Ken Hare In Depth: Hubbert on target about AEA troubles

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - For years theAlabama Education Association was the strongest teachers' organization at thestate level in the nation -- so strong, in fact, that for two or more decadesit virtually imposed its will on the Alabama Legislature.

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

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

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

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

Hubbert ledthe AEA for four decades, and during that time built it into a powerfulpolitical force. So powerful, I believe, that it skewed the legislative processso much in favor of teacher protections that it became difficult for schoolsystems to get rid of bad teachers. It was so powerful that it shiftedresources needed for books and building maintenance and technology and teachertraining to teacher salaries and benefits.

Let me beclear: 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 fundingany of the other necessary components of  quality school systems.

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

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

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

"Withgreat reluctance, but with absolute conviction of its necessity, I write thisletter to you to inform you of the immediate danger, in fact crisis, in whichour association finds itself," Hubbert wrote in his letter to the AEAboard.

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

The AEA iscurrently deeply involved in the campaigns for the November election, andchanging 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 theelection is over.

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

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

An attachmentto Hubbert's letter to the AEA board stated: "The style, personality andperformance of the executive secretary have created an intolerable frictionbetween AEA and members of both parties in the Legislature with resultant lossof respect, standing and influence."

The attachmentsaid Mabry's style has been described as a "bull in a china shop whocarries the shop with him wherever he goes."

But it's notjust working with legislators and other elected officials that is AEA'sproblem. It is also Mabry's leadership style with the staff.

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

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

Hubbert isright; if AEA's staff is demoralized and has no faith in the organization's topleadership, the chances of AEA successfully dealing with its many financial andlobbying challenges are "severely handicapped." I would go furtherthan that; I believe those chances are virtually nonexistent.

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

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

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