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Lawmaker: Local school boards need say in extended school closures

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

A north Alabama lawmaker wants local school boards, not just superintendents, to have decision-making power if schools need to be closed to in-person learning for more than a week in emergency situations.

Rep. Jamie Kiel’s proposed legislation, which he plans to file early next month, would allow superintendents to close their local schools and establish online instruction in lieu of in-person class for up to five consecutive days. Continued closure would require approval of the board.

Currently, a superintendent alone can close a system to in-person classes for an extended period of time, as Colbert County residents learned in November.

“We’ve always known that the superintendent could call off schools for emergencies, for instance if there’s an ice storm or a tornado, or some kind of other natural disaster, we knew that the superintendent had that power,” Kiel, R-Russellville, told Alabama Daily News. “But I don’t think anybody ever anticipated that the superintendent would be able to call off school or close facilities for an extended amount of time without someone’s approval or without working with someone else.”

On Nov. 12, then-Colbert County Superintendent Gayle Satchel cited increased COVID-19 cases when she dismissed in-person learning and closed the schools to extracurricular activities until Jan. 5.

At least one board member said the board wasn’t consulted about the decision, the TimesDaily’s Lisa Singleton-Rickman reported.

“No matter what any stakeholder, board member, or community person thought about it, it was, it was one person’s decision to make,” Kiel said.

The TimesDaily reported that Satchel at a late November meeting told the board and audience that “contrary to popular belief, many people were involved in this decision, including my board and it wasn’t a solo decision.”

She said the numbers she reported of COVID cases and exposures were factual, and there has even been one death in the district due to COVID.

“I will not let anyone bully me into a decision that isn’t safe for all of our school district,” Satchel said.

Kiel said the COVID-19 situation has shown how current state laws give some individuals a tremendous amount of decision-making power.

“As we’ve progressed through this once-in-a-lifetime situation, we’ve found a lot of instances where power was much more centralized than what we’re used to,” he said.

Another bill in the 2021 session, which begins Feb. 2, would allow the state Legislature a say in extending state emergency orders, like the ones put in place in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, told Alabama Daily News last month that he plans on bringing again the bill that would limit a governor’s emergency orders to 14 days and require legislative approval for extensions.

“I think we need it to be democratic process instead of a one-man show and a one-man ultimatum,” Whatley said.

Kiel said that if superintendents are appointed, school board members can take action if they don’t like a decision made by the superintendent.

“But those that are elected, there’s no recourse,” Kiel said.

Satchel was defeated in her bid for a second term on Nov. 3, prior to her closure announcement, by Republican Chris Hand. His term began earlier this month.

Sally Smith, executive director of the Alabama Association of School Boards, said she hasn’t yet seen Kiel’s bill or discussed it with him.

“We haven’t seen the details but are certainly supportive of some of the concepts,” Smith said. Like all bills, the devil is in the details, she said.

“I think areas like weather need to be still in the exclusive province of superintendents,” Smith said. “I think when you’re talking about long-term closure is when it shifts to be more of a policy decision, and that the school board as the community’s representative should have a voice in those decisions.”

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