Some Morgan board members, principals upset with way superintendent handling personnel
By Bayne Hughes
Three school board members and some principals say that Morgan County Schools Superintendent Bob Balch is micromanaging hiring and bogging down school board meetings with personnel issues.
Two other board members say he has a different administrative style and it is taking time to adjust.
All board members acknowledge that the hiring process is more difficult for Balch, elected in November, and the school system this year because of a state mandate to cut expenses and build the school system’s reserves.
The school system projects ending the fiscal year in October with about $1.1 million in reserves. The state wants school system to have about $4.5 million, equal to one month’s operating expenses.
School board President Jimmy Dobbs, school board members Mike Tarpley and Carolyn Wallace and several principals, most of whom asked not to be identified because they fear their boss, had these complaints.
Balch doesn’t keep board members informed.
“We get e-mails and an occasional phone call from his secretary, but he doesn’t correspond or call,” Wallace said.
They said this is why school board work sessions have become personnel meetings with roughly 95 percent of the time spent going over Balch’s recommendations. They complained that often they’re seeing these recommendations for the first time.
At the last meeting, they got two pages of personnel changes and additions, so they spent most of the session questioning Balch.
“We got 75 items last time and, based on earlier recommendations, it makes me real nervous to approve anything unless it is not something that needs to be changed or there’s a good reason for the recommendation,” Wallace said.
Dobbs said another example of lack of communication is the hiring of Director of Secondary Education Vicki Smith. The board balked at hiring Smith when Balch presented her name the first time because he didn’t give them supporting qualification information.
When the superintendent provided the information at the following meeting, the board approved Smith for the position.
“I didn’t know anything about Vicki Smith, and he said, ‘This is who I want, so you should vote for her,’ ” Dobbs said. “I don’t have anything about Vicki Smith, but I’m responsible for knowing who I’m voting for and knowing their qualifications. When I saw her documents, it was an easy decision.”
Tarpley said said Balch told him he would make recommendations on personnel and then the board “could vote yes or no,” but he said is not getting enough information to feel confident with his vote.
“We need to get better information in our board packets,” Tarpley said. “We’re going to have start looking at personnel items more closely and possibly vote no more often if we don’t get more information.”
Principals are being cut out of the personnel process.
When the school system released 45 non-tenured teachers in May to give the system financial flexibility, Wallace said principals complained that they didn’t have input into the cuts “and we let go of several good teachers.”
Board members and principals said former Superintendent Don Murphy basically let principals interview and chose their staffs. He stepped in only if there was someone he didn’t think they should hire.
Now principals are complaining that Balch is telling them who they’re hiring without giving them a chance to interview or choose the candidates.
“These are the people (principals) who have to evaluate and monitor these teachers as their employees,” Wallace said. “They need to be able to make sure they fit in with their staffs and their school.”
Balch is going back on a campaign promise that he would not hire friends or people who supported him in the campaign. They mentioned at least six positions in which he hired friends or supporters.
The superintendent allowed Brewer High School to let a teacher, a Balch friend and campaign supporter, retire but continue as the girls basketball coach on a $20,000 salary, while he won’t let two other schools hire retired teachers just to coach.
Balch said the Brewer job saved the school about $60,000 while allowing the other two schools to do the same would cost the system money.
At least two principals said, however, that there’s a teacher already on Brewer’s staff willing to coach the girls team, so eliminating the teacher unit while letting him coach would cost the system only $7,000.
Dobbs said Balch is making Priceville High hold an opening for a friend until that person can take a test in July to get highly qualified, instead of letting the principal fill the position from the number of already highly qualified applicants.
Balch would not respond to each of the allegations individually.
This is his response:
“The First Amendment to the United States Constitution gives people the right to freedom of speech, but Alabama state law says that the superintendent, and only the superintendent, has the authority to make recommendations for transfers and hiring.”
Not everyone unhappy
School board members Dora Woodard and Tom Earwood said they aren’t unhappy with Balch. They believe that it’s just taking time to get used to a new superintendent. A former principal, Murphy was popular with the principals during his eight years in office and basically let the principals run their school.
Balch has a different administrative style, they said.
Earwood said the state has the school system under close scrutiny. When the school board added four teacher units back to Falkville High in May, he said a state official called Balch and wanted justification.
“They (state officials) are serious about this thing (rebuilding the reserves),” Earwood said.
Earwood said that superintendents usually want to hire their own people. He said Murphy was one of the best at this practice.
“Mr. Balch probably has people he wants in certain positions based on their expertise for a school or a certain situation,” Earwood said. “I just hope he’s using his head and not his heart.”
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