Baldwin County is currently looking for a new superintendent of education. The school board interviewed two candidates on July 29 and three on July 30. I, along with a number of other folks, sat in to listen and learn. It was a fine group of applicants, each with their strengths. The school board has a tough choice ahead.
Land wise, this is the largest county in Alabama–bigger than Rhode Island. It is also one of the fastest growing, having doubled in population in the last 15 years. This growth is taxing the school system which has grown by 25 percent in the last decade. Only one system, Mobile, has more portable classrooms than Baldwin. They added another 17 this summer.
Yet last March 31, the county voted overwhelmingly against increasing funding for schools. The scars from that vote have yet to heal. In fact, the common refrain running through all five interviews were comments about the vote and questions about how could a new superintendent work to reunite a divided community.
These concerns are well-placed considering the results of a poll of 1,800 registered voters taken in late June by a Mobile TV station and a political consulting firm. Citizens were asked if they felt the county is heading in the right or wrong direction. Some 66 percent say it is going in the right direction.
Here’s the kicker. In 2007, of those who said it was moving in the right direction, schools were identified as the No. 1 reason. This time schools badly trailed quality of life and the economy and were tied with the low rate of crime at only nine percent. Even more disheartening for educators is that of those who feel Baldwin is going in the wrong direction, 49 percent blame the school system.
No doubt the aftermath of the contentious March 31 vote made a significant impact on poll results.
The last candidate interviewed was Dr. Larry DiChiara. When asked about the impact of a failed school funding effort, he spoke from experience, having been in Lee County when this happened. “An event such as this really impacts the morale of your system employees because they do not think their hard work is appreciated,” he stated.
Matt Brown who lead the anti-tax group, Educate Baldwin Now, and was recently appointed by Governor Bentley to the state board of education attended maybe 20-25 minutes of the second Thursday interview. I was going to introduce myself to him, but he disappeared before DiChiara’s interview. It is unfortunate that he didn’t stick around as he might have better understood why his recent appointment has not warmed the hearts of many of his local educators.