For the first time in almost 50 years, the Athens City Board of Education will now have only five members.
The City Council unanimously passed a resolution Monday during its meeting to remove two at-large positions from the board membership, meaning President Russell Johnson and Tim Green are no longer a part of the entity.
The move comes after the Council contacted the office of Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall in April seeking an expedited opinion on whether or not a local law passed in 1972 saying the board would have seven members superseded a general law passed in 2000 saying city school boards should have five members. City Attorney Shane Black said Mayor Ronnie Marks received that opinion May 4.
“According to the attorney general, that local law has been impliedly repealed by the adoption of a later adopted general law,” Black said. “Impliedly repealed means there was no express repeal; it says it was impliedly done away with with laws made since then. I do believe the decision of the attorney general is the correct legal opinion.”
Johnson and Green's at-large positions were coming up for appointment or reappointment between May and June, and Marks said it was while looking at these positions that the issue of local versus state law came up. He said the state law from 2000 saying city school boards should have five members allows for an exception for local laws if they are backed by a constitutional amendment.
“That's a vote of the people, and we never had a vote of the people,” Marks said.
He said the City does not plan to seek such a vote and amendment to add more school board members at this time.
ACS Superintendent Beth Patton said it “remains to be seen” whether or not decreasing the school board size will have a negative impact on the system given the amount of anticipated growth Athens is facing.
“We can always go back and take it to a vote of the people if we realize we do need the additional members,” she said. “It has been seven members for as long as I've known.”
Why the rush?
Council member Harold Wales asked why there seemed to be a rush to go back to five members with the positions coming up for appointment so soon.
Black said Marshall's opinion “did not give the option of allowing the effectiveness of the local law to endure any further.”
“Once the body recognizes the opinion, the (Council) does not have the option to recognize it two weeks from now,” he said.
Marks said once the opinion was received, the decision that the city school board should have five members was immediate.
“We have a great education department,” Marks said. “We have a great school system. There have been some good things accomplished. All we want to do is get back within the law.”
Since the Council voted in April to seek Marshall's opinion on the school board issue, rumors have been gone around that this move was in response to a federal case in which former ACS Superintendent Trey Holladay is named as a suspect.
Marks said this matter had nothing to do with that case.
“We had the two at-large positions coming up, and we had nine or 10 very qualified folks that turned in applications seeking appointments,” he said. "This is no disrespect to them. If the attorney general had honored the local law, the Council would have appointed those positions. This is totally a legal issue, a legal question, and not a political decision by the City Council.”
Statements from outgoing members
Johnson provided a statement Monday to The News Courier, ahead of the Council's vote.
“It is unfortunate this matter was acted on so quickly and at the beginning of what is the busiest and most important month for a school board,” he said. “There are some major challenges on the horizon for this board, and tonight’s council action just removed 25 years of experience from the board. I have the utmost confidence in the remaining board members and have no worries that they will continue to excel as they deal with these challenges. While my official role as board president ended tonight, my fellow board members know I will always be there for them and will continue to pray for them and support them in any way I can.”
Green also provided a statement ahead of the Council meeting.
“Like Russ, I am disappointed in the abrupt way my term on the board ended,” he said. “However, I do understand how the City needs to get in compliance after 21 years. The last 10 years have been an honor and pleasure. The joy of seeing our students reach their God-given potential has been amazing, and being a small part of that is a blessing."
Green said it is “comforting” to know that the faculty, staff and administrators at ACS are all committed to bring the best possible learning environment to students.
“I am confident this board, Mrs. Patton and (Chief School Financial Officer Serena) Owsley are fully prepared to lead our system forward,” he said. “The friendships I have built during this journey will remain with me for the rest of my life, and they will always be in my prayers.”