Published: Thursday, February 03, 2011, 6:09 AM
By Challen Stephens, The Huntsville Times
There it sat, halfway down the list of what the volunteers hoped to see in Huntsville within 10 years: An appointed school board.
But unlike a solar power initiative or free public transportation, this wish-list item at Monday's Speak Up! focus group has potential. After all, two thirds of the cities in Alabama already appoint school board members.
And some folks in Montgomery, those with the power to make such a change, are talking about the need to do something to improve the leadership atop the financially foundering Huntsville schools.
But what would be the point? "I yearn for folks with a business background being able to get involved and make these hard decisions," said Rep. Phil Williams, R-Toney, who is leading the call to do away with the little district elections. "I'm a bit frustrated we're to this point."
He said the city board's failure to plan for anticipated state budget cuts now threatens the economic health of the whole area. Williams said he is speaking to lawmakers about a proposal to place board appointments in the hands of the city council. That might allow for business leaders and university professors who would otherwise shy away from campaigns.
Not all are convinced.
"I haven't heard an outcry from the people for changing anything," said Rep. Mike Ball, R-Madison. "They've certainly got problems, but it didn't happen over night ... that's why the people elected them. They've got to find a way forward."
Mayor Tommy Battle said talk of changing the board is a distraction, as a $20 million shortfall in the school system raises more pressing matters, such as staff cuts and school closures. When asked if the right people were in place to move the system forward, Battle said: "We have the people in place that have to move forward. They've been elected. That's just it."
But Williams said elected members may be reluctant to cut a program or sell a school because they hope to hold onto their seat. "Once people get elected they change," said Williams. "We could change this situation."
He pointed to Madison City Schools. Madison residents may apply to serve on the board. Each year the city council screens applicants, holds public interviews, and makes one appointment.
Madison Mayor Paul Finley said the system has worked "extremely well," as voters hold council members accountable, while "apolitical" board members are freed from the competition between different parts of the city. "We've done redistricting four times in the last 11 years," he said.
"There's a lot of people who would not feel comfortable in an election process," said Finley on Wednesday, "but they feel very comfortable in being appointed by a city council."
What's more, said Williams, the Madison board members aren't paid. Meanwhile, Huntsville, in addition to having the highest paid superintendent in this state, also has the highest paid school board.
Board members here receive $23,343 a year. But only 27 of the 68 city schools systems compensate board members, said Susan Salter at the Alabama Association of School Boards.
Looking at a recent survey, the highest she could find, after Huntsville, was Montgomery, which paid board members $10,000 a year. Choctaw, Lauderdale and Shelby county systems paid almost as much as Montgomery. Mobile and Birmingham pay board members $700 per month, she said.
But pay is not a big part of the issue, said Williams. Instead, it's about qualifications and the reality that a school board campaign in Huntsville can be a divisive and expensive proposition.
For example, despite crowded city council races last summer, board member Jennie Robinson ran the most expensive campaign in the city, raising more than $60,000. Such a price tag, combined with the narrow scope of the board, opens the board to the influence of a few special interest groups.
Over last decade, the employees in the Huntsville Education Association and the business executives in the Committee of 100 have attempted to influence nearly every board election. For example, the Committee of 100 alone put up more than half of the $40,000 raised by newly elected David Blair.
And finally there is also a matter of low participation in the selection process. Despite all that cash, only about 4,000 people voted in the runoff between Blair and Emily Elam.
As nature of the system's deficit spending emerged, letters to the editor began to appear blaming the board. "Amid obfuscation and finger-pointing, the fact remains that an incompetent school board has put our system $20 million in debt, sullied our good name and lost the trust of the people," wrote Esther Davis.
Huntsville councilman Bill Kling said he's received similar e-mails promoting an appointed board. "Personally, I'd be a little reluctant," said Kling on Wednesday.
He said the council may be able to tap business leaders and retired educators who may not wish to campaign. "But I would hate to see the public lose its right to vote for five elected officials."
State Sen. Paul Sanford said he hasn't heard much call from voters, and he is not convinced the city council would be up to the task. "We've seen the city council shy away from wanting to have political responsibility," said Sanford, who once proposed getting the council more involved with the Huntsville Housing Authority.
Besides, he said, appointments wouldn't remove politics, but rather shift the debate to the council. "It just kind of transfers it."
In 1970, Hartwell Lutz, a state representative at the time, said dissatisfaction with the state of the schools, especially in south Huntsville, led to the end of the old appointed board. "I wrote the bill," said Lutz.
State Rep. George Grayson forced the change to district elections. Grayson, a man who in 1993 would plead guilty to extorting $1.7 million from Huntsville, sued in federal court and in 1988 a judge ordered the five single-member districts we have now.
Lutz on Wednesday said he regrets ever moving away from the appointed board.
"I don't' think it's worked out the way people thought it would," he said. "I think the school board has become where each board member has to look out for his or her constituency and that's just politics, and I don't think that's served the school system too well."