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New State Law Could Bring Sanctions Against School Board Members

By: Crystal Bonvillian, The Huntsville Times
By: Crystal Bonvillian, The Huntsville Times

HUNTSVILLE, Alabama -- School board members not doing your jobs, look out. Fellow board members may be watching, and may take action via a new state law.

The School Board Governance Improvement Act of 2012, which became law in April, establishes training requirements, boardsmanship standards and accountability measures for all local school board members in the state.

And the new law allows a school board, upon a majority vote, to impose sanctions against its own members. Sanctions are allowed in cases of "neglect of duty or willful misconduct," the law states.

Reactions among board members varied across the three school districts in Madison County. Jeff Anderson, a Madison County school board member, was dubious.

"I find it interesting that the Legislature is mandating certain board activities, and who's governing them?" Anderson said. "As to the quality of the law, I have no comment."

Anderson said he believes the people, through elections, govern the quality of school board members.

Huntsville board President Laurie McCaulley, who at the board's July 10 meeting said "certain board members across this state have caused this," said Wednesday she doesn't think the new law would have a great impact in Huntsville, despite the city board's troubles in recent years. The Huntsville district at the end of fiscal 2010 found itself $19.5 million in debt, leading to massive layoffs and budget cuts the following spring.

A February 2011 review by The Times found that, although board members learned as early as August 2008 that the district was feeling the effects of the recession, it did little to shore up the finances.

McCaulley said that inaction is not the type of issue the law addresses.

"It addresses the behavior of school board members, their ethics, conduct that is outrageous and interferes with the functioning of the system," McCaulley said. "We don't have the conduct issues that other school boards in the state have."

The new law comes during an ongoing power struggle between the Birmingham school board and state education officials, who took control of the school district last month.

The Birmingham board, which on Tuesday was expected to vote on a state-devised financial plan aimed at cutting $12 million from the district's budget, instead fired Superintendent Craig Witherspoon. Witherspoon's firing was almost immediately overturned by state Superintendent Tommy Bice, The Birmingham News reported Wednesday.

The firing could delay the start of school. But the new law requires local board members act on a superintendent's personnel recommendations "in a timely manner, based on student needs and system finances, without regard to personal preferences or political interests."

It also says they must attend scheduled meetings and actively participate in district functions, activities and training programs "unless good cause is shown."

The law also requires board members to affirm - in writing - that they will make decisions based solely on the needs and interests of the students and the school system and that their decisions and actions will not be self-serving.

The state school board must, by Jan. 1, adopt a code of conduct for all local board members. The local districts have until April 1 to adopt their own codes that include, at a minimum, all of the elements of the state's code.

The state superintendent is also required to develop, in cooperation with the Alabama Association of School Boards, continuing education and training opportunities for board members.

Failure to complete training or to satisfy the standards for board members could result in "formal censure or reprimand" by fellow board members. If the allegations are serious enough, the state superintendent can also step in to investigate and impose sanctions of his own.

Besides censure or reprimand, the potential sanctions include loss of eligibility for future service to any local school board in the state.

Phil Schmidt, who sits on the Madison school board, welcomes the possibility of sanctions.

"There are consequences for students, consequences for teachers and there ought to be consequences for school board members," said Schmidt.

He said Madison already requires board member training, although other systems may not. He said the state is trying to ensure all board members take the job seriously.

"You're talking about money from the state and the future education of lots of children," Schmidt said. "Doing it right or doing it wrong is going to affect a lot of lives."

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