, schools and libraries rare, and municipal government few and far between.
The goal of Deep Southern oligarchy has been consistent for centuries: to control and maintain a one-party state with a colonial-style economy based on…a compliant, poorly educated, low-wage workforce.”
So it is no surprise that at the end of the nineteenth century Alabama spent less per pupil on education than any other state in the Union.
Last December I made a 1,900 mile roundtrip from Montgomery to Madison, WI to attend a meeting of the Wisconsin Public Education Network. This is a coalition of 40+ local groups who advocate for public schools. Their goal is simple. Generate support for public schools in all forms and fashions.
I am not aware of a single group such as one of these anywhere in Alabama. The country celebrated Public School Week March 25-29. Did you hear a word about this in Alabama? Did the state department of education put out a news release? If so, I can’t find it. Did the state board of education pass a resolution? Did the legislature? Did the governor issue a proclamation? Did the state superintendent hold a press conference?
If anyone knows if something happened, please let me know.
So I drove 1,900 miles to meet people who value their local public schools. I wanted to find our who they are, what makes them tick, why do they believe in public education? One such group is in Appleton. They have 400 folks on their email list. They have monthly meetings to discuss education issues. On Feb. 14 they celebrated Valentine’s Day by sending cards to teachers, support staff, administrators, boards of education, bus drivers, crossing cards, lunchroom workers and others.
People in Wisconsin do not have the DNA Alabamians have. Their early settlers were not Scots-Irish. They never had Black Belt plantations and cotton fields stretching to the sunset. According to American Nations they were primarily the descendants of the Puritans who settled New England. Education was very important to them. They expected everyone to study the Bible, which meant all had to be literate. Their leaders were largely the most educated. de Tocqueville observed that the men of New England had a greater mass of education than could be found in any European nation of the time.
Harvard University was founded in 1636, 183 years before Alabama became a state.
We are who we are. Nothing more. Nothing less. Ignoring this and setting false expectations helps no one.
Right now we are looking at how math is taught in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Virginia, Minnesota and Wyoming because they rank high on NAEP math scores. Yet we really have nothing in common with any of them. I have been to Wyoming. Never once while there did I say, “Wow, this sure reminds me of Alabama.”
If you do not know where you are going, any road will take you there. It is also true that if you don’t profit from the past, you are doomed to make the same mistakes over again.
But how can you do this if you never come face to face with past realities?
Editor’s note: we will discuss potential solutions in future posts.