The race for the District 1 seat on the Alabama Board of Education has been fueled by a handful of large donations from political action committees to incumbent Matthew Brown’s campaign.

District 1 encompasses more than 110,000 students in 154 public schools located in Baldwin, Mobile, Conecuh, Butler, Covington, Crenshaw and Escambia counties. The district is also home to city school systems in Andalusia, Brewton, Chickasaw, Opp, Saraland and Satsuma.

Last week, after a previous Lagniappe report showed Brown received an $18,000 donation from Progress PAC, the Business Council of Alabama’s political action committee, more than $4,000 in personal loans and in-kind donations, as well as $5,000 from the Alabama Farmers Federation’s Farm PAC, Brown reported an even larger donation from the Alabama Federation for Children.

On Feb. 11, the Alabama Federation for Children PAC received a pair of $25,000 donations from Grand Rapids, Michigan, residents Elisabeth DeVos and Richard DeVos. The PAC’s balance before the donations was just $151.65. The PAC’s contribution filing through the Alabama Secretary of State’s website shows the $25,000 gift to Brown was sent Feb. 12.

Brown’s Fair Campaign Finance Practices Act report through the Alabama Secretary of State’s website shows the candidate reported the contribution Feb. 15.

The Alabama Federation for Children is an affiliate of the American Federation for Children, a nationwide promoter of school vouchers and charter schools. Brown said he was proud to have the endorsement of the Alabama Federation for Children, which he said is an organization dedicated to advocating for more education options for Alabama’s children, especially those in underperforming schools.

“In our land of opportunity, no one should be trapped in a failing school simply because of their ZIP code,” Brown said. “As an advocate for school choice, I am honored to have the support of the Alabama Federation for Children.”

Adam Bourne, one of Brown’s three challengers in the race, said the donation amounts to a billionaire from Michigan trying to buy a seat on the Alabama Board of Education. Bourne, a Chickasaw City Councilman who played a role in creating that city’s independent school system, said the DeVos family is known in education circles as being school privatization activists with a track record of opposing public education.

“Alabama can’t afford to have a Board of Education member who has to check with a billionaire donor or two before making a decision,” Bourne said. “I got into this race because I believe, as Thomas Jefferson did, that public education exists to give us all a fair shot at the American dream. Dick DeVos has already gotten his American dream, and he could care less whether working Alabamians can achieve their own dreams.”

As of late last week, Bourne reported $13,881 in total contributions. His largest donations are $5,800 total from the Committee to Elect Adam Bourne and $1,000 each from Larry G. Lee and William R. Sumter.

“Alabama’s teachers and parents deserve someone who is committed to them, who answers only to them,” Bourne said.

Candidate Carl Myrick, a Baldwin County resident, says his experience as a former public school teacher, as well as his family roots in Greenville further north in District 1, make him the ideal candidate for the position. Unlike the other candidates, Myrick said he understands life outside of Mobile and Baldwin County.

“I was at a forum the other day and I heard someone say the district is Mobile, Baldwin County and a bunch of ‘rural’ places,” Myrick said. “Sure, there are a lot of rural areas in the district, but there are also a lot of good-sized cities and a lot of good people. I know that because I have roots in those places. Whoever wins the race will represent more than just Mobile and Baldwin County.”

Myrick, who has raised $1,383 according to Baldwin County probate records, said if elected he will use his experience as a teacher to push against state policies that impact teachers at the local level. Myrick was a teacher in the Baldwin school system for two years before being laid off as a non-tenured employee during the financial crisis.

“Most people in this race don’t understand how state policies and decisions made in Montgomery can affect our schools and teachers,” Myrick said. “I do because I’ve been there before. I’ve been personally affected by those decisions.”

Citing a “rash” of recent teacher arrests and educators with criminal records, Myrick said new state rules currently allowing non-certified teachers to teach in public schools will only exacerbate those problems.

“There isn’t just one thing that will fix everything,” Myrick said. “The main thing is, there are a whole bunch of bills up right now that will impact our schools, and I feel uniquely prepared to tackle those issues as a former educator.”

At a recent political forum hosted by Common Sense Campaign, candidate Jackie Zeigler — the wife of State Auditor Jim Zeigler — said her 37 years in education as a teacher, facilitator, assistant principal and principal in coastal Alabama schools make her the right candidate for the position.

“We need to step back and think about where we’ve been and where we want to go with the idea of ‘what’s best for our children’ in mind,” Zeigler said.

While she favors strong educational standards at the local level, Zeigler said she is firmly against Common Core. If elected, she will also pursue career technical education for students in the district so those who don’t plan to go to college can be prepared for work in an employment field like shipbuilding and welding.

“We need to get back to having strong standards based on what is necessary for children in Alabama,” Zeigler said. “These are our Alabama children. We have forgotten that not all children can go to college and we need some of our children to be ready to be welders and shipbuilders.”

Adam Bourne
Matthew Brown
Carl Myrick
Jackie Ziegler