Nearing the end of a hotly contested campaign, Birmingham is poised to become the latest Alabama city to replace its appointed school board with one that is elected. The shift adds momentum in that Southeastern state to put local school systems in the hands of elected representatives.
Voters in Birmingham faced a primary ballot on April 9 in which 48 candidates ran for the new nine-member school board—roughly five election hopefuls for each seat. As expected, runoff elections are being held April 30 for the five seats for which no candidate earned a majority.
In the past, Alabama averaged about one city each year that shifted to an elected board, said Sandra Sims- deGraffenried, the executive director of the Alabama Association of School Boards. That pace is stepping up, however. About 10 urban districts in the state have dropped their appointed boards in the past two years, she said.
Of the state’s 128 school districts, state law requires that the members of the 67 county school boards be elected, while their counterparts on city school districts are appointed by their respective city councils. New state legislation specific to a community must be enacted to change how a local school board is chosen. So far, 17 of the 61 city school boards are elected, or will be in the near future.
Legislation to revamp Birmingham’s school board that was passed in April 2001 outlined the new board’s structure and set the election to coincide with the mayoral election in October 2003. But in January of this year, amended legislation moved the board election to April 9.
Of the five members of the 37,500-student district’s current appointed school board, four campaigned to keep their seats. Two board members were forced to run against each other in the same race because they live in the same voting district. Both were defeated. One school board member, Virginia Volker, won her race, while Annie T. Davis, the board president, faces a runoff.
Ms. Davis said last week that she understands the community’s desire for an elected board, but worries that politics will distract its members from focusing on student needs.
Ms. Sims-deGraffenried agreed that elected boards often must cope with more political pressure than appointed boards face. On the other hand, she pointed out, the public often perceives appointed boards as operating as mere extensions of city hall. As a result, she said, more Alabama residents are seeking direct input on school issues through elected boards.
What’s more, Ms. Sims-deGraffenried added, a drive to replace an appointed school board may often be sparked by an emotional issue, such as the dismissal of a coach or the firing of a superintendent.
“The real danger we run now is that, in the heat of the moment, folks make a run to change, tear up everything, and turn it upside down ... and it may not be in the best interest of the kids,” she said.
Ms. Sims-deGraffenried said she believes that in Birmingham, Superintendent Johnny E. Brown’s assertive leadership style, which has often put him at odds with the local teachers’ union, spurred city residents to back an elected board to gain a larger say in how the district is run.
Mr. Brown announced recently that he would be leaving Alabama’s third largest school district in July to take over the 98,000-student school system in DeKalb County, Ga.
Now, Ms. Davis said, she’s concerned that the Birmingham Education Association, which endorsed a slate of candidates for the election, will gain a voting majority on the board and promote union interests.
Jeffrey L. McDaniels, a field representative for the Alabama Education Association who coordinates services for the teacher and support- staff unions in Birmingham, acknowledged that the local union backed a governance change for the district.
He said the union supported the four winning candidates in the local primary and has a union-endorsed candidate competing in each of the runoff races.
But he said the union simply wants open-minded people on the board who support students and won’t defer decisions to the superintendent.
He added: “I think [the critics] are overreacting.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 24, 2002 edition of Education Week as Vote Near for Birmingham’s New Elected Board