By Trent Moore
The Cullman Times
Local schools could have much more flexibility in how they operate soon, if a new bill working its way through the legislature this session is able to survive a parallel battle over tenure.
The Senate Education Committee voted 9-0 for a flexibility bill this week, which is designed to give city and county school systems more freedom in dealing with state education laws. The bill would allow school systems to apply for an exemption from many state education laws, at the approval of the State Board of Education.
Cullman County Board of Education Superintendent Billy Coleman said he favors any initiative to give school boards local control, but hopes legislators write an airtight bill that would not allow for abuse.
“Flexibility in general is a good thing for schools, because every school is unique and it gives school systems opportunities to work on projects that are unique to their systems,” he said. “Our system could certainly use it in the context it is intended. I think the checks and balances will hopefully prevent someone from trying to misuse it. You’re going from superintendent, to local board, to state superintendent, to state board. I think that’s a good thing to establish, just so someone can’t abuse it.”
City schools superintendent Dr. Jan Harris said the act will hopefully strike the balance of giving local schools the freedom to try exciting programs, but build in enough accountability that standards are not compromised.
“I think we’ll use it for good in Cullman City Schools and there are some enrichment programs I’d love to see us take advantage of,” she said. “I think you’ll see some innovative programs that maybe don’t fit the current mold, if we have that opportunity. I’m excited about that.”
According to the Associated Press the bill is a priority for Republican Gov. Robert Bentley and the GOP leadership in the Legislature. But people within that group have different ideas about how to address tenure.
The Senate Education Committee approved the Senate version of the bill 9-0 Wednesday after adding amendments to protect the tenure rights of teachers and to make sure the legislation can’t be used to create charter schools. The state teachers’ organization, the Alabama Education Association, sought the amendment to protect tenure rights, and it passed 5-4.
A House committee approved a version of the bill last week without the tenure language. Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, hopes to get the House to pass that version Thursday, spokeswoman Rachel Adams said.
The governor said Wednesday he was fine with the Senate committee’s amendments. He said he always wanted to be sure the legislation couldn’t affect state laws about the salaries, retirement benefits, and fair dismissal procedures for teachers.
“I have been for that all along, so I have no problem with that,” Bentley said.
A member of the Senate Education Committee, Trip Pittman, R-Daphne, said he voted to add the tenure amendment because the Legislature came up with revisions to Alabama’s tenure law in 2011 that are working well. Protecting those changes, known as the “Students First Act,” will make it easier to pass the school flexibility bill, Pittman said.
Last year, Bentley and the Legislature’s GOP leadership pushed a bill to legalize charter schools, but AEA was able to block it.
* The Associated Press contributed to this report.
* Trent Moore can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com, or by telephone at 734-2131, ext. 220.