Huntsville school board member wants to change board vacancy appointment process

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – As the Huntsville City Council works to decide on a candidate to fill the vacant District 5 seat on the Huntsville City School board, one board member wants to see the process changed in case a seat becomes empty in the future.

Michelle Watkins, who represents District 1 on the board, said she doesn’t think the city council should appoint board members.

“First off, some of the council members don’t know the issues that we have internally and they don’t know what type of candidate that we need.” She added, “If someone is going to appoint them, I think it should be the school board and not the council. I think it kind of conflicts a little bit for them to be involved in the process.”

Watkins did not explain what kind of conflicts she meant.

Huntsville city leaders needed to establish a procedure for filling a vacant board seat. Ultimately, they decided and voted on a council-appointed review board that would sift through applications and recommend a Top 5. The city council then interviewed the candidates and is expected to make a decision on June 27.

Watkins added that she is disappointed the board members were not asked for more input during the process.

“Board members not being included, not being consulted, it’s concerning,” she stated.

The Current Laws

WHNT News 19 did some digging and learned that different school systems handle vacancies different ways.

The Alabama Association of School Boards said that vacancies on county school are filled by the remaining members of the local board. If they fail to fill it in 30 days, the State Superintendent of Education can step in and make the appointment.

But typically for city boards, the council gets the job of filling the vacancy without a deadline for the appointment. This is the law regardless of whether the city board is elected or appointed.

Some other school systems, though, have gotten local legislation approved that changes this.

“For example, both Bessemer and Birmingham allow the remaining members of the board to fill vacancies rather than using the general city statute. See Ala. Code §45-37A-40 (Bessemer) and Ala. Code §45-37A-50.06 (Birmingham),” wrote an AASB spokesperson via email. “Huntsville’s local act does not specify how vacancies are filled. See Ala. Code §45-45A-32. Therefore, they are bound by the general city statute that requires the city council to fill the vacancy.”

Watkins said she wants to do something to change the process in Huntsville to be more like Birmingham and Bessemer, to give the board more control if this were to happen again.

What Watkins Is Proposing

Watkins said this is not about power, but about responsibilities.

“We appoint a superintendent. So we are capable of making those decisions,” she said.

She spoke to board members in other districts around the state during a conference over the weekend and likes what she heard.

“They have 30 days, if a seat is vacated, to appoint someone to that position. I talked to a couple of board members and what they do is they take resumes, and they interview the candidates and appoint them. I would like to see Huntsville City Schools take that process as well.”

Watkins said she has already asked that the board discuss this, and they agreed to talk about it once someone assumes the role of representing District 5 again. She wants to see the board approve a resolution to ask the Alabama state Legislature to approve a local act that would affect Huntsville the way Birmingham and Bessemer have done.

“That’s something that we definitely need to look at so if it happens in the future, whoever is on the board, they’ll have the option of appointing the board member,” she said.

She isn’t sure what kind of support there is among her colleagues for the idea, but she remains hopeful.

“I’m hoping they will support it, because who wouldn’t want the opportunity to appoint a board member if someone left?” she asked.

Meanwhile, she expects to have a meeting privately with the president of the Huntsville City Council, Devyn Keith, about the issue.