MONTGOMERY — Several area school leaders are in favor of a proposed "Local Control School Flexibility Act" they say would give them more decision-making power over how they spend money and teach their students.
But some Democrats and Alabama Education Association officials say the GOP-proposed act, currently being considered by the Alabama Legislature, gives local systems too much leeway to make their own rules and could result in the state's more than 100 systems operating differently from each other.
A House version of the bill creating the act, one of the House GOP's priorities under their "We Dare Defend Our Rights" agenda, passed out of committee last week and could soon be voted on by the full House. The act has the support of Gov. Robert Bentley and was designed to "advance the benefits of local school and school system autonomy in innovation and creativity by allowing flexibility from state laws, regulations and policies," according to language in the act.
At least two Shoals school superintendents are in favor of the act. Florence schools Superintendent Janet Womack on Wednesday talked to lawmakers during Senate and House committee hearings and stressed the financial flexibility she believes the act would offer.
"We don't see additional buckets of money coming from the state or federal level, but I'm not willing to look in the faces of our parents and students and tell them that we can't do more," Womack said. But current regulations tie systems' hands, she said.
Case in point: per-student funding at Florence Freshman Center.
This year, it has 391 students. But its state funding is based on last year's enrollment — 298 students in an abnormally small class.
"Our funding for teacher units, which must be placed at that school, is based on last year's enrollment," Womack said.
The freshman center would have had 40-plus students per teacher under that formula, but the system used local money to put the needed teachers at the center this year.
"But most districts don't have that option," Womack said. And, that local money could have been used elsewhere in the system, she said.
Another possible benefit, Womack said, would be more flexibility with instructional supply money. Currently, each teacher receives $300 a year from the state to buy classroom supplies.
Once upon a time, they were buying lots of paper, Womack said. But now, with more technology, they want to purchase learning apps for their iPads and other devices. But the state code, written before the technology was around, doesn't allow for that, she said.
The act also would give schools more leeway as to who can teach, Womack said, because anyone teaching now has to be state certified.
"We absolutely support that for 99 percent of what we do," Womack said, but there should be exceptions, including fine arts classes.
"We sit right here in the Shoals and have all these nationally and internationally known artists sitting on our doorstep, but we can't bring them in to teach a class on guitar," she said.
Russellville city schools Superintendent Rex Mayfield sees a similar potential benefit for his career tech program, where retired engineers could teach a class or two, or a professional welder could teach the welding class.
"If G&G Steel says, ‘Your kids really need to know how to do this and I have (an employee) that can come in a do that,' this (act) would allow me to" bring that employee into the classroom," Mayfield said.
Opponents say bill is too broad.
Democrats are generally opposed to the bill, but say they could support a narrower version.
"It doesn't specify what (local schools) can do; it tried to specify what they can't do," Rep. Marcel Black, D-Tuscumbia, a member of the House Education Policy Committee, said Thursday.
"It would need to be tightened up before I would support it."
State Superintendent Tommy Bice said last week that schools would still be held to the same achievement standards they have to meet now, but would have more control of how they reach those standards.
"It just gives schools a way to do things differently," he said.
Meanwhile, he said he doesn't want to give schools a set list of rules or things they could "flex" out of.
"Be as innovative as you want to be," he said.
The Alabama Education Association is against the act because it could allow schools to opt out of rules that are in place for a reason, Executive Secretary Henry Mabry, said last week.
"There will be a lack of accountability and there will be unattended consequences," he said.
"Right now, there are 132 school systems and they all have the same rules. If you have 100 sets of rules, how will there be accountability?"
House Majority Leader Micky Hammon, R-Decatur, called AEA's opposition to the act baseless and "flat-out wrong."
"Some leadership is looking for a fight to make themselves seem relevant," he said.
Morgan County schools Superintendent Billy Hopkins Jr. said Friday he supports the proposal in theory and likes the idea of more local control.
"I wish they'd let us (have more control) with our school calendar," he said, referring to a law passed last year that mandates when the school year begins and ends.
Hopkins said he also heard and understands some concerns of the AEA and local employees about how often elected superintendents and elected school board members could want to change their contracts with the state.
"When your local people could change every four years ... it puts apprehension in the local employees," Hopkins said. "What are we going to change now?
"But as long as we continue to elect knowledgeable superintendents and board members, I think it would be great to get more local control."
Mary Sell is the Montgomery bureau chief for the TimesDaily. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Under the proposed Local Control School Flexibility Act:
A local school system can submit to the state Department of Education an "innovation plan" with a list of state laws, regulations and policies it wants to waive under a "school flexibility contract." The plan can apply to a specific school or all schools in a system.
School administrators would be given greater control over decisions, including budgetary matters, staffing, personnel, scheduling and educational programming, and curriculum and instruction.
Local systems are accountable to the state for the performance of all schools in its system under state and federal accountability requirements.
Local systems may not waive requirements imposed by federal law, requirements related to the health and safety of students and employees, requirements imposed by open records or open meetings laws, requirements related to financial or academic reporting or transparency, requirements designed to protect the civil rights of students or employees, or requirements related to participation in a state retirement system or state health insurance plan.
Systems may not compensate a current employee at an annual rate that is less than the amount the current employee would otherwise be afforded through the State Minimum Salary Schedule.
The Department of Education may revoke a school flexibility contract for noncompliance or nonperformance.