State Board of Education members weighed in today about a proposal to eliminate their elected positions and replace the board with an appointed commission.
The proposal was not a topic for discussion at today’s monthly board meeting. But in response to questions about the proposal, some members said they want to see voters retain the power to decide who represents them.
“Fifty years ago the voters did a very smart thing and they actually voted to change it from an appointed board to an elected board,” said Stephanie Bell of Montgomery, elected in 1994 and the board’s longest serving member. “Any time the voters have an opportunity to actually select their representatives, I think we need to preserve that because representation is a part of our government. And that’s what makes it great in terms of parents, teachers, those who I receive calls from on a daily basis, emails. There is merit to having representation where you actually have the opportunity to vote for your representative and we must preserve that.”
State lawmakers determined it was time to consider a new approach. In May, the Legislature approved a proposed constitutional amendment to abolish the state BOE and create the Alabama Commission on Elementary and Secondary Education, with nine members appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate.
Under the current setup, voters elect the eight members of the BOE by district. The governor serves as the board president.
Voters will decide on March 3 whether to approve the constitutional amendment to change to the appointed commission.
Advocates for the change, including Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, the bill sponsor, said Alabama’s low rankings on national tests, turnover in the position of state superintendent, and other problems demonstrate the need for a new approach to education governance.
Gov. Kay Ivey, who presided over this morning’s board, supports the change.
“We can no longer be complacent with where we rank in the education scores,” Ivey said after the meeting. “In almost every ranking that you look at, Alabama is ranked very low. Third graders are not reading proficiently. Too many graduates from high school are not ready for college or career.”
Ivey said most states have appointed boards and generally perform better than Alabama.
“We need to take bold action,” Ivey said. “And this is not the fault of teachers or superintendents and change must start at the top. And so, the bill that was passed by the Legislature gives the people of Alabama a chance to help Alabama take the lead and move forward so that we can make progress in our educational endeavors and raise our academic level of performance.”
Under the plan, the governor would appoint one commission member from each of the state’s seven congressional districts, plus two at-large members.
Board member Jackie Zeigler of Mobile, a former teacher and principal who was elected to the state board in 2017, said the system of electing board members is effective.
“I think it’s working because daily I get emails, I get phone calls, I get texts where people know that I am their voice to the state department, where I can either guide them in the right direction, maybe give them an idea of how the process works, or even sometimes I have to give them bad news that this is the way reality is,” Zeigler said. “But at least they know I’m there and I’m available to them.
“I am only accountable to the citizens of the state of Alabama but most importantly to students. If I was appointed, I would be more inclined to keep the person who appointed me happy, not necessarily the citizens of Alabama and the students. And I’m very strong in my commitment in letting people know that we cannot take away their voice.”
Tracie West was elected to the state board in November after serving almost a decade as an appointed board member for Auburn City Schools. West said the Auburn board, which is appointed by the city council and mayor, was effective during her time on the board and for years before. West, a small business owner for 21 years, said the key is not necessarily whether a board is appointed or elected but whether its members are there for the right reasons and the level of commitment from the public.
“Just because a board is appointed does not mean it’s going to be successful and effective,” West said. “Just because a board is elected does not mean that it is going to be successful and effective. I think that there are many other factors involved other than just being an appointed board.
“What I experienced at the local level was a community heavily invested in public education. From the mayor’s office to the chamber of commerce president to Auburn University to local small business owners, clergy, we invested ourselves in a 10-year, two 5-year, strategic plans, where we as a community came together and focused on public education.”
Board member Cynthia McCarty of Anniston said she believes the current board is effective but trusts the voters to make the right decision in March. McCarty, an economics professor at Jacksonville State University, has been on the board since 2015.
“We have a lot of challenges, clearly, in Alabama,” McCarty said. “But I think that we represent our constituents, our educators, our students, well. Are we perfect? No. I don’t know of any board that’s perfect. But I really do trust democracy. I trust the voters.”
Board member Yvette Richardson of Fairfield said she works to stay close to the school systems in her district. Richardson, who was a teacher and principal and served as an appointed superintendent in two systems, Fairfield and Russell County, questions whether an appointee would have the same connection with the district.
“I have seven counties and 14 school districts and I try to get out to my school districts and visit,” Richardson said. “And, as it stands now, the fact that I am elected, I feel that they know that I’m held accountable to them. However, as an appointed person, I don’t know if a person would have perhaps that allegiance to a group as if they are elected. Because if you’re elected, you know that if the people don’t vote for you, you won’t get in that position.”
Board member Jeff Newman of Millport, whose colleagues elected him vice president of the board today, said he supports an elected school board. Newman is a career educator who served as superintendent of the Lamar County school system.
“I’m always about protecting the vote, protecting the vote,” Newman said. “I love the governor. I think she’s doing a great job. But I am about the people to vote. I like electing their representatives. But I have a lot of confidence in the people and whatever the people decide is what they decide.”
Under the proposed amendment, the membership of the appointed commission would reflect the geographical, gender, and racial diversity of the students enrolled in K-12 education in the state. As enrollment stands currently, three of the nine commission members would be black. Currently, two of the eight elected school board members are black.
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