While it slipped by unnoticed by many and certainly out of sight of main stream media, to me the number one story impacting public education across Alabama in the past 12 months was replacing four incumbents on the charter school commission. And especially chairman Mac Buttram.
The commission has 10 members. Four appointed by the governor, three by the speaker of the house, two by the senate majority leader and one by the lt. governor. Since they serve staggered terms of only two years, five of the ten come up for reappointment or replacement every year.
A year ago this group seemed more intent on approving any charter school than doing their due diligence. They were all too eager to force square pegs into round holes and ignore whether a school was about meeting a true need and how receptive was the local community. Case in point being the chaos in Washington County where the school system is rated a B by the state and the community is dead set against charter intrusion.
Such matters wee ignored by the commission when they approved applications for both Woodland Prep and LEAD Academy in 2018. They also ignored the recommendations of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers that neither be approved. As the situation in Washington County has labored on for months and months and LEAD Academy has turned into a first-rate mess in Montgomery, one has to think that the national reviewers had ample reason for their “do not approve” recommendation.
Throughout this time, former legislator Mac Buttram chaired the commission.
How he got to be chairman is unclear.
The bylaws of the charter commission plainly state the chair serves a one year term. Which clearly means that an election for chair should be held annually. But minutes of the commission do not show this has been the case.
Ed Richardson was elected chair at the commission’s first meeting on Aug. 27, 2015. Co vice-chairs were Thomas Rains and Gloria Batts. There is no mention of any election in 2016. At the April 25, 2017 meeting Richardson said they would have an election at their May meeting. But the minutes do not show this happened.
However, later that year, September 22 to be exact, Buttram was chairing the meeting, having apparently been elevated from vice-chair when Richardson left the commission to be interim state school superintendent.
But when was Buttram elected vice-chair? The minutes do not say.
Buttram was elected to the state house of representatives from Cullman County in 2010 and served one term. This election was clouded in controversy. Buttram beat James Fields who won a special election in 2008. Fields’ election drew attention because he was a black Democrat who got elected in a district that was 98 percent white. Both men were ministers and participated in the same weekly prayer group. Even more notable was that when Fields’ first wife died, Buttram officiated at the funeral. And when Fields re-married, Buttram again officiated.
Naturally, Fields was surprised that his “friend” was running against him.
Buttram got to Montgomery at the time when Mike Hubbard became speaker and the Cullman Republican quickly became a loyal follower. Over time, some of Buttram’s constituents came to believe he was more concerned with cozying up to Montgomery power brokers than paying attention to the needs of home folks.
One of them was Corey Harbison, the mayor of Good Hope, at the southwest corner of Cullman. Harbison told me that his attempts to get help from Buttram on city matters largely fell on deaf ears and late in 2013, he decided to challenge Buttram for his seat.
There were three in the Republican primary. Buttram got 44 percent of the vote, Haribson got 41. Eager to help their friend, Hubbard and former governor Bob Riley rolled out the big guns. In all, Buttram spent more than $350,000 trying to keep his seat. Riley’s PAC kicked in more than $100,000, Hubbard’s PAC gave $13,500, the Business Council of Alabama gave $52,500 and the Alabama Federation for Children contributed $37,000. Event the California-based group, Students First, gave $2,500.
As anyone who watches public education in this state closely knows, none of these are considered friends of public education.
By comparison, Harbison’s campaign only pulled in $97,000.
Someone got the bright idea that it would be wise to bring Hubbard and Riley to Cullman the Saturday before the runoff on Tuesday. As it turned out, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. News about the power broker invasion for Buttram hit the Sunday paper and Harbison won going away, 55 percent to 45 percent.
Buttram has since moved to the Huntsville area.
He was nominated for the charter commission board by Governor Robert Bentley, the same guy who declared that Alabama education “sucks” and cast the deciding vote to hire Mike Sentance for state superintendent.
Buttram fully displayed his exuberance for charters last June when Woodland Prep asked for a one-year extension for their opening date. Soner Tarim did his best impression of the Artful Dodger that day, avoiding one direct answer after another. It was obvious that Buttram believed it all and never once challenged Tarim.
Tarim has been linked to the very controversial Gulen charter school movement. This effort has sponsored trips to Turkey for a number of years for lawmakers and others. It is public relations at its best. Buttram told the commission that day that he had been to Turkey and that Tarim told him he was not associated with Gulen.
The extension was granted.
Officials actually nominate two people for each slot on the charter commission. The final selection is made by the state school board. So even incumbents who get renominated have another name in their slot the state board may choose. Buttram was a nomination that belonged to Governor Ivey. She did not even submit his name for consideration.
At the August state school board meeting, four new people were put on the charter commission. In January, another new member will be added.
Unlike Mac Buttram, the new members seem far more deliberative and willing to ask reasonable and thoughtful questions. And Alabama is all the better for it.