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Alabama’s governor makes surprising — and scary — education appointment

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley on Jan. 19, 2015, in Montgomery, Ala.  (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

What message is a governor sending to the public with an appointment like this?

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley has tapped someone to your state’s Board of Education who never attended public schools, publicly declared that his children never will either, and actively supported a successful effort to defeat a vote on a school tax in a divisive campaign in his home county?

Bentley, a Republican, named Matthew Brown, a 28-year-old design engineer at the Baldwin County Highway Department, to the Alabama State Board of Education. Brown graduated in 2007 from Pensacola Christian College and attended Cumberland School of Law at Samford University, graduating in 2011.

Bentley hasn’t been what you’d call a friend to public schools, given his support for tax credits, vouchers and charter schools. This year he signed into law legislation that amended the 2013 Alabama Accountability Act and that diverts up to $30 million a year from the Education Trust Fund for “opportunity scholarships”  (vouchers). He also recently signed a law allowing charter schools to open in Alabama and giving a new state commission the right to overturn a local school district’s rejection of specific charter applications. (So much for the traditional Republican love of all things local).

Now, Bentley has appointed Brown, a man with absolutely no history of participation of even interest in helping public schools to represent his district on the state Board of Education.  In his announcement statement, Bentley said that he was “honored” to appoint Brown, who would bring “a unique perspective to the position.” Unique indeed.

As public education activist Larry Lee noted in a post on his education blog, Bentley “has appointed someone to state board of education with no known involvement ever with public schools (did not attend them and says his kids will not) and who led the battle in

Lee, the former executive director of the Covington County Economic Development Commission and the West Central Partnership of Alabama, said the appointment of Brown “stunned educators.” Lee, who was the lead author of a report about outstanding rural schools in Alabama a few years ago, noted that Bentley was aware of opposition to Brown’s selection but ignored it.

Meanwhile, the Tuscaloosa News reported that none other than Bentley has been named vice chair of the National Governors Association’s education and workforce committee. A Bentley statement said:

“Alabama has made significant strides in preparing students for success in college and their careers. As governors, we are uniquely positioned to influence federal legislation and regulations that affect education and workforce policies. I look forward to sharing Alabama’s success in the area of workforce development with other governors.”

Who appointed him? According to the News, he was just appointed during the association’s summer conference by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, chair of the National Governors Association, and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, the group’s vice chair. Herbert is a Republican; McAuliffe a Democrat.

Here is a letter that Lee has sent to Bentley about the Brown appointment and other education issues:

Governor Bentley:
As you are aware, your recent announcement that you were appointing Matt Brown of Fairhope to replace Al Thompson on the State Board of Education has created a great deal of controversy, especially in the public education community and in Baldwin County.
There was a vote to increase local support for schools in Baldwin County in March. This was an extremely contentious and divisive issue.  This is one of the fastest growing school systems in Alabama. Their student population has grown 24.5% in the last 10 years and today they are the fourth largest system in Alabama.
Given this, many public officials and education personnel, worked feverishly to gather support for the vote. The face of the opposition was Matt Brown, who created and headed the anti-tax group, Educate Baldwin Now.
 This group was taken to task by the Secretary of State for being in violation of the Fair Campaign Practices Act and circulated information that was factually inaccurate. For instance, they stated that Baldwin County was No. 2 in the state in local school support. However, info from ALSDE shows they are No. 28, trailing even Conecuh County.
Matt Brown’s opposition seemed all the more difficult to understand as he was heading the Eastern Shore Metropolitan Planning Organization at the time and just released a report stating that the county would need 16-20 new schools by 2040.
So he was in opposition to his own report.
This created tension between Brown and certain county commissioners who were supporting the tax vote, as well as board members of the MPO who were also in support of it. Brown in no longer employed by the MPO.
Now the education community is being told that their SBOE member is the same guy who opposed them earlier this year. They are suddenly supposed to believe this leopard has changed his spots?
After this announcement was made I put a blog post up about noon Friday, July 17. Prior to that date, I had never had more than 512 visits to my blog in one day. By midnight Friday there were 4,245 visits and this doubled on Saturday. This has now been viewed by over 20,000 people.
Email comments and phone calls I have gotten about this matter run at least 20-1 opposing the appointment of Matt Brown.
People simply do not understand why someone with no known interest in public education and with a track record of working against progress in his home county is considered to be the best choice in a region including seven counties and the Mobile metropolitan area.
Neither do education administrators in the county understand why they were not shown the courtesy of being asked for their opinion on this appointment as they are the ones most knowledge about the local situation and will be the people called upon to work with the appointee.
As chair of SBOE you know this body oversees 90,000 public school employees and a K-12 budget of $4.1 billion. The education community does not believe Matt Brown has the knowledge or experience to step into such a role.
I do not know what the largest bank in Baldwin County is or which entity has the most employees. However, I doubt either of them come close to $4.1 billion or 90,000 employees. Neither do I think either would consider asking Matt Brown to be on their board at this point in time.
I do not know Matt. (However, I did email him twice with a list of questions in hopes he would respond so that I could post on my blog. He did not respond.)
I am told that he is a fine young man with political ambitions. But I think SBOE is far too important to be used to give him on-the-job training.
Geographically this is a HUGE district, running from Bayou la Batre on the south end to Highland Home on the north, a distance of 180 miles. It has 10 systems and about 90,000 students.
One cannot be an effective board member without intimate knowledge of the district they represent. They must know superintendents personally, must visit schools, must attend events.
On July 21 Matt Brown was hired by the Baldwin County Commission to work under their county engineer. Several commissioners stressed that they expect him to work a full 40 hours per week to earn his $72,000 salary.
Last Saturday he verbally committed to interim superintendent Hope Zeanah that he would attend a meeting this morning of all Baldwin County principals. He later informed her that he would not be able to attend–and did not.
If he cannot find time to have a face-to-face meeting with principals in his home county, how will he ever do justice to education throughout the district?
Of course, many decisions have untended consequences. This one certainly does. Baldwin County is now searching for a new superintendent. The first interviews are next week. Three of the candidates are out of state, two are in Alabama.
Each of these candidates are now aware that their new school board member has very limited credentials for the position. Their first thought is bound to be, “Is this how state government supports public schools?”
Baldwin County schools are at a critical juncture and their school board understands this. They are now on their third superintendent in the last 12 months. They have not only just lost an opportunity for new revenue, but lost about $8 million in existing revenue as well when tax renewals were voted down. They’ve spent all summer installing more portables. At Gulf Shores Elementary they’ve run out of space for portables.
They desperately need stability in this system. They know they MUST get it right with this superintendent. However, the appointment of Matt Brown to SBOE only makes their job more difficult.
But Governor, this issue is much bigger than just the appointment of Matt Brown. The last few years have not been good ones for public schools in Alabama. Our educators are demoralized and growing more so each day.
In 2013 we passed, and you signed, the Alabama Accountability Act. I have perhaps studied this more than anyone else in the state. From what I’ve learned, there is simply no way I will be convinced that this bill is doing what we were told it would do (help failing schools and their students).
In 2015 we passed, and you signed, a charter school bill. At best this is no more than another band aid we’re putting on a problem that needs a tourniquet instead. Washington D.C. has 40% of its students in charters, more than any other system in the country. The gap between black and white achievement there is DOUBLE what it is here.
In 2015 we amended, and you signed, the Alabama Accountability Act so that by the end of this year, we will have potentially diverted $80 million from the Education Trust Fund to give tax breaks to large companies. Sure last year the SGOs handed out 5,000 scholarships (1,000 of them to students already going to a private school). That’s .006 of the 733,000 students we have statewide.
Now we are saying that we should have someone on SBOE whose only track record concerning public education is opposing it?
We are doing some amazing things in our public schools. Yesterday I met the rocket team from Russellville high and middle schools that just won an international completion at the Paris Air Show. I’ve not been this impressed in a long, long time.
Tommy Bice has put a great framework in place to move us forward with Plan 2020. Every educator I respect tells me it is the most logical vision for Alabama schools they’ve ever seen.
But we cannot continue to send the wrong messages to professionals like we’re doing with the Matt Brown appointment.
You may recall that before you ever took office you said you were looking for innovation in education. I told you the most innovative idea I could think of would be to listen to our real experts, principals and teachers. You agreed with me.
The real experts think this was the wrong move….
Thank you for your time. If you would like to discuss further, let me know.
Your friend,
Larry Lee