Huntsville City School system accredited, with stipulations

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - Huntsville City Schools has been accredited for the next five years. District leaders made the announcement Thursday at a school board work session. But that accreditation could be in jeopardy if certain situations, including board member conduct, are not improved.

The accreditation is a long process. It started in November. A team from accrediting agency AdvancED visited and interviewed staff, including administrators, parents, teachers and even board members.

This is the first time the board has been part of the accreditation process, a school official said.

The overall findings were positive. The accreditation team found the school system stakeholders "overwhelmingly" believe in the school system's potential. While in a state of transition in leadership, including a new superintendent, the district told the school board on Wednesday that the team found:

  • HCS has well-managed learning environments
  • Provides supportive learning environments
  • Sets an environment of high expectations for all students
  • Has strong leadership and learning capacity within the system

But AdvancED also focuses on "continuous improvement." It identified some things the district must improve. Board members say if they don't improve these items, the system would face de-accreditation.

The areas for improvement include:

  • Ensuring the governing board meets the roles and responsibilities of their positions to best serve the district
  • Supporting teachers by providing and implementing systematic instructional best practices
  • Developing and implementing a formalized process for long-term advising and mentoring

WHNT News 19 obtained a copy of the report, which talks about the system's need to understand its goals, and also mentions the board and its recent contention.

Findings about the school board

The report starts by saying the accreditation believes the board members have the right intentions, but these sometimes become overshadowed. It says -

"The communication between the five-member elected board and the superintendent is open and focuses on student engagement and improvement. However, the governing board does not function as a self-policing cohesive unit that protects, supports, appreciates and respects the position of the superintendent. According to interviews, some board members do not have a clear distinction between their role as a board member and their role as a community member."

The report goes on, saying -

"Currently under mediation with the Alabama School Board Association, the board has members who do not understand their roles. The Team heard from board members many examples of violations of their roles and responsibilities. For example, one person said, 'The new superintendent is giving us a chance to heal, but some board members are tying his hands.' Another board member said, 'The board is committed to education but lose focus by bringing their own agendas to meetings.'"

The accreditation team watched some of the school board meetings, and noted a "contentious tone."

The report also mentions that some unnamed board members visit classrooms to observe, email or call teachers to gather information, and "become involved in day-to-day operations of the system by asking for personnel files or other reports at the system level without consulting the superintendent."

The report says that the board members did receive sufficient training about their roles and responsibilities, which they agreed to uphold upon swearing into office, but that the evidence shows members do not adhere to roles and responsibilities.

Click here to view the board member code of conduct as adopted by Huntsville City Schools. Click here to view the certificate of affirmation.

One board member said during an interview with the accreditation team, “The superintendent should be the one setting the culture and we need to be supportive.”

The report says of the board members want what's best for children, but need to leave personal agendas behind.

If things have not improved in the areas mentioned in the report, including the board governance portion, accreditation could be at stake, said school board president, Elisa Ferrell.

If you would like to view the report, click here.

What does this mean for the school?

Ensuring that all members of the school board act in an ethical manner that complies with their  defined roles and responsibilities was designated as one of the highest priorities by AdvancED. The report says its one of the areas that will have the greatest impact on improving student performance and organizational effectiveness.

The Huntsville City Schools board will need to submit a plan for improvement to the accreditation team. That team could come back for another visit to follow up.

"Without coming from an accredited school, students may not be eligible for scholarships. Their GPA's will be devalued," she added. "The service and the hard work of teachers is devalued. It would be a negative reflection on the school system."

She stated, "We have been docked because we have board members who have been violating the School Board Governance Act, and it has brought some concern to the accreditation team. So we have to go back and probably have the board members, or member, repeat some training."

Board Reaction

No board member we asked was willing to name which person, or persons, the accreditation report refers to.

Still, Walker McGinnis raised questions at the public meeting on Thursday about what's next.

He said it concerns him particularly because the accreditation team did not provide guidance on how the board could improve.

"I don't want our board of education to be the reason the Huntsville City Schools lost their accreditation," he said during an interview with WHNT News 19. "We don't have a whole lot of guidance, so that's where I'm concerned. Yeah, it's a big deal."

He added, "We have to get our heads glued together and work as a team."

Michelle Watkins, another board member, said she does not share the same concerns.

"I'm more concerned about the failing schools than I am the AdvancED report," she said. "You've got a new board. And it's obvious-- you have two board members thinking one way and three thinking another. Sometimes our meetings are contentious. We just need to remember we need to be respectful of one another."

"Each board member that is sitting up there is concerned about their districts and education. All of us have the students as their primary concern. So I have no concerns about our accreditation," she added. "This is the first year the board has been included in the accreditation report. And this is something new. We just need to work together and remember we are there for the kids."

Ferrell said the board would need to get together and make a plan to move forward in all the areas the accreditation team recognized that need improvement.  She said the team would expect updates from them, and they could even come back for another visit. In two years, if remedies are not found, the school system could potentially lose its accreditation.