Some concerned over new Hartselle superintendent hire
By Wes Tomlinson
For the Enquirer
Several parents and residents are pushing back against the school board’s choice of superintendent, Brian Clayton, saying they fear he would alter the curriculum to suit his ideological leanings, but Clayton says he has no plans to do so.
“I have to teach the curricula that is set forth by the state of Alabama and that’s what I plan on doing,” Clayton said Thursday. His employment contract has not been finalized, according to school board Vice President Monty Vest.
Hartselle resident Bruce Wilhite started a petition Tuesday that has since garnered more than 200 signatures from parents and community members who disagreed with the board’s decision last month to hire the James Clemens High principal.
Clayton was hired in a 3-2 vote with board President James Joy, Vest and board member Randy Sparkman voting to approve the hire and board members Daxton Maze and Venita Jones voting against. Clayton would start the Hartselle job in January.
Wilhite, who has two children who attend Hartselle schools, said the school board made its decision after only one round of interviews with each candidate and decided to hire an outsider with no connection to the school system. The petition says the six candidates did not address their views on virtual and in-person learning, student mask mandates and “the role and inclusion of ideological curricula in our school system.”
“(Clayton) went through one round of formal interview questions and he was selected from a pool of candidates who are well known within the community,” Wilhite said. “The recommendation to hire him was taken on with no public input. We’ve got a guy here that they’ve recommended to hire and we simply do not know where he stands on these issues.”
Hartselle resident Chris Davis said he fears Clayton is a liberal who will “destroy Hartselle City Schools and not represent the Hartselle way of life.”
Decatur resident Jessica Orr, who is originally from Hartselle, shares Davis’ concerns and said none of the superintendent candidates were asked where they stood on social issues and how that would affect the district’s curriculum.
“Good, bad or indifferent, Hartselle is relatively conservative in nature, and the beliefs of an incoming superintendent matter,” Orr said. “From defunding the police to transgender athletes and bathroom and locker room issues, citizens should have the opportunity to ask questions once those concerns come to light.”
Orr said she would have preferred someone familiar with the Hartselle system, such as Brad Cooper or Johnny Berry. Both interviewed for the position. Cooper is currently the principal of Hartselle High and Arab City Superintendent Berry is a former Hartselle coach.
“I’ve always heard, ‘If the culture is good, promote from within. If it’s bad, hire from the outside,’” Orr said.
Vest and Sparkman said they have no doubt Clayton will maintain a traditional learning curriculum. Vest said she felt Clayton was the most qualified candidate for the job.
“In no form or fashion has Dr. Clayton indicated that he would deviate from our academic plan and that’s not anything the board would tolerate,” Vest said. “The issues that the petition raised are truly unfounded and biased claims that are unsupported by Dr. Clayton’s experience. He’s had a distinguished career.”
Sparkman said Clayton’s experience and commitment to public education make him the best candidate to lead Hartselle schools.
“I am aware of the social concerns regarding public education and in my discussion with (Clayton), there was no red flag or indication that he would be part of any kind of initiative that was counter to what represents the values of our community,” Sparkman said. “There will be no deviation from that with Dr. Clayton or any superintendent.”
Clayton said regardless of the assumptions of the individuals who oppose his hiring, he will follow the curriculum that the state requires.
“I advocate for the curriculum that’s provided by the state of Alabama, and I don’t think there’s anything in there about critical race theory,” Clayton said. “I don’t think I’ve built the reputation I have from deviating away from the state curriculum, and I’ve always taught that because it’s required by law.”
Clayton mentioned Hartselle’s progress on the state report card and said he believes adherence to the state’s curriculum is vital to keeping Hartselle schools on track.
Wilhite said there should have been community input before the board made a decision on hiring a superintendent. Sparkman said if Hartselle residents want input, they should speak with their local legislators.
“It’s not our job to have an election and have people tell us who they want us to pick,” Sparkman said. “If the citizens of Hartselle want to choose their superintendent, they should work with their legislators.”
Many Alabama county school systems have elected superintendents, although city systems like Hartselle have superintendents who are generally appointed by an elected school board.
The next scheduled board meeting is Dec. 13 at 6 p.m. in the library at Barkley Bridge Elementary.