A state Senate committee Wednesday gave bipartisan approval to a bill that would establish a new governing board for two-year colleges.
The approval of the bill by the Senate Finance and Taxation Education Committee moves it to the full Senate for debate. But time is running out for approval of the bill, given that lawmakers have yet to approve more pressing legislation, such as state budgets.
The 10 senators voting in favor of the bill included both Democrats and Republicans. The lone "no" vote was cast by Sen. Tom Butler, D-Madison, who said he supported a separate board for the colleges but thought the issue was too important to rush through a bill that all sides agreed needed work.
Sen. Vivian Davis Figures, D-Mobile, sponsor of the bill, told the committee a separate board would help in the work of cleaning up the troubled system.
"This is a great way to relieve some of those problems; take it away from the state Board of Education, which handles it and also handles K-12," Figures told committee members. "Just as higher ed with its four-year institutions are separate, the postsecondary part of education is also higher ed and this bill would place them under a board of trustees unto themselves."
Sen. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville, said the indictments and guilty pleas stemming from an ongoing federal and state investigation of the system have "saddened" the state.
"Why Governor Riley as chairman of the board didn't catch it earlier, why the board didn't catch it earlier, I don't know. But it's a very sad fact they didn't," Bedford said. "It's obvious to me that, as important as this two-year institution is, they ought to have accountability, they ought to have transparency and probably the best way to do that is to have a separate board."
Anita Archie, director of government relations for the two-year system, told the committee that Figures' bill has several problems, including requiring a state election for the new board in November, which she said could disenfranchise current board members. Archie also said she doubted U.S. Justice Department advance clearance of the action, required under the federal Voting Rights Act, could be accomplished by November.
Byrne opposes bill:
Figures said it was not the bill's intent to hold elections this fall, but in 2010. She said she is willing to work to clean up any procedural problems with the bill.
Colleges Chancellor Bradley Byrne, who opposes the bill, did not attend the hearing due to a death in his family, nor did any of the current state school board members, almost all of whom oppose a separate board.
Byrne and Gov. Bob Riley have opposed Figures' bill, contending it is another attempt by the Legislature to derail their efforts to clean up corruption in the system by changing rules and policies, most notably one approved last summer that by 2010 would force some state lawmakers to choose between their legislative seats and their jobs in the system.
Source: Birmingham News