Given all the commotion and twists and turns, not to mention law suits and investigations, swirling around the state school board in the last 18-24 months, it was dog gone near inevitable that legislation would surface for the upcoming session designed to re-structure the makeup of this board and how it is selected.
At present, there are eight elected members of the state school board. All represent districts. They serve a four-year term. There are no term limits. Four are elected every two years.
By virtue of the office, the governor serves as president of the board when present. When not, the vice-president of the board chairs the meeting. The board appoints the state superintendent of education.
This system has been in place since 1969. Prior to that, board members were appointed and the superintendent elected statewide.
Senator Greg Albritton of Conecuh County has pre-filed bills that would drastically alter this process, in essence, giving the governor almost total control of K-12 education. The CEO for the state department of education would be called “Director of Education” and serve at the pleasure of the governor and be a cabinet member.
In turn, this person would pick a 13-member “Board of Counsel” that would be made up of seven local school superintendents and six members of local school boards. They could serve for only two years. Appointments would be made in regard to “diversity of gender, race, economic status, and geographical areas.”
According to information from the Education Commission of the States, there are 10 states where the governor has the authority to both pick the chief school officer and control who serves on the board. In 12 states the governor appoints the board who appoints the chief. There are 10 states where the chief is elected and the governor appoints the board. And six states have an elected board and appointed chief. And in some states, the board is made up of both elected and appointed members.
Senator Albritton was one of three senators on the legislative committee that investigated the state superintendent search of 2016 and how info from the Ethics Commission got leaked to the public.
Anyone who paid attention to them came away thinking the search process was tainted, that one board member definitely engaged in activities she should not have and that certain state department employees did not conduct themselves professionally. (An internal report by the department later reached the same conclusions.)
After learning all of this, Albritton figured there had to be a better way of conducting business and came forward with his bills. He has indicated that he is not wedded to the proposed process, but does think there definitely needs to be discussion.
It’s hard to disagree with him as you look back at some of the surveys we have done. In November 2016 82.5 percent of 1,287 respondents said the state school board should be elected. Only 7.8 percent said appointed. But by April 2017, “elected” was down to 68.8 percent and appointed” up to 14.6 percent.
A survey in mid-summer of 2017 asked respondents to give the state board a letter grade. A–0; B–1.7 percent; C–16.0 percent; D–39.0 percent; F–43.1 percent.
Yes it is true most board members played no role in the chicanery that took place in 2016, but public perception does not separate good apples from bad ones. They are all in the same barrel in the eyes of voters.
The next legislative session begins January 9. This being an election year most members want to get in and get out as quickly as possible. Therefore I do not sense that the Albritton bill will get much traction this session.
However, the issue of how both the state school board and state superintendent is selected is not going away. Anyone who ignores it does so at their own peril.