A bill signed into law in 2012 that was meant to establish the responsibilities and actions of school board members is now in question after the lack of power of school board members became evident during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The School Board Governance Improvement Act of 2012 states its purpose is “to provide legislative intent; to require prospective board members to publicly affirm certain principles of educational governance; to specify the responsibilities of board members; to provide for the implementation of training and continuing education in boardsmanship for all board members; to provide for certain sanctions to be imposed upon board members upon a finding that the action or inaction of a board member constitutes neglect of duty or willful misconduct; to require the State Board of Education and local boards of education to adopt a model code of conduct for board members; and to amend Sections 16-8-1 and 16-11-2, Code of Alabama 1975, relating to the qualifications of members of city and county boards of education.”

When schools shut down at the onset of the pandemic, the decision was made by superintendents across the state.

Jefferson County School Board member Ronnie Dixon said his concerns began after getting hundreds of emails from parents when the school system went from in-class learning to virtual school. Whether the apprehension was over mask mandates or parents being in school, Dixon said all he could do is listen.

“It really reared its head when the pandemic hit, and you had two things,” said Dixon. “The superintendents were making all the decisions under [an] executive action, and then you didn’t see any community input [by] local board members.”

Dixon said he believes the time out of the classroom will plague children for years to come.

“I don’t see how those students in second, third and fourth grade will ever catch up,” said Dixon.

Online learning forced parents into a homeschooling situation. Dixon said he would have liked to have seen more discussion and input from board members when those decisions were made.

“The main reason it became a thorn in my side is because I was getting hundreds of emails from the people who elected me, and it was the entirety of Jefferson County because we have 58 schools from one end of the county to the other, and they wanted me to do something, but I couldn’t do anything because we’re only allowed to react to a superintendent’s recommendation,” Dixon added. “There was nothing for an individual or a group of board members to bring up. If the superintendent doesn’t bring it up, there’s no action that we can take.”

However, the School Board Governance Improvement Act of 2012 set guidelines for school board members and required each member to undergo training.

Former State Sen. Dick Brewbaker (R-Montgomery), who sponsored the 2012 bill and was chair of the Education Committee, said the bill came from best practices recommended by the National Association of School Boards and was modified as it made its way through the legislature.

“The local school boards were pushing pretty hard for it,” said Brewbaker. “ … I don’t recall there even being much discussion about it because everybody on the school boards, and superintendents were calling and saying, ‘Yeah, yeah, that’s what we need.'”

Brewbaker said while he thinks any policy that was approved 10 years ago should probably be reviewed, the original purpose of the bill was to allow for clarification on processes for school board members.

“What you don’t want is individual school board members interfering with policy, interfering with superintendents on a day-to-day basis,” said Brewbaker. “And that’s why in most states, local school and state board members, for that matter, what’s on the agenda is up to the superintendent.”

Brewbaker said the superintendent still works for the board.

“If they’ve got a superintendent that won’t put things on the agenda that they want on there, they have the recourse to get rid of it,” Brewbaker said. “But what they don’t have the power to do as part-time government officials is to interfere with policy matters that are generally considered best left to professionals.”

Brewbaker said school board members taking a superintendent to task in a public setting tends to make things worse. He also said when it comes to hiring and firing practices, school boards can be at risk of lawsuits if professionals who know the rules don’t make those decisions.

When he became a school board member, Dixon said he didn’t realize how little power each member has.

“The first time we were in a meeting where I had the opportunity to say, ‘There’s a better way to do this,’ I was just told, ‘That’s not your responsibility,'” said Dixon. “You don’t have the opportunity to say there is a better way to do it. You have to say you either affirm the superintendent’s recommendation or you deny the superintendent’s recommendation. That’s it.”

At that time, Dr. Craig Pouncey was the Jefferson County superintendent. Dixon said Pouncey explained to him how the Governance Act worked. Dixon said the issue is not a Jefferson County issue, and he has nothing against any superintendent, but he believes this is a statewide issue that needs to be addressed.

“I am not saying anything about our board or our superintendent,” said Dixon. “I am saying every school board member is governed by this … There’s no way for a board member to bring something up if it’s not on the agenda and it just doesn’t make any sense.”

Dixon has other concerns about the Governance Act.

“Literally, it is restricting who is able to attempt to run for office for a local school board or to be appointed,” Dixon said. “If you wanted to be a legislator, there’s nothing that says in order to be a legislator you have to take a training class and that you have to sign a piece of paper that says you’ll conduct yourself morally and in compliance with a boardsmanship. There’s just nothing like that for any other elected official that I can find.”

Brewbaker said that is not the case.

“Every state official, at least that I’m aware of, has some training obligation,” said Brewbaker. “I mean, when I was in the Senate, I guess it’s still true, you know, we had to go to ethics training, we had to go to an orientation every four years, where professionals and people who theoretically knew more than we did told us how to do our jobs. That’s not unique to school board members.”

School board members are required to undergo training through the Alabama Association of School Boards (AASB). Brewbaker said it was that association pushing the bill when it was up for consideration.

“Why did they identify a lobbying group (AASB) that’s main function during the legislative session is to lobby for more money for the local school boards?” Dixon asked. “Why would the legislature vote for a bill that is requiring a lobbying group to lobby for them or develop the training and conduct the training and provide for head-hunter search when you’re looking for a new superintendent.”

The AASB has been around since 1949 and was designated by the Alabama Legislature in 1955 as the representing agency for school boards in the state. To be a member of AASB, school boards must pay membership fees. Current membership statewide is 100%.

The AASB’s website states, “The association is supported by membership dues and proceeds from board training and association services. AASB’s mission is to develop excellent school board leaders through quality training, advocacy and services.”

Brewbaker said he does not remember if other training options were considered. Before the passing of the act, there was voluntary training available.

To connect with the author of this story, or to comment, email erica.thomas@1819news.com.

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