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Gov. Bob Riley, left, was unsuccessful in his effort to persuade State Board of Education members Ethel Hall, center, and Ella Bell to vote down an employment contract for Renee Culverhouse, interim chancellor of the two-year college system. The meeting took place at Calhoun Community College.
Daily photos by John Godbey
Gov. Bob Riley, left, was unsuccessful in his effort to persuade State Board of Education members Ethel Hall, center, and Ella Bell to vote down an employment contract for Renee Culverhouse, interim chancellor of the two-year college system. The meeting took place at Calhoun Community College.

Against
Riley’s wishes

Board approves contract for 2-year college interim chancellor

By Eric Fleischauer
eric@decaturdaily.com · 340-2435

Over the objection of Gov. Bob Riley, the State Board of Education, in a contentious meeting at Calhoun Community College on Thursday, approved a $248,000 contract for interim Chancellor Renee Culverhouse.

In separate action, motions supported by Riley to prevent elected officials from working for the two-year system failed for lack of a recommendation by Culverhouse. A similar motion that would have applied to the K-12 system also went without a vote when the board met at Decatur High School.

Both measures are slated for reconsideration at the board’s next meeting, on May 10 in Montgomery.

Robotics center in jeopardy?

Riley suggested that Culverhouse’s failure to embrace the mission of workforce development could jeopardize his support for a robotics center at Calhoun, a project he said was worth more than $20 million. He seemed to back away from that statement after the meeting, however.

The board meets outside Montgomery twice a year, so citizens can observe its meetings.

Decatur-area board members David Byers, R-Birmingham, and Mary Jane Caylor, D-Huntsville, voted in favor of the Culverhouse contract, which expires Oct. 31. If the board selects a permanent chancellor before that time, the contract expires at the time of the new appointment. It also provides that, upon her termination, Culverhouse can return to her position as president of Gadsden State Community College.

Culverhouse has served as interim chancellor of the embattled two-year system since March 2, when former interim head Thomas Corts resigned without a contract. The contract approved Thursday is retroactive to Culverhouse’s hire date.

Board members Randy McKinney, R-Gulf Shores, and Betty Peters, R-Dothan, said Caylor should have recused herself from the vote on Culverhouse’s contract. Caylor’s husband, John Caylor, a lawyer, has worked for various two-year colleges — including Gadsden State — since 1977.

Had Caylor recused herself, the vote would have been 4-4 and the proposed contract would have failed.

At one point board member Ella Bell, D-Montgomery, a Culverhouse supporter, left the meeting briefly. Caylor leaned over to Byers and whispered, “We have to stall until (Bell) gets back.” She returned in time.

Before the vote, McKinney asked if Caylor would recuse herself. She said, “No,” without elaborating. After the meeting, Caylor said, “I didn’t get a reason. Why should I respond?”

McKinney said, “I guess she has a different definition of ‘conflict of interest’ than I do.”

After the meeting, Peters said Caylor’s failure to recuse herself is indicative of the system’s problems.

“The lack of recusal is proof we need to change things,” Peters said.

Caylor said, after the meeting, that her husband started employment at Gadsden State before Culverhouse became its president and that his employment with the public school system started before Caylor’s election to the Board of Education.

Culverhouse donated $150 to Caylor’s re-election campaign last year, according to state election records.

Thursday’s meeting of the State Board of Education was frustrating for Gov. Bob Riley.
Thursday’s meeting of the State Board of Education was frustrating for Gov. Bob Riley.
Riley also voted against Culverhouse’s contract. He criticized her for statements at a legislative budget meeting in which she said she opposed a budget that would increase work-force development programs but not provide funds for salary increases.

The Alabama House approved $8 million for the program instead of Riley’s proposed $30 million. Riley said that level of funding prevents the state from meeting existing commitments to industrial recruits.

Culverhouse responded she did not feel salary increases for educators should be sacrificed for economic development incentives.

“That is the essence of the problem,” Riley said. “It is not the governor’s work-force development program; it is the two-year college system’s work-force development program.”

Riley said Alabama’s recent economic strides result largely from the work-force development efforts of the two-year college system.

“If you want to kill it, to take it back to a stagnant, no-growth policy, then continue to have this debate,” he said.

Also on Thursday, The Birmingham News reported that while at Gadsden State, Culverhouse gave contracts to the son of a friend of former Chancellor Roy Johnson and to the son of the former Alabama Fire College director.

Those voting in favor of the Culverhouse contract: Caylor; Byers; Ella Bell; Ethel Hall, D-Fairfield, and Sandra Ray, D-Tuscaloosa. Those voting against: Riley; Stephanie Bell, R-Montgomery; Peters and McKinney.

Double-dipping

Riley’s proposal to prevent legislators from working for two-year colleges did not come to a vote because it lacked a procedurally required recommendation from Culverhouse, but the board members were split on the issue.

Culverhouse declined to recommend it, she said, because she is awaiting input from the state attorney general, the state Ethics Commission and the state Postsecondary Advisory Committee. She said she expects to have that input in time for the May 10 board meeting.

Riley said his conversations with board members suggested their main concern about the double-dipping prohibition was that it would cause a loss of legislative influence that would damage the system’s funding prospects. He said that concern was proof the prohibition was needed.

“Legislators are not a privileged class in America,” Riley said.

Byers said he opposed the legislation, at least in the absence of an attorney general’s opinion, because it opens the schools to liability when they terminate those legislators who decline to resign from either the school or the Legislature.

Hall said any prohibition should apply to everyone — including four-year schools and all governmental agencies — not just to the two-year system.

Board President Ray said Riley was pushing too hard for his own agenda.

“I feel like it’s my father telling me this is the way it needs to be done and you need to do it my way,” she said.

Ella Bell objected on democratic grounds. “You’re denying Alabamians the sacred right to vote for the candidate of their choosing,” she said. If voters are concerned about a legislator also receiving money from a college, they can vote him out of office.

Calhoun paid Rep. Laura Hall, D-Huntsville, $70,155 in 2006 to serve as research and planning director. Rep. Todd Greeson, R-Ider, works for Athens State’s Northeast Center at Northeast Alabama Community College in Rainsville.

Calhoun President Marilyn Beck said she has never hired a legislator, but has no reason to remove Hall from the payroll.

“Dr. Hall is a tenured employee at Calhoun, and she is doing her job,” Beck said. “(Removing her) is not a choice that I should make. She was employed before I came here.”

Riley said he is concerned that the appearance of influence peddling that comes with legislators working in public education is damaging two-year schools.

“This system is too important to the state of Alabama,” Riley said, “to go through the constant challenges we’re going through today.”

Daily photographer John Godbey contributed to this article.

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