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Alabama school chief gets new contract, massive raise, still draws fire from left and right

Alabama School Superintendent Tommy Bice speaks to the Education Writers Association at Vanderbilt University in June of 2014.
Alabama School Superintendent Tommy Bice speaks to the Education Writers Association at Vanderbilt University in June of 2014.

The Alabama State Board of Education earlier this week voted 6-2 to give State School Superintendent Tommy Bice a sizable raise. Since taking over as Alabama’s K-12 chief in January of 2012, Bice has made roughly $200,000 annually. Under the new contract approved by the board, his base salary will rise to $250,000.

Alabama high school students’ improvement on Advanced Placement tests led the nation between 2008 and 2013. And Bice says the state’s high school graduation rate has risen from 72 percent to 80 percent over the two years he’s been in charge.

But Alabama eighth-graders recently ranked 50th nationally in math on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAPE). Bice took responsibility for the low scores, which he deemed “unacceptable,” and said if they do not improve he would “need to stop being the state superintendent.”

The 6-2 vote in favor of a hefty pay raise during a time of tight budgets was a strong vote of confidence by the board. The raise also received the full backing of Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, who is president of the board by virtue of his office, but was not present for the vote.

The two dissenting votes were cast by board members Betty Peters and Stephanie Bell. They have been outspoken opponents of the controversial College and Career Read Standards — commonly referred to as Common Core — of which Bice has been a proponent.

News of Bice’s raise drew the ire of tea party conservatives, who view anyone who supports Common Core as hostile to traditional Alabama values and the principles of limited government.

RELATED: Sen. Shelby: ‘I would be very wary of Common Core’
Full disclosure: I’ve pushed for the repeal of Common Core, as well

And in a rare moment of unity between the tea party wing of the GOP and far-left Democrats, liberals also lashed out in response to Bice’s raise, but for a different reason. Some of them described it as a “slap in the face” to teachers, who received a two-percent pay raise in this year’s budget. That was their first pay increase since 2007. The State of Alabama is constitutionally required to pass a balanced budget, and the Legislature’s budget chairmen said the money was just not there to do more.

School board member Charles Elliott, on the other hand, said Bice deserved even more than he got.

“I think it’s high time Dr. Bice be paid what he’s worth and what we’re offering is still not what he’s worth,” he said.

Board member Mary Scott Hunter proposed a smaller pay raise and suggested the state put in place incentives for the state superintendent. But her recommendations did not get enough support, and she ultimately supported the 25 percent raise.

Bice said he did not ask for the pay raise and has not yet decided if he’ll sign the contract. He was pleased, though, that the Board had offered an extension of his current contract, which expires in 2015.

“What I had asked for was an extension of my contract, of the work we’re doing,” he said. “I wanted to make sure that we had time to get that done. Sometimes, you make tough decisions. You need protection to make that occur.”

Bice, a self-described political independent who says he “(doesn’t) need a political party to tell (him) what to think,” was actually surprised the Republican-controlled School Board gave him the job to begin with.

“I’m still perplexed that they actually hired me,” Bice said recently in a speech to the Education Writers Association.

In reference to Common Core, Bice told the group that he has “spent most of (his) time in the Alabama Legislature trying to convince them that President Obama didn’t come down and create this dilemma.”

Anything dealing with education in Alabama is going to be controversial. The Alabama Education Association (AEA) — the state’s liberal teachers union — held sway over Alabama politics for decades. Many conservatives believe their corrosive influence played a major role in Alabama’s education system falling behind.

That belief led Republicans to push particularly hard for education reforms after taking control of the Legislature in 2010. Most notably, the GOP delivered Alabama’s first school choice law in 2013 over the vocal dissent of the AEA and their Democratic allies.

Other major reform measures are expected to be part of the GOP’s agenda when the Legislature reconvenes next year. What those measures will be remains unclear, but with the backing of Gov. Bentley and a big raise from the Board of Education, it looks like Bice will be in the thick of Alabama’s education debate for years to come.

Follow Cliff on Twitter @Cliff_Sims

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