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Lawmaker: Local school boards need say in extended school closures

A north Alabama lawmaker wants local school boards, not just superintendents, to have decision-making power if schools need to be closed to in-person learning for more than a week in emergency situations.

Rep. Jamie Kiel’s proposed legislation, which he plans to file early next month, would allow superintendents to close their local schools and establish online instruction in lieu of in-person class for up to five consecutive days. Continued closure would require approval of the board.

Currently, a superintendent can unilaterally close a system to in-person classes for an extended period of time.

Kiel said the COVID-19 situation has shown how current state laws give some individuals a tremendous amount of decision-making power.

“As we’ve progressed through this once-in-a-lifetime situation, we’ve found a lot of instances where power was much more centralized than what we’re used to,” he said.

Another bill in the 2021 session, which begins Feb. 2, would allow the state Legislature a say in extending state emergency orders, like the ones put in place in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, has said he plans on introducing again the bill that would limit a governor’s emergency orders to 14 days and require legislative approval for extensions.

“I think we need it to be a democratic process instead of a one-man show and a one-man ultimatum,” Whatley said.

Kiel said that if superintendents are appointed, school board members can take action if they don’t like a decision made by the superintendent.

“But those that are elected, there’s no recourse,” Kiel said.

Sally Smith, executive director of the Alabama Association of School Boards, said she hasn’t yet seen Kiel’s bill or discussed it with him.

“I think areas like weather need to be still in the exclusive province of superintendents,” Smith said. “I think when you’re talking about long-term closure is when it shifts to be more of a policy decision, and that the school board as the community’s representative should have a voice in those decisions.”

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