Saving Alabama schools

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 20, 2003

Professional educators will be looking closely at the package of proposals announced Monday night by Alabama Gov. Bob Riley. In addition to the largest tax increase in Alabama history, the Republican governor's plan involves a series of bills targeting schools and the way children are educated.

Mark Bazzell, Superintendent of Pike County Schools, was pleased with the early results of Riley's plan, though he, like many Legislators, has not yet waded through every detail of the 23-bill package.

"So far, I'm excited that we finally have a governor willing to step forward and come up with a proposal that will mean a long-term solution, not only for the problems of education, but all the other problems in our state," he said. "We're excited and optimistic."

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Bazzell said he was interested in both parts of Riley's plan: the $1.2 billion tax increase and the package of accountability bills.

"We're really interested

in both parts equally," he said, indicating that the tax hike could help schools meet budget shortfalls and the accountability and reform bills could streamline procedures for educators and administrators.

One such measure, Bazzell said, is Riley's proposal to eliminate the Alabama Tenure Commission and implement a policy of binding arbitration.

"Terminating an employee is a cumbersome process right now, requiring a number of steps," Bazzell said. "I think it's important for us to look at [Riley's proposal] very carefully. Anything that would allow us to remove people from the classroom or terminate employees is something we need to look at. It's a lengthy process right now that requires quite a bit of time."

Riley's plan, which, if passed by the Legislature, must be approved by Alabama voters in a special election in September.

Hank Jones, outgoing Superintendent of Troy City Schools, said even though he isn't thrilled by all of the parts of the governor's plan, which he describes as "very ambitious," he is willing to consider supporting it due to the grave situation faced by schools.

"I'd have to look at the entire thing in detail before deciding for sure that I can support it, but for now, it's the only plan on the table," he said. "I'm not a great fan of binding arbitration, but this may be the one opportunity that I've seen in my entire career to fix education."

Dr. Susan Lockwood, Executive Director of the Alabama Association of School Administrators, said Riley's plan is the perfect solution for this opportunity to help schools. She was very pleased with Riley's plan.

"I think the governor's package seems to be masterful," she said.

In addition, she thinks it will pass. Lockwood said assorted factions and special interests are unlikely to derail the package.

"I think it provides a real compromise among all the competing interests," she said. "It looks like it provides for fairness in taxes and I think it'll provide the stable funding for the essential functions of government. Dr. Hubbert said he was totally behind this today."

Lockwood is referring to Paul Hubbert, the executive secretary of the Alabama Education Association - the most powerful teacher's group in the state and a major player in education politics.

The AEA teacher's union has no problem with arbitration by "impartial, trained and qualified hearing officers," Hubbert wrote in the most recent edition of the Alabama School Journal.

"I once had to transfer a teacher and, because of appeals through courts, it took three years," Lockwood said.

Still, Lockwood said early reports show that some involved with the process are concerned that even $1.2 billion might not be enough to save Alabama schools.

&uot;There is some concern about whether or not this would produce enough revenue,&uot; she said. &uot;They are crunching those numbers as fast as they can.&uot;