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May 22, 2013

Appointed superintendent bill passes for Cullman County

CULLMAN — It’s official: Billy Coleman will be the last superintendent ever elected for the Cullman County Board of Education.

In the waning minutes of the last day of the legislative session Monday night, legislators passed a bill to restructure the system and give the board authority to hire its own superintendent. The legislature also repealed acts requiring an election for the post, which has been the method of choosing a superintendent for the past 50 years.

The school board, with the strong support of current superintendent Coleman, asked the legislature to make the change earlier this year.

“There’s just a lot of appreciation that goes out, from the board for doing what they thought was best for the system, to the legislators for following through with it,” Coleman said. “It was pretty courageous, and I think it will be a great thing for our system in the long run.”

Alabama is one of only three states that still allow elected superintendents, and Cullman County was among just 149 systems out of 15,000 nationwide that still held an election to determine its chief officer.

School board member Chris Carter said he believes the legislation is the beginning of a new era for the district.

“We’re so excited, and I think it will be a great step forward for our system,” he said.

Long-time school board member Randy Hasenbein said switching to an appointed superintendent has been a priority for almost a decade, and he believes it will finally help eliminate some of the political influences from the system.

“I’m excited about this progressive move to eliminate a little more politics out of education, and I know it’s been a little controversial, but this isn’t something we came up with overnight,” he said. “None of this was based on anything political, as far as a being a Democrat idea or a Republican idea. We just did it because we felt it was the right thing to do. As a board, we just felt like all of our employees, taxpayers, and most importantly our students, deserve the best we can give them.”

Though some residents might not agree with the change, Hansenbein said he believes history will show the board made the right decision with this request.

“We felt this would help us get another step up the ladder to reach the top,” he said. “We feel like we have a pretty good school system, because of a lot of people’s hard work through the years. But now, we want to make bigger strides and move into the elite category. I think the years ahead will prove these actions have been of merit for our students and the citizens of the county.”

Sen. Paul Bussman said he was proud the legislative delegation was able to fulfill the school board’s request.

“With the way the session was going, the Senate didn’t get local bills until the last day, so it put us on a really tight time frame,” he said. “It was actually the second-to-last bill, and we got it done at 11:45 p.m. I’m really excited we were able to get it done, and I firmly believe it’s in the best interest of the school system.”

The school board passed a resolution urging the legislature to repeal the local act providing for a superintendent’s election and enact a new system giving the school board authority to select and hire a superintendent earlier this year, though a dispute over introducing the bill delayed the initiative.

With a House seat open in Cullman County earlier this year, local Rep. Ed Henry, (R-Cullman, Morgan) would not support the legislation until the seat was filled. But, after Rep. Randall Shedd (R-Cullman) was elected to the open seat and took office in April, Henry and Shedd both agreed to support the measure along with Bussman and Rep. Mac Buttram (R-Cullman).

“We’re pleased to  be able to do what the county board had asked us to do,” Buttram said. “I always want to try the best I can to meet the needs of folks at the local level who request the legislative delegation take care of an issue they have. We’re glad to be successful with this one.”

Had it not passed by Monday night, education officials say it could have been years until a similar measure could be introduced again. The next superintendent election would be ramping up before the next session, meaning it would have been at least another four-year term cycle before the board could broach the topic. The measure was passed without the requirement of a public vote, as requested by the school board due to time constraints.

The new system is scheduled to take effect at the end of current superintendent Billy Coleman’s term in a little over a year.

Officials plan to hold an open search, likely contracting with the Alabama Association of School Boards (AASB) for assistance. Public interviews will then be held with finalists, in a similar fashion to the Cullman City Schools superintendent search taking place right now with the retirement of Dr. Jan Harris.

“I think that works out well for us, because it’s really important that people get a chance to see how that process works for determining a superintendent,” Coleman said, noting the city search. “We’re very fortunate to have Cullman City, and we can watch that process take place with their search, from the surveys, to community meetings.  The AASB does a fantastic job of making sure that search has integrity, and you end up with a great pool of candidates, and that’s the same process I’m sure our board will follow when the time comes. It shows the transparency and openness.”

* Trent Moore can be reached by e-mail at trentm@cullmantimes.com, or by telephone at 734-2131, ext. 220.

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