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.”