No applicants interviewed before Hartselle school board appointment made
By Bruce McLellan
For the Enquirer
The Hartselle school board didn’t interview any of 26 applicants to fill a board vacancy, including one applicant who previously sued the board, before appointing Amy Pace to fill the position this week, but several board members said they handled the selection appropriately.
They said it would’ve been difficult to narrow a quality field of applicants to a few candidates for interviews and that as a former board member Pace won’t have a learning curve for what is essentially a half-term.
Pace, 50, is an engineer who is director of processing and tests at rocket company Blue Origin’s Huntsville plant and formerly worked at United Launch Alliance’s plant at Decatur. She will fill the final 27 months of Venita Jones’ unexpired term. Jones resigned her Place 5 seat last month.
“Ms. Pace clearly stood out to me as one that could help us immediately and be a great (member) — not that others couldn’t — she doesn’t have that learning curve,” board member Monty Vest said during a work session Tuesday before the board’s regular meeting.
“I love the fact that there’s that much interest, that clearly there’s awareness of the opening. But we have two years left, and I know what it was like when I was a new board member and we all can remember what it’s like. The learning curve is steep.”
One of the applicants was airline pilot and U.S. Air Force Reserve Lt. Col. Bruce Wilhite, who filed a lawsuit against the board in December attempting to block the hiring of Brian Clayton as superintendent. The lawsuit argued that the hiring should be invalidated because the school board violated the state’s Open Meetings Act. The lawsuit was dismissed in January when a Morgan County judge ruled there was no evidence the board violated the Open Meetings law.
Wilhite declined Friday to comment on the process used to fill the board vacancy. In his application he wrote, “As a pilot, I travel around the country each week and witness the decay and cultural shift taking place in many of our cities … . We must protect our culture and ensure our school board sets policy that reflects the values of parents, voters and the community.”
He also wrote, “I have three children in the system and my wife is active with PTO. … An elected school board member should … never betray the public trust.”
Chris Rigoni, 38, who is in the banking business, said he didn’t know “the actual process” that would be used when he submitted another of the 26 applications to fill the board vacancy so he didn’t have an opinion on how the selection was made.
He said he has lived in Hartselle most of his life and was impressed that so many people applied.
“That shows everybody in the community really does care about the school system and the education of the children and the community,” he said. “Sometimes it’s hard to get people to participate, and Hartselle is a place where people love to serve and serve the community.
“That’s probably the reason you have so many applications.”
This will be the second appointment to the board for Pace, who was on the board from 2016-20. She served the final two months of an existing term when a board member resigned and then that member’s full four-year term from a recent election.
She ran for another full term in 2020 but lost the Place 1 race to Vest.
Pace said one of her motivations for rejoining the school board is the experience her two children had in the Hartselle school system. Daughter Maggie now attends UAB’s dental school and daughter Mary Claire is studying mechanical engineering at Auburn.
“They were very prepared” for college, Pace said. “More so than some of their (college) classmates.”
She added, “I believe in the school board and the school system. I’m confident we can carry out the rest of the term and do some good things.”
Pace said she’ll bring knowledge from her work experience to the board.
“I help bring a perspective of what the industries in this area are looking for when they get out of high school,” she said.
During the board’s work session discussion on filling the vacancy, member Randy Sparkman said he wanted somebody who values public education, has exposure to “the kind of decisions and tradeoffs” involved in running a system with a $46 million budget and 500 employees, and somebody who can be a “unifier.”
“When I look at those 26 people, there’s one on there that can do all of those things,” Sparkman said. “Ms. Pace has been a board member. She clearly has the experience. During her time she demonstrated that commitment and understanding of public education to me. In her work life she’s clearly (handled) those tradeoffs. And my experience with her demeanor is that I think she would be a unifier in a lot of ways. …
“I’m fine to move out with her as the choice.”
Board member Daxton Maze said he came into the work session thinking the board might narrow the list of applicants and interview several before making a decision.
“I’m worried we’re doing disservice to … 25 others if we don’t try to down-select to a top three and have them maybe change our decision about do they have the ability to take off running from day one, be a bigger asset than what Ms. Pace would be, not to downplay Ms. Pace’s ability,” Maze said.
When Pace was appointed in 2016, she was one of five applicants, three of whom were interviewed by the board, but a full term was involved.
Dr. James Joy, the board president, said he had pondered how much time the board should spend on the selection process.
“Do we invest all the time and resources into that or do we say we’ve got kind of a responsible person that has proven themselves? They didn’t leave on bad terms,” Joy said. “It’s too much logic involved here.
“I come down to saying Amy looks like a really good candidate, and I don’t think we go wrong here. There may be some others better out there. We’ve got an election coming up in approximately two years. It can be resolved that way if that’s what the public wants.”
Vest said the application questions covered most of what would’ve been asked during an in-person interview. She said the application pool included “some extraordinary people … that I would love to see them have interest in running for the next election just based on the information they shared.”
After about 30 minutes of discussion in the work session, Joy indicated the selection of a new board member would be added to the agenda for the regular meeting. The updated agenda and Pace’s appointment were approved by all four board members during the regular meeting.