Board action the real solution

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 20, 2007

It is likely I'm in a minority role on the issue, but I hope the governor is careful as he pushes either the state school board or Alabama lawmakers toward elimination of employees at the community college level serving as members of the legislative branch of government.

It is not that I favor multiple salaried double-dipping. And it is not that we should condone blanket employment of family members on college staffs as job qualifications or even appreciation for previous political favors and support.

What Rep. Ken Guin, D-Carbon Hill, did in holding similar $49,677 consultant positions simultaneously at both Bevill Community College and Shelton State Community College and providing spartan, likely identical, reports as job justification is simply wrong. If not illegal, it seems unethical. If not unethical, it certainly would violate the spirit of what is proper and just.

That Guin, first elected from District 14 (Tuscaloosa, Walker and Guin counties) in 1994 is currently the House majority leader and chairman of the powerful Rules committee only serves to make matters worse. As a leader, he should stand tallest among his peers.

The mess over which Yvonne Kennedy, D-Mobile, as president of Bishop State Community College, presides appears even worse. An investigation that began eight months ago has yielded charges of criminal theft, lack of internal financial controls, academic and athletic fraud and scholastic probation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS).

A legislator for 25 years, it is not a comforting fact that she serves on the education appropriations and education policy committees.

That their examples — the worst of the worst — lend support to the governor's concern is legitimate. That 43 members of the House and Senate have strong ties to the community college system also suggests a situation out of balance.

But a policy to keep elected officials from also serving as public education employees is not the solution. The problem is more complex.

First, voters should determine who should and who should not represent their interests in the legislative process. And candidates, as always, should earn election based on their skills, their abilities to serve and their message on how they can be effective. A policy declaring eligible candidates based on employment is not wise.

For every example of improper or questionable work, there are likely more cases of elected men and women who have provided dedicated, competent service. They should not be penalized.

Next, members of the school board should be held more accountable for the management of the system to which they are entrusted to lead. Increased examples of neglect and long-term abuse are signals the board has performed poorly in that important role.

Instead of implementing a policy that places blame on legislators as an easy way out, it is time the board sets political interests aside, admits its own shortcomings and tackles the critical process of reform, pushing to restore credibility to the tarnished system that only recently was one of the state's shining lights of optimism.

If college presidents are filling their respective facilities and staffs with unqualified relatives and friends, it is a practice that must end. If college presidents have recklessly approved questionable contractual arrangements or employed consultants without clear and measurable objectives, it is a practice that must end.

But the issues are management, control and accountability, not patronage and politics and until the board recognizes that, it is part of the problem, not the solution.

Its track record to date is shoddy.

The board did not recognize the system was at risk. It took a newspaper reporter - who was just notified his efforts have earned the coveted Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting - to discover the embarrassing dilemma.

The board has been less than forceful in attempting to right the wrongs at Bishop, seeking, incredibility, its first face-to-face meeting with Kennedy later this month instead of already taking steps to correct whatever ills exist.

And the board's appointment of Gadsden State Community College President Renee Culverhouse as its newest interim chancellor does little to instill confidence that better days are ahead, especially noting her school apparently violates many of the very practices under scrutiny.

What happens next is serious business. Never has the need for leadership been more essential.

The community college system is important to Alabama. Its classroom reputation for providing quality education at a reasonable price, its growing emphasis on community service and its workforce development program are essential in the global competition for future economic growth, expansion and prosperity.

Regaining integrity, restoring credibility and removing doubt are targets that need immediate attention.

That's the responsibility of the board. Only after it has created the necessary framework to ensure a fair and firm system of direction and control is in place and only after it has the assurances that on-site management and accountability has been established, should it even consider other issues.

Ed Darling is president and publisher of Greenville Newspapers LLC. He can be reached at 382-3111 or