Editor’s note: The following article was first posted last November. It is a look at why we went from an appointed state school board to an elected one. It is a history lesson that bears repeating.
So the legislature wants us to vote on March 3 to switch from an elected state school board to an appointed one. But you have to wonder how many supporters of this change know that we once had an appointed state board that was deemed to be failing us–so we changed to what we have now.
Why did we change?
To put more control of education in the hands of voters across the state and to eliminate too much politics in decisions made as to how to run education. In other words, we lost confidence in a hand-picked state school board–which is exactly what senate majority leader Del Marsh now wants.
The legislature created the Alabama Education Study Commission in 1967. Governor Lurleen Wallace appointed Auburn University president Harry Philpott to chair this group. When Albert Brewer became governor on May 7, 1968 he made the work of this commission one of his top priorities.
This report was released on Jan. 16, 1969. Part of this effort was two days of public hearings in Montgomery in November 1968. Among the many recommendations was to go from an elected state school superintendent and appointed state board to an elected state board who would appoint the superintendent.
It was reasoned that an elected board would be more responsive to voters–rather than to a single appointing authority–and that an appointed superintendent could devote full time to education, instead of constantly campaigning to keep their office.
The appointed board served six-year terms and was appointed by the governor.
Governor Brewer called a special session of the legislature in May 1969 to deal with study commission recommendations. Part of his “call” for the special session was, “Legislation to provide for the selection and qualifications of state superintendent of education, local superintendents of education, state board of education and local boards of education.”
Such legislation was passed and an election to vote on this, and a number of other issues, was held on Dec. 9, 1969.
The amendment to switch from appointed to elected passed with 54% of the vote. (66,078 to 56,420)
The education community was solidly in favor of this change. Back then, the Alabama Congress of Parents and Teachers (PTA) was a real power and strongly supported the switch.
The first vote for an elected board was in November 1970 with members taking office in January 1971.
This move was not a rush to judgment It was a very deliberate process with input from many people around the state. But compare this is what the legislature has now done. As best can be determined, a handful of folks decided they know more than anyone else about how to best govern our state school system and they cobbled together this legislation. It was anything but a deliberative, reasonsed approach.
Given their track record in passing such things as the A-F school grading system, the Alabama Accountability Act and the charter school law (which is governed by an appointed board) it’s very difficult to put much faith in education policy cooked up in the Alabama statehouse.
It’s also doubtful that many supporters of Amendment One have bothered to learn the history of why we now do what we do.
If they had, why would they be saying we should go back to a failed system?
Alabama voters will go to the polls next March 3 to decide the fate of amendment one. At the heart of this amendment is an attempt to deny all citizens the right to vote to elect their state school board members.
The irony of this vote is that 55 years and four days earlier, black Alabamians marched across the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma in an effort to gain the right to vote. As we know, marchers were met with law enforcement officers, horses, billy clubs and tear gas that day. Scenes of this confrontation were quickly spread across the nation and the event was soon referred to as “bloody Sunday.”
At the time, voting rolls in Selma were 99 percent white and only one percent black.
Two weeks after “bloody Sunday” marchers crossed the bridge on their march to the state capitol in Montgomery and the civil rights campaign to end the disenfranchisement of black voters was full blown.
Now, more than a half-century later, state politicians want to roll back the hands of times. But in this case, their target is not black voters, it is ALL voters.
“Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it” is a phrase we have all heard. Well, maybe not some folks who are now in control of state government.
A few days ago I posted the names and email addresses of the 30 senators who voted last May for an amendment that will replace our elected state school board with an appointed one. A number of readers wrote senators and asked them why they voted as they did.
Someone in north Alabama got a response from their senator that blew my mind.
Here is what he said:
“If a local community wants an elected school board they can vote no. If the statewide vote passes and a local community still wants one, they can get a local constitutional amendment and vote for it.”
This guy has absolutely no clue what amendment one is all about. It has NOTHING to do with local school boards and whether they are elected or appointed. One is only left to assume he voted for legislation he had neither read or studied.
Amendment one is ONLY about the state school board. If passed, it will take away the public’s right to vote on state school board members and place control of who is on the board in the hands of the state senate who will confirm anyone appointed to the board.
Our most recent survey on amendment one showed that 65 percent of respondents DO NOT trust the senate to have this responsibility. This senator’s response is ample evidence of why the public feels this way.
Last week I visited an inner-city school in Birmingham and a rural school in Marengo County. I had lengthy talks with both principals discussing the challenges they face daily. One is trying to get funding to build a shower so that children coming from homes without running water can bathe. They talked about trying to supply backpacks with food for hungry students, about the emotional baggage their students bring to class, about trying to find partners who can help them provide basic needs for kids.
I think it is safe to say that the good senator referred to here has probably never had such conversations, that he is oblivious to what today’s school reality is and that he just blindly does what someone tells him to do when it is time to vote.
And we should turn over control of our schools to folks like this?
As discussed here many times, on March 3 voters will vote YES or NO on going from an elected state school board to one appointed by the governor and confirmed by the senate. A YES vote will mean you lose your right to vote, a NO vote means you will keep it. Legislation calling for this constitutional amendment was passed in our last regular session last spring.
Republican Del Marsh is senate majority leader. Since his party holds a supermajority in this body, he has considerable influence. This is reflected by the fact that the vote in the senate was 30-0. All but two of the 27 Republican members voted to take away your right to vote (Jimmy Holley and Tom Whatley did not vote.). And five of the eight Democrats in the senate voted with Marsh. (Priscilla Dunn, Malika Sanders-Fortier and Rodger Smitherman did not vote.)
Listed below are these 30 senators, along with the best email address I have for each.
If you do not want to give up your right to vote, write these senators and ask them why they voted for this amendment.
Greg Albritton—R Gerald Allen–R
Will Barfoot—R Billy Beasley–D
David Burkette—D Tom Butler–R
Clyde Chambliss—R Donnie Chesteen–R
Linda Coleman-Madison—D Vivian Figures–D
Chris Elliott—R Garlan Gudger–R
Sam Givhan—R Andrew Jones–R
Steve Livingston—R Del Marsh–R
Jim McClendon—R Tim Melson–R
Arthur Orr—R Randy Price–R
Greg Reed—R Dan Roberts–R
David Sessions—R Clay Scofield–R
Bobby Singleton—D Shay Shelnutt–R
Larry Stutts—R Jabo Waggoner–R
Cam Ward—R Jack Williams–R
State school board member Jackie Zeigler of Mobile is an outspoken opponent of the effort to change from an elected to an appointed state school board.
So much so that she is challenging the wording in the constitutional amendment that will be voted on March 3.
Here is the proposed wording of what will appear on the ballot asking for a yes or no vote:
“Proposing an amendment to the Constitution of Alabama of 1901, to change the name of the State Board of Education to the Alabama Commission on Elementary and Secondary Education; to provide for the appointment of the members of the commission by the Governor, subject to confirmation by the Senate; to change the name of the State Superintendent of Education to the Secretary of Elementary and Secondary Education; to provide for the appointment of the secretary of the commission, subject to the confirmation by the Senate; and to authorize the Governor to appoint a team of local educators and other officials to advise the commission on matters relating to the functioning and duties of the State Department of Education. . . .”
However, Zeigler contends that this language fails to clearly state that if this amendment is approved, voters will lose their right to vote on state school board members. She has failed a complaint with the state’s Fair Ballot Commission that will discuss the situation at a Nov. 21 meeting in Montgomery. This will take place at 2 p.m. in room 200 of the Alabama State House.
“The wording masks the vital elimination of a board elected by the people and accountable to the people,” says Zeigler. “Instead, it highlights a name change of the board and the state superintendent.”
She also contends that the proposed language violates Alabama code 17-6-41 which states: “Whenever a constitutional amendment is submitted to a vote of the qualified electors the substance or subject matter of each proposed amendment shall be so printed that the nature thereof shall be clearly indicated.”
Stay tuned. We will cover the meeting.
The state school board has elected members representing eight different districts. Members serve four-year terms. Since terms are staggered, four of these seats come up every two years.
The 2020 election cycle will be for districts 1, 3, 5 and 7.
The present incumbents in these slots are Jackie Zeigler (1), Stephanie Bell (3) vacant (5) and Jeff Newman (7). District 5 is vacant due to the recent death of member Ella Bell. Zeigler and Stephanie Bell are seeking re-election while Newman is retiring.
Since qualifying ended Nov. 8, we now know who is running for each position.
Republican Zeigler is opposed by Democrat Tom Holmes in the November general election. Republican Stephanie Bell is opposed by Democrat Jarralynne Agee. This will be a rematch of the 2016 election when Bell got 73 percent of the vote.
Republican Belinda McRae, a member of the Marion County school board, was the only person to qualify for Newman’s seat on either the Republican or Democratic side. This means she will take office in January 2021.
This is in stark contrast to District 5 that Ella Bell represented for many years. Ten Democrats and one Republican are running for this seat. Montgomery school board member Lisa Keith is the lone Republican. Democrats are: Fred Bell, Tonya Chestnut, Ron Davis, Phillip Ensler, Pamela Laffitte, Penni MClammy, Woodie Pugh, Joanne Shum, Robert White, II and Billie Jean Young.
District 5 is a huge geographic region, covering all or part of 17 counties stretching from Bullock and Macon counties on the east to downtown Mobile. This is also the district with the largest minority population. According to the Alabama reapportionment office, 59.25 percent of the District 5 population is black. Black voters in Montgomery and Mobile counties comprise 56.7 percent of the total vote.
What makes this election unique is that on March 3 voters will have to approve or disapprove a constitutional amendment as to whether we keep an elected state board or switch to an appointed one. So while voters are voting for school board candidates, the vote on the amendment may also make election of board members a moot point.