To elect or not to elect?

Published 9:58 am Thursday, March 14, 2013

Dozens of citizens turned out at an informal town hall meeting to express their opinions about whether Crenshaw County’s Superintendent of Education should be elected or appointed.

The meeting was held at the small courtroom on Monday night, and State Rep. Charles Newton was in attendance to hear from the constituents.

The subject has been under discussion since January, when the Crenshaw County Board of Education unanimously passed a resolution to change the way superintendents are elected.

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A proposed bill for the Alabama Legislature is being advertised in the legal section of The Luverne Journal that would make the change from elected to appointed superintendents.

Currently, the superintendent is elected by popular vote, which has been the case since 1990, when Crenshaw County changed from having the Board of Education appoint a superintendent.

Mike Jones, who has served as the Board of Education’s attorney for more than 30 years, opened the meeting by explaining some of the reasons behind a switch.

“The board sees this as an opportunity to provide for a way to provide good leadership in the future,” Jones said. “The board wants a person that is a good administrator and educator, not necessarily a good politician. There is a difference — a big difference.  They don’t see it as keeping the people from voting on the superintendent.  They have to stand before you and be elected every six years.”

Jones also mentioned that appointing a superintendent would also open the doors for candidates from outside of Crenshaw County.

Probate Judge Jim Perdue said after the meeting that a person does not have to be a resident of the county to appear on the ballot for superintendent.

“I know of people who grew up in this county and are great educators in other systems, and I think some of those people would be appropriate to come back in the future as a superintendent,” Jones said. “But it would be real hard to get those people back if they have to run.”

Jones pointed out that the superintendent doesn’t handle any personnel matters and can only recommend action to the board.

“If someone is appointed, they’ve got to be considerate of the board and the direction they want to go,” he said. “If someone is elected, they only have to worry about getting elected.”

Jones also said that out of more than 15,000 superintendents in the country, only 149 are elected, and many of those are in Alabama.

Others spoke in favor of the measure, including Edna Ruth Norsworthy, who said that her children and grandchildren have been educated in the school system.

“I have a concern for the school system,” she said. “I know there are pros and cons both ways, but I trust my board. If the board does their job, then they know more about what’s going on than we do as parents.”

Tom Perdue said that people have trouble agreeing on anything, which is why board members, County Commissioners and other officials are elected to handle business.

“That’s why I vote,” he said. “The people do have a voice.  Mine is sitting right there on the school board.”

County Commissioner Merrill Sport said he can see both sides of the issue, and he said he thinks it would be easier to make an impact through an appointed superintendent than an elected superintendent.

Only three board members’ votes would be required to make a change at superintendent, and a group of 200 people could impact a board member’s election more easily than a countywide superintendent’s race.

There were also those who spoke up against appointing a superintendent, including Charlie Johnson, a former teacher and current Luverne City Council member.

“Whether the superintendent is elected or appointed, it ought to be the will of the people,” he said. “This country was founded on democracy, and the centerpiece of democracy is a government by the people and for the people.  We express that by voting.”

“As I understand the bill, that’s going to be bypassed,” Johnson said. “If it’s bypassed, that undermines the integrity of democracy.”

There was some question as to whether changing the process would have to be voted on in an election, but as the bill currently stands, it could pass through the state legislature, be signed by the governor and take effect.

Reginald Green also spoke in favor of democracy.

“I want to tell you one thing I know: democracy works. It works in America, it works in Alabama and it works in Crenshaw County,” he said. “I believe with all I am that anytime you take the right of the people to vote on who leads them, it erodes democracy.”

Green said that those in the county who are qualified to serve as superintendent should be able to stay here.

“We need to foster our environment to maintain these people,” he said.

Dennis Bogen, the Chairman of the Democratic Conference in Crenshaw County, said that through the 1965 Voting Rights Act and court cases like Dillard v. Crenshaw County, black people were given the right to vote for elected officials.

“We deserve the right to vote for officials,” he said. “We don’t want to go back.”

Bennie McDonald asked where the line is drawn about appointing formerly elected officials.

“Are we going to appoint commissioners?  The probate judge?  The Board of Education?” he asked. “When a person has to be elected, it creates more incentive. You get more out of a person when they are elected instead of appointed.”

The Rev. Fred Lowery, pastor at Helicon Missionary Baptist Church and a teacher at Goshen High School in Pike County, said he is neither for nor against the proposal.

“One thing I fail to hear, and the great equalizer, is the children of Crenshaw County,” he said. “I think that whatever is done, appointed or elected, the decision has to be made with the children in mind.  It can’t be based on friendship or political ambition. It has to be based on the children, like everything we do in education.”

Dr. Charles Tompkins, chairman of the Board of Education, said that the board wants the best person for the job and that their request to change the process is not made to indict or endorse any individual.

“It’s critical that we have the right person in position,” he said. “There’s a lot at stake. We felt like this situation would serve our children best. That’s the only agenda we had.”

Rep. Newton closed the meeting with a few comments.

“You can have a good superintendent and a good system either way,” he said. “It’s about the kids. We know that. That’s why we’re here.  Is there a good way to do it in the long run that’s good for the kids?”

Newton said that he was receptive to listening to opinions on both sides, and that valid arguments can be made either way.  He also said that he is interested in doing what is best not only for the next two years, but “in the long run.”

“I am going to continue to listen to you and to listen to the Board of Education,” Newton said. “This is not something that will be rushed through.”