Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle issued a statement today to address the letters he sent to two Huntsville school board members, chastising them for their behavior at a recent board meeting.
"Last week, the Huntsville Board of education experienced a particularly contentious meeting, prompting a number of concerned calls to my office," Battle said in the letter, which was sent as an e-newsletter titled "Inspiring Confidence."
"I am concerned by the perception we are giving industry and our children," Battle continued. "City Hall does not attempt to interfere in the management of the City School System; however, as your mayor of this great city, it is my role to promote Huntsville, which means earning the confidence of incoming companies and families to trust our public schools with the education of their children."
On Friday, Battle sent what he called a "personal message" to Huntsville board members Michelle Watkins and Pam Hill. The letters, which were identical, were written on city letterhead, signed by Mayor Tommy Battle, and sent to the two elected officials at the school board office.
The letters said, among other things, that their behavior at the meeting "did not reflect the values we have established in our community."
Watkins and Hill had heated exchanges with other board members during last Thursday's school board meeting while discussing contract negotiations for the new Huntsville superintendent. The pair have frequently been at odds with the other three board members since taking office in October. While campaigning last fall, they had been vocal critics of former Superintendent Casey Wardynski.
Battle told AL.com today that he'd had calls from "concerned citizens and concerned industry members" worried about the board.
He said he wrote his initial letter to Watkins and Hill to encourage them to review the video from Thursday's board meeting and how they behaved.
"It was just meant to be a letter between them and myself to say, 'You might want to look at (the video), might want to think about it,'" he said. "When you first (begin working as elected officials) you don't realize how much you say (can) mean and how much it carries throughout the community."
Watkins on Tuesday told AL.com she was "dumbfounded" that Battle would send a letter rather than calling her to express any concerns he had.
Today, Pam Hill spoke with AL.com, saying she and Watkins hadn't planned on commenting publicly about Battle's letter until it showed up in the news. The letters did not become public until they were published Monday night by AL.com's news partner, WHNT News Channel 19.
"I think he thought we were going to make a ruckus about (the letter)," said Hill. "We were going to let it go, and then it leaked to the media. Then he wrote about it in his e-newsletter.
"The two of us were not elected to be bobble heads and we're not going to be."
Battle said his office did not send the letters to the media.
"That did not come from me or anybody on my staff," he said. "I was surprised to see it." He said the first time his office released the letters was after receiving a public records request from AL.com on Tuesday.
Hill said she wasn't mad he sent the letter.
"I don't have time for his politics," Hill said. "He did this to me about two years ago. Called me into his office, wanted to know if I was going to run (for a seat on the school board), and I said, 'Yes.'"
She said she told Battle at the time that she wasn't happy with the way Wardynski and the board were conducting school business.
"He said, 'You're going to have to get used to it, because he's going to be superintendent for two more years, until I run for governor.' I could tell right then he didn't care about Huntsville City Schools; he cared about his ambitions."
Battle said he did not tell her he was running for governor, or express his thoughts in that way. He has not publicly said whether or not he will throw his hat in the gubernatorial ring.
"She came with a friend to meet with me and they were concerned about education," he said. "We talked for a long time about the education system, what I saw out of the education system, what they saw out of it. I thought we had a great conversation.
"At that point I had no clue she was running for school board." He said she announced she was running a few weeks later. He said they did discuss Wardynski, and Battle said he told her he was pleased with some of Wardynski's programs, including the Digital 1:1 initiative and Greenpower.
"We had a great conversation which I felt was a good, constructive conversation about education. We agreed in some places and disagreed in some places."
Last month Board President Elisa Ferrell asked the Alabama State Department of Education for an investigation into Hill's behavior in relation to an alleged information leak. Hill denies the allegations.
Board Vice President Walker McGinnis told AL.com in an email today that he appreciated Battle's involvement.
"I feel school board meetings should be held as business meetings with appropriate decorum and civility," he wrote. "What transpired last Thursday evening was very inappropriate."
He wrote that the "negative atmosphere" will make it difficult to make decisions about student and employee welfare.
"Emotional outbursts, personal attacks, disrespect, etc. have no place in a public school board setting," wrote McGinnis. "They only serve to disrupt and interfere with our collective responsibility."
Last night, Watkins apologized to her constituents during a town hall meeting at the Richard Showers Center where she was listening to concerns about Rolling Hills Elementary School.
"Last Thursday night at the board meeting, I got a little upset," she said. "I was a little loud. And that's not representative of who I want you to see sitting at the table. So I have to apologize for doing that. I apologize, but I'm passionate about education."
But she said that she was still surprised and puzzled by Battle's letter, and that she was speaking out because she is concerned about what she perceives as a lack of transparency on the board.
"I and all who serve with them on that board have a moral and fiduciary obligation to place (students', parents', teachers') welfare above any personal interest we might have," she said in a letter she sent yesterday to Battle, "to be open and disclose fully the status and details of the system operations, financial and personnel-wise."
Battle said he respects the school board members and thinks the letters have been blown out of proportion.
"As we work together that doesn't mean there's not disagreements, not times we both state our cases respectfully," he said. "Everybody has to work together in this community. Working together has been the strength of what our community has been for years and years."