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Byers expects Riley to push double-dip legislator guidelines

By M.J. Ellington
mjellington@decaturdaily.com · (334) 262-1104

MONTGOMERY — Decatur’s representative on the state Board of Education said he expects Gov. Bob Riley to push for the board to establish guidelines on double-dipping legislators who work for public education.

David Byers, R-Birmingham, said he expects Riley to be present when the board holds its monthly two-year college system meeting at Calhoun Community College on Thursday. The rare North Alabama meeting at 9:30 a.m. at the Health Science Center Lecture Hall is open to the public.

Byers also expects Riley to push for such policy changes at the board’s work session afterwards for elementary and high schools. The work session will be at Decatur High School.

Byers said he agrees that double dipping should be stopped. He said the solutions will not be easy, and a one-size-fits-all policy that covers both the two-year college system and K-12 may not be within the board’s authority.

Board member Mary Jane Caylor, D-Huntsville, said the governor called her last week to talk about the double-dipping policy. She said May is the likely time for a vote on the policy issue for the colleges.

Employment debate

Also on the board’s tentative agenda is discussion of an employment contract for Interim Chancellor Renee Culverhouse. The board is not in agreement on the issue.

Stephanie Bell, R-Montgomery, and Randy McKinney, R-Gulf Shores, said they plan to vote against a contract for Culverhouse. Board Vice President Sandra Ray, D-Tuscaloosa, and Byers said they will vote for the contract. Caylor made the motion to hire her and supports a contract.

The former two-year system attorney came under scrutiny during a federal investigation of practices at Shelton State Community College and Alabama Fire College in Tuscaloosa.

Culverhouse was criticized for not recommending that the board get a second appraisal on a residence sold to a Shelton State employee at half its true appraisal value. Culverhouse said she did not recommend a second appraisal because the property was inexpensive and vacant for some time without an offer.

McKinney said she could have done more.

“Had the system policy been followed and another appraisal been ordered, the property would have been more,” Mc-Kinney said. “It is my understanding that improvements to the property that doubled its value were already done before the time of the sale.”

“I declined to serve on the committee reviewing the chancellor’s contract because of her history of hiring legislators and family members of people in the system at Gadsden State,” McKinney said, referring to her role as president of Gadsden State Community College. “I do not believe we need someone leading our system who has that kind of ties.”

He said there are other presidents within the system who are qualified and who do not have Culverhouse’s history. He likes Don Edwards, a system attorney whom former Interim Chancellor Thomas Corts hired just before he resigned in March.

Byers said he expects a national search for a new chancellor to begin within a few weeks. He said Culverhouse is not interested in being chancellor and wants to return to the Gadsden presidency no later than October.

She will go back to Gadsden before then if a chancellor is selected, he said.

“I do not see how we can ask someone to take the position in such times without the protection of a contract,” Ray said.

Media focus

Double dipping has been in the news because of a federal investigation of the two-year system. Also, The Birmingham News has uncovered numerous legislators’ connections to two-year schools.

Riley said he wants the practice to stop among education employees.

Others question whether singling out educators is the right approach.

The governor urged the board at a work session two weeks ago to adopt policy changes that prohibit the two-year system from hiring elected officials, and require lawmakers to take personal leave time or leave without pay for the time they spend on elective duties.

The governor, who is president of the board, said he questions whether someone can be away from a school position for 102 days of the school year and not have it affect student education.

But some lawmakers and a political scientist say educators are not the only lawmakers who may have potential conflicts of interest on legislation.

Byers said he expects Riley to propose similar policies for K-12 employees at the work session Thursday. But Byers said local boards of education, not the state board, oversee local school employees. For that reason, he doubts the state board has authority to make such policy.

Byers said he believes the state “has a golden opportunity to make long-term changes” in hiring guidelines, and put in place a structure to curb abuses. In the meantime, Byers said, “one goal should be to assure that legislators who work in the system have valid jobs.”

An elected system advisory committee on policy changes must review the proposed changes and make recommendations before the board votes. That committee will not meet until May.

Ray said she does not expect a vote on the issue at the Calhoun meeting, but she does expect some discussion.

She believes Riley’s ultimate goal on double dipping is good.

“I just don’t know that this is the right way to accomplish that.”

Ray said the board asked Attorney General Troy King’s office for an opinion on Riley’s proposals, but does not have the opinion yet.

“I do think if there is a legislator who is an employee of the two-year system or K-12, the person should do the job he was hired to do,” Ray said.

Other states

Auburn University in Montgomery political science professor Bradley Moody said Alabama should look at how other states handle the issue of lawmakers who work for other public agencies.

The federal investigation of the two-year system raised questions about a number of consulting contracts between two-year colleges and lawmakers. Moody said the consulting contracts present a different issue.

“It may be hard to turn me down if I am head of a powerful committee who also wants a consulting job,” Moody said.

Moody said the problem is not new.

“Let’s be honest about this. Who has been chair of the Board of Education for the past five years?” Moody asked, without naming Riley.

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