Ken Hare In Depth: Hubbert on target about AEA troubles - WSFA.com Montgomery Alabama news.

Ken Hare In Depth: Hubbert on target about AEA troubles

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) -

For years the Alabama Education Association was the strongest teachers' organization at the state level in the nation -- so strong, in fact, that for two or more decades it virtually imposed its will on the Alabama Legislature.

That kind of dominance was great for teachers, but it arguably was not always a good thing for education in Alabama as a whole.

But as a recent letter from former AEA Executive Secretary Paul Hubbert made clear, AEA is in danger of coming apart at the seams.

If it does self-destruct, that clearly won't be good for teachers. But it also won't be good for education in Alabama, either.

[READ MORE: Fmr. ADA head Hubbert sounds alarm at current conditions 9/10]

I believe that what Alabama needs is an effective voice for teachers, but not one that totally dominates the legislative and political process.

Hubbert led the AEA for four decades, and during that time built it into a powerful political force. So powerful, I believe, that it skewed the legislative process so much in favor of teacher protections that it became difficult for school systems to get rid of bad teachers. It was so powerful that it shifted resources needed for books and building maintenance and technology and teacher training to teacher salaries and benefits.

Let me be clear: Alabama has never paid teachers what they are worth. But thanks to AEA, it has done a better job of funding educator pay and benefits than in funding any of the other necessary components of  quality school systems.

No one should blame Hubbert for protecting the interests of teachers. That was what he was paid to do, and he did it better than any of his counterparts in other states.

But no one who supports quality schools should want to see AEA fall completely apart.

Hubbert's recent letter to the AEA board painted a picture of an organization that has troubled leadership, serious morale problems within its staff, difficulty in adapting to a changing financial realities, and especially difficulty in adapting to a new political reality in Alabama.

"With great reluctance, but with absolute conviction of its necessity, I write this letter to you to inform you of the immediate danger, in fact crisis, in which our association finds itself," Hubbert wrote in his letter to the AEA board.

In response to Hubbert's concern, the AEA board held a lengthy closed-door meeting after which it announced that it would audit its finances and reduce spending. The board also announced its support for current Executive Secretary Henry Mabry.

The AEA is currently deeply involved in the campaigns for the November election, and changing its top leader six weeks before the vote was not a realistic option. But it remains to be seen if Mabry's support on the board will wither when the election is over.

Part of AEA's problem is not of Mabry's making. The organization became so identified with the state Democratic Party in the past, when Democrats held sway in the Legislature, that it has had difficulty  adapting to a Republican-dominated Legislature.  Hubbert at one time even ran for governor as a Democrat, and then-Associate Executive Secretary Joe Reed was a powerful force in the state Democratic Party.

But while Republican legislative leaders often disagreed on issues with Hubbert when he led the AEA, many of them also quietly would express their respect for him.  Not so with Mabry. His confrontational style has made him a pariah with most Republican officeholders.

An attachment to Hubbert's letter to the AEA board stated: "The style, personality and performance of the executive secretary have created an intolerable friction between AEA and members of both parties in the Legislature with resultant loss of respect, standing and influence."

The attachment said Mabry's style has been described as a "bull in a china shop who carries the shop with him wherever he goes."   

But it's not just working with legislators and other elected officials that is AEA's problem. It is also Mabry's leadership style with the staff.

Hubbert built a professional staff at AEA. As a journalist, I realized that they knew their business, and were almost always easy to work with.

But Hubbert described the current work environment at AEA as not healthy. The attachment to his letter said Mabry "is isolated, by choice and design, non-communicative, secretive, and relies, in large part, on external consultants rather than the internal professional staff."

Hubbert is right; if AEA's staff is demoralized and has no faith in the organization's top leadership, the chances of AEA successfully dealing with its many financial and lobbying challenges are "severely handicapped." I would go further than that; I believe those chances are virtually nonexistent.

Our state does not need AEA to return to being the dominating presence that it once was in the Alabama Legislature. But it also does not need AEA to lose all of its clout and to become meaningless. In the end, the state is better off if teachers have an effective voice in the legislative process.

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Ken Hare was a longtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site. Email him at khare@wsfa.com.

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