The charter school law passed by the legislature in 2015 established the Alabama Public Charter School Commission, an entity that has stumped its toe repeatedly during the controversy involving Woodland Prep in Washington County.
Let’s take a closer look at this commission.
Members are nominated by the governor, lt. governor, president pro tem of the senate and speaker of the house. The governor fills four slots, the lt. governor has one, the president pro tem has two and the speaker has three. At least two names are submitted for each seat on the board to the state board of education who make the final choice. (So while technically all commission members are chosen by the state school board, this is more formality than anything else as the school board has no input into who the nominees are.)
All nominees to the first board had to be submitted to the state superintendent by June 1, 2015. Five were appointed for one-year terms and five for two-year terms in order to create a “staggered” board. Now all nominees are for a two-year term, with five terms ending on May 31 each year. No one can serve more than three terms.
(However, there is no provision in the law for handling transitions beyond the first year. Which is why there are now five members serving whose terms expired May 31, 2019. Supposedly there is an Attorney General’s opinion saying that members may serve until they are either re-appointed or replaced. The law should be amended to require nominations be submitted to the state superintendent by March 31. Since nominees are first presented to the state board at a work session and then voted on at the next regular meeting, at this moment the earliest we can have new members is August. The law should be changed so that a two-year term is no longer than two years.)
The law also states that the board should be geographically diversified, taking into consideration the eight state board of education districts. This is not the case at present as four are from Montgomery, two from Madison County, one from Auburn, one from Birmingham and one from Marshall County. Since a seat formerly held by Chad Fincher of Mobile is now vacant, there are no members from south of Montgomery.
Of the original ten members, only two remain, Mac Buttram of Huntsville and Henry Nelson of Birmingham. Both of their terms expired May 31, 2019. Both can be reappointed. There are three others whose terms expired May 31. Charles Jackson and Melissa McInnis of Montgomery and Tommy Ledbetter of Madison County. All are eligible to serve another term.
A little noticed provision of the charter law is that the minority party in both the senate and house shall appoint one of the members nominated by both the president pro tem and the speaker of the house. I do not know if this has been adhered to in the past. I have contacted both Democrat senators and house members and no one knew of this provision. They do now.
The commission selects a chair and vice-chair. Ed Richardson was picked as chair at the first commission meeting, Aug. 27, 2015. However, the minutes of that meeting only say there was a tie vote of four to four for vice chair. Nothing else. Apparently Mac Buttram was picked as vice chair because the minutes of Sept. 22, 2017 say Buttram became chair when Richardson stepped down to become interim state superintendent.
(These minutes are not available on the commission web site. Only those from meetings in 2018 and 2019 are.)
There has been controversy about who has jurisdiction over the charter commission. Attorneys for the state department of education have steadfastly maintained that the department can not oversee activities of the commission.
However, Section Five of the guidelines for the commission, which were written by the state department, say:
“The department will oversee the performance and effectiveness of all authorizers established under this Act.”
Hard to be more plain than this.
This section also says: “The department will conduct a special review of an authorizer with persistently unsatisfactory performance of the portfolio of the public charter schools of an authorizer, a pattern of well-founded complaints about the authorizer or its public charter schools, or other objective circumstances. In reviewing and evaluating the performance of an authorizer, the department will apply nationally recognized standards for quality in charter authorizing issued by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. If at any time the department finds that an authorizer is not in compliance with an existing charter contract or the requirements of all authorizers under this Act, the department will notify the authorizer in writing of any identified problem and the authorizer will have reasonable opportunity to respond and remedy the problem.”
All in all, too many questions remain about the present board and their willingness to accept anything they are told at face value by those seeking a charter school. It is time we try some new members who will recognize that their over-riding responsibility is to the students of Alabama, not someone wishing to make money at their expense.