School board member 'dumbfounded' at letter from Huntsville mayor chastising her behavior

Huntsville school board member Michelle Watkins said she was disappointed and "dumbfounded" by a letter she received Friday from Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle, chastising her for behavior at recent school board meeting. Battle sent an identical letter to board member Pam Hill, his office confirmed.

(Scroll to bottom to read both letters.)

"This is the first time anyone from the mayor's office has reached out to me," said Watkins, who has represented north Huntsville since she was elected in October. "That's what had me so dumbfounded. I felt like as a leader of our city, if (Battle) really had an issue with me, (he) could have picked up the phone and called me.

"Everyone in Huntsville has my cell phone number; it's not a secret. I didn't appreciate (the letter) at all because I felt like I'm doing everything I need to do for my community." 

The other three board members have confirmed to that they did not receive a letter from Battle. Hill has not responded to a request for comment.

The letter said, among other things, "I just viewed Thursday night's Board of Education meeting online, and I ask you to take a moment and review the meeting to evaluate the performance. This meeting did not reflect the values we have established in our community."

Watkins and Hill have frequently been at odds with the other three board members since taking office in October. Discussions during board meetings have at times gotten heated, particularly between Watkins and board president Elisa Ferrell, and between Hill and Ferrell. One such exchange happened at the board meeting last Thursday as the board discussed final changes to the new superintendent's contract.

Watkins addressed the letter tonight during a town hall-style meeting she hosted at the Richard Showers Center for parents and community members to share their thoughts about academic and discipline problems at Rolling Hills Elementary School. Around 120 people attended the standing-room-only event, as well as Huntsville's new superintendent Dr. Matt Akin and former interim superintendent Tom Drake.

At the end of the meeting, Watkins apologized to the crowd for her actions at Thursday's board meeting.

"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."

She was interrupted by a woman in the crowd, who shouted, "We need somebody to get mad!" prompting extended applause. As Watkins continued to speak and repeated her apology, she was nearly drowned out as the crowd continued to applaud; a few people gave her a standing ovation.

Earlier, Watkins told that she was surprised Battle even sent a letter because in years past, when she spoke with him, "one of the things he always emphasized and stated over and over again was, 'I don't get involved in school issues.' That's on record. And then for you to send me a letter and tell me to act as a board member...that made me question were you really involved and you just didn't want to say it?"

She said she is concerned at the lack of transparency from the school district, and wants Battle to address issues in north Huntsville, including improving roads, increasing economic development opportunities, and addressing crime.

This afternoon Watkins also wrote a response to Battle's letter.

In it, she said she was "surprised and puzzled" by his letter, saying she agreed with the importance he places on education but "We apparently have a disagreement when it comes to the manner in which the Board charged with the responsibility to provide that education operates."

"I and all who serve with me on that board have a moral and fiduciary obligation to place (students', parents', teachers') welfare above any personal interest we might have, to be open and disclose fully the status and details of the system operations, financial and personnel-wise."

She pushed back against his characterization of her contentious exchanges with other board members during meetings, saying the community needs to be informed about the operation and expenditures of the school district.

Watkins closed the letter with a parting shot, reminding Battle of a time in 2010 when he lost his cool during a city council meeting: "I assure you that I will not model your behavior and throw objects at my fellow board members. I remember when you threw a bottle cap at Dr. Richard Showers, Sr. during a heated discussion."

Initially the mayor's office refused to release the letter to, calling it a "private communication." The letter was written on city letterhead, signed by Mayor Tommy Battle and sent to two elected officials. Later the mayor's office released the letters addressed to Watkins and Hill.

Hill did not respond to a request for comment. She was hospitalized over the weekend and was not at Monday's board meeting because of illness.

Hill is facing a more severe form of reprimand for behavior during board meetings, as the board president Elisa Ferrell has formally asked the Alabama Department of Education to launch an investigation into Hill's fitness to hold elected office. Ferrell said in her letter that Hill, a former teacher, leaked incorrect information to the media regarding one of the candidates for superintendent the day the board was to vote on its choice for superintendent. 

Michelle Watkins_School Board Letter_March 2017 by Anna Claire Vollers on Scribd

Michelle Watkins to Mayor Tommy Battle by Anna Claire Vollers on Scribd

Pam Hill_School Board Letter_March 2017 by Anna Claire Vollers on Scribd

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