MONTGOMERY — An Alabama State Board of Education member said this week there is no correlation between an appointment he made to a new education committee and nearly $50,000 in campaign contributions he received.
Matthew Brown, a Republican who represents south Alabama on the BOE, said that in January, he nominated Ryan Cantrell, state director for the pro-school choice group the Alabama Federation for Children, to the Alabama Every Student Succeeds Act Implementation Committee.
The act was signed into law in late 2015 to replace the federal No Child Left Behind Act. It requires each state to develop a plan for implementing the legislation.
In March, Gov. Robert Bentley signed an executive order to establish the Alabama Every Student Succeeds Act Implementation Committee. Per Bentley’s order, there are a variety of appointees to the board, including two appointees selected by each state board of education member.
Brown said he was looking for a pro-charter school voice for the commission and reached out to others before Cantrell said he’d be willing to serve.
A few weeks later in February, the federation donated $25,000 to Brown’s election campaign. In April, when Brown was in a runoff, the federation made two in-kind donations for advertising totaling about $24,500.
Cantrell this week said the appointment and the money are unrelated. The federation’s support for Brown was based on his politics and a questionnaire Brown filled out for the group.
“Mr. Brown had been a big supporter of school choice and giving parents an option … that’s what we look for in candidates that we support and of course we never expect anything in return and would never be a part of anything like that,” Cantrell said.
According to campaign finance reports, the federation’s PAC also put about $25,000 worth of support behind Justin Barkley of Homewood, who in March lost a GOP primary bid for a state BOE seat held by incumbent Stephanie Bell of Montgomery.
The federation didn’t get involved in the north Alabama BOE race that saw Jeff Newman win re-election this spring.
Brown of Fairhope was appointed to the board in July of last year by Bentley. Last month, he lost a Republican primary runoff bid to keep the seat to Jackie Zeigler, a former Mobile principal and wife of state Auditor Jim Zeigler. Brown's term will continue through the end of the year.
According to records, Brown took in about $208,000 in monetary contributions and $25,000 in non-monetary contributions during the contest.
Cantrell is also a Bentley nominee for the state charter school commission, but the BOE selected incumbent Ed Richardson, a former state superintendent, instead.
There’s nothing in state law that says elected officials can’t appoint their supporters to committees, but at least one board member said it raises red flags.
“I’m just concerned based on being on the board since 2002, about conflicts of interests and my own personal campaign experience,” Betty Peters, a Republican from Dothan, said.
“There are people who are going to have connections to things — and that’s not necessarily bad,” Peters said. But when there’s a lot of money, “you have to wonder.”
The federation supported her opponent in 2014. Peters' appointments to the Every Student Succeeds commission are a local school board member and the director of the conservative, anti-Common Core group, Alabama Eagle Forum. According to records, the Eagle Forum political action committee based in Illinois gave Peters’ campaign $1,000 in 2014. Peters is a member of that group.
Other appointees to the commission included state education officials, lawmakers, school administrators or board members and two Alabama Education Association representatives.