About noon Friday I posted about Governor Bentley appointing Matt Brown of Fairhope to the State Board of Education. I had no clue as to what was about to happen. I well remember as a south Alabama farm kid kicking the top off a fire ant mound and watching the angry little critters gush out. Friday brought back those memories as hits on this site jumped and jumped and jumped. By midnight, 4,245 had dropped by.
Obviously I had knocked the scab off a festering wound and educators were quick to vent their concern and dismay that the governor chose someone only 28 years old with no apparent history of being involved with public education to be one of only eight members of a board that oversees 1,500 schools, 733,000 students and a multi-billion dollar budget. I got calls and emails from can to can’t. Even one from a teacher in Italy who once taught in Winfield. Their tone was unrelentingly critical. One called it “the pathetic abuse of an office.” A school superintendent said, “the storm clouds keep rolling in.” A local school board member told me, “it’s a sad day for Alabama.” “I am freaked. I am furious. But we are powerless,” a Baldwin County resident posted on Facebook. An email from a Republican member of the legislature said, “Very concerning to all educators is an understatement.”
The fact the appointee was the leader of a group that worked hard to defeat an education tax vote in March in Baldwin County, did not attend public schools himself and has stated that his children will not either was salt in the wound. Before Friday the most hits in one day on this site was 512. Saturday brought another 8,677 hits.
Word around the State House for weeks is that the governor was using this appointment as a bargaining chip with Senator Trip Pittman of Baldwin County, Chair of the Senate Finance & Taxation Education committee, in regards to help in the current special session. Pittman was an strong supporter of Brown for the seat. But in an AL.com article of July 17, Pittman tried to “walk back” his support by stating he had no direct influence with the governor about the appointment. Ever heard, “if you can’t stand the heat, better get out of the kitchen?”
Since my first post, additional info has surfaced that explains the intensity of the reaction, particularly in Baldwin County.
For the past two plus years, Matt Brown coordinated the Eastern Shore Metropolitan Planning Organization. Earlier this year this group put out a report showing that Baldwin County will need 16 to 20 schools by 2040. The report was prepared by Brown. So the guy who said his community needs more schools is the same guy who created the tax opposition group Educate Baldwin Now to defeat funding for new schools he said are needed.
Press reports state that operation of the MPO may be shifted to the South Alabama Regional Planning Commission in Mobile. Brown is no longer with the MPO and is slated to soon become an employee of the Baldwin County Commission. Apparently Brown’s involvement in defeating the school tax factored into this situation as a number of the MPO board members are elected officials who were supporting the school tax. Brown’s move to the county payroll is also raising questions.
AL.com quotes Commissioner Chris Elliott, “I’m happy for Matthew and I am interested to see how he intends to balance a very important full-time job as a design engineer with the county highway department and a seven-county (school) district with frequent meetings and requirements on his time.”
(State School Board District 1 stretches from Bayou La Batre in south Mobile County to Highland Home in northern Crenshaw County. Mapquest says it is 180 miles between these two communities. There are ten school systems in the district with 90,000 students. Two of the largest four systems in the state, Mobile and Baldwin, are in it.)
To say the Baldwin tax vote in March was contentious is being gentle. People were passionate on both sides of the issues, tempers were often on display and those supporting the issue felt the Brown opposition effort played fast and loose with the truth.
For example, a poster put out by Educate Baldwin Now, the group created by Matt Brown, said “The Baldwin County school system is already the 2nd most expensive county school system in the state in terms of local tax dollars collected per student! More Expensive than Mobile County, Jefferson County, Shelby County, Madison County, and Tuscaloosa County.”
This is untrue. The most recent information put out by the state department of education shows that there are 27 local systems that raise more local dollars per student than Baldwin does. It ranks No. 28. Shelby ranks No. 15. Baldwin County does a poorer job of local funding than either Conecuh or Colbert Counties.
Proponents held countless community meetings around the county to explain in detail what the referendum involved and how it would impact taxpayers. In an interview with TV Channel 10 out of Mobile, Brown called these “dog and pony shows.” This flippant dismissal did not sit well with county school officials who spent many hours researching information and preparing presentations.
The Secretary of State’s Office pointed out to Educate Baldwin Now that their campaign fliers were in violation of the Fair Campaign Practices Act because they did not include disclosure info. This was corrected by the opposition.
Given all of this, Governor Bentley should not be surprised by the reaction his appointment has received. If he is, then someone did not properly “vet” Matt Brown and left the governor hanging out to dry.
Countless people have asked me what they can do. My suggestion is they email my friend Jared White, who is the governor’s education policy person, and express their concern. (Jared.White@governor.alabama.gov) I also suggest they send a copy to Dr. Tommy Bice, state superintendent. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
This is a democracy which means all voices are entitled to be heard. This is a good time to participate in the process.
I have emailed Matt Brown with a list of questions about this matter and told him that I would post his answers on this site. At this writing, have had no response from him.