My Brief Brush With the Long Arm of the Law

Earlier today, I got an email telling me of a retirement ceremony for UAH President Frank Franz, Ph.D. I, of course, had to go. Frank meant a lot to me as a student, and I think fondly of him. I sometimes find that this opinion is a lonely one, but … :shrug: As we talked briefly, I brought up the only time I have come close to being arrested, something I hinted at last year and never really brought up again. [Mostly because I’m out of the practice of blogging, you see. Been having that discussion with Trey via email tonight.] So here it is: the story of how I almost got arrested in college for leading a protest.

Spring 2001. Osama bin Laden is not a household word. George W. Bush is still trying to be a uniter, not a divider. Economic times are tough across the country, and especially in Alabama. Like many American states, Alabama has a balanced budget provision in its state constitution. Unlike many states, Alabama has a thoroughly earmarked budget system, set up so that each budget group must be balanced. Unlike most states, Alabama doesn’t use stable, growth-related tax bases like property taxes to fund its education; instead, we fund the Education Trust Fund with sales tax receipts. Yes, folks: when the economy goes south in Alabama, education funding goes with it. You might say that we deserve our perennial place in the bottom quintile of American educational rankings for this and this alone, and I will not disagree with you.

When education budgets do get slashed—it happens once or twice a decade—we have a name for it here: proration. Sure, that’s a reasonable technical term for what happens, but it’s also a living, breathing entities in the years when it happens. In the 2000-01 school year, it was the elephant in everyone’s living room.

Because we see proration so often, political interests have worked out a way to guard their fiefdoms in these dry times. The Alabama Education Association, run by Paul Hubbert—arguably the most powerful private citizen in this state—got a rule passed into law that shielded K-12 teacher salaries from proration. It seems sensible on its surface: public school teachers are never paid what they truly deserve [well, the good ones, anyway], so why should they suffer when proration happens? Well, let’s start doing a little budgetary math: of the total Education Trust Fund, a full two-thirds goes towards K-12 and the community college system. [The community college system knows where its bread is buttered, and besides, many of them are members of the State Legislature … an affront worth discussing some other time, lest I never get to why I almost got thrown into jail.] Of that two-thirds, more than three-quarters goes towards salaries. If you shield K-12 teacher pay from proration—a great idea on the surface!—you’ve now shielded half of the total ETF budget from proration.


In 2001, then-Governor Don Siegelman took things a bit further, misconstruing the no-K12-teacher-proration law to mean that K12 itself could not be prorated … whatsoever. [Yes, the community colleges held tightly to their primary and secondary education brethren and somehow stayed under the umbrella. How, I hardly remember. I’ve drunk a lot of beer since then.] In light of Siegelman’s decree, all of the proration burden would be shifted to higher education, the educational arm of the state that draws a majority of its income from users [er, students] rather than from the taxpayers. [At the time, only the HBCUs of Alabama had a majority of their funding come from the state. UAH and Troy State University—which renamed itself Troy University because, they said, the State of Alabama had very little to do with their success—were at the other end of that spectrum, with less than a third of funding coming from the taxpayer.]

Coming as it did very late in the school year—I believe it was March—the proration proved especially painful for higher education. The sales tax receipts were off by more than 6% for the full year. With K-12’s two-thirds funding protected by Siegelman, higher education was staring a 20% proration in the face. With the educational fiscal year going from July to June and with the bulk of the monies coming in the main part of the school year, higher education was faced with getting little to no funding from Montgomery for the rest of the year. As you might expect, we didn’t take to this news very well.

Fast forward a week or two. Toyota had announced that they would open an engine manufacturing plant in Huntsville that year. [If you drive one of the new Tundras, that big-ass V8 is made right here in the Rocket City. We’re prouder of the Saturn V, but that Tundra money do spend nicely. Thank you kindly.] The Port of Huntsville decided to give Gov. Siegelman an award for bringing Toyota to the area. He would fly into the private part of the airport, ride in his limo down the street to the terminal, then step inside after a quick photo op. A little birdie—and I’m never going to name that person, but they know who they are, and I shook their hand today, too, after shaking Frank’s—put a bug in my ear: go lead a protest at the airport.

You see, at the time, I was student government’s vice president. I could pull such an event off. I threw myself headlong into it, contacting local media to ensure their presence and working with Alabama A&M across town to bring some of their students down, too. [After all, AAMU’s budget was far more dependent on money from Montgomery than ours was. They stood to lose far more than we did. I think that this is why their students turned out very, very well for the event, even though they let us spearhead things.] We staged a very simple protest: signs denouncing pro-ration, a march up and down in front of the terminal, and a simple plea to have the governor face us down.

The timing couldn’t have been better for us: it was a Saturday evening, right around 5:00 p.m. If I could gather everyone together around 4:15 p.m. or so, we’d have our full crowd by the local news half-hour, and because it’s Saturday in a sleepy metropolitan area, chances are that we’d be the lead story. We were—on two of the three stations. Never found out why the third didn’t come out, and I can’t remember which one that was at this point. We got together 250 or so folks together. Dale Jobes, a good friend and fellow activist, took the air on one TV channel; I took the air on another. We made a simple, impassioned plea: in tough economic times, let’s all bear proration together, rather than forcing all of it onto higher education. Why? Simple: cut higher education, and Alabama’s best and brightest will leave the state for college, unlikely to return. All that investment we made on them for 13 years? Gone.

As you can imagine, the Port of Huntsville wasn’t terribly happy with us. Neither were the State Troopers who were on protective detail for the governor. We were being very peaceable, but we were Screwing Things Up For the Governor, and they couldn’t have that. Some phone calls were made, and suddenly I was told to take my group back from the exit of the private air terminal back towards the public terminal. By the time I and my crowd reached the public terminal, Huntsville police asked me to disperse the crowd. The reason? I didn’t have a license to protest.

Fair enough, I thought. I was all set to disperse the crowd—we’d had our moment in the sun and made some waves—when Joel Lonergan, head of University Relations, walked up to me and told me to stall. Thinking quickly, I announced that everyone should go home, but to make sure that they all got in the right cars that they came in. I made this announcement while standing in front of my own truck, and … then proceeded to wander aimlessly around the parking lot, looking for my ride. “Where did I park?” I loudly asked, passing my truck for the second time. A number of UAH folks laughed, caught on, and quickly passed the word to others in the crowd. We aimlessly milled around for five or ten minutes, to the bemusement of HPD. [The head of the airport detail just looked at me, smiled, and shook his head. I think that he was ready to run the plates of our cars to help us jog our memories.]

Why had I been asked to stall? You see, Frank Franz was on the phone with the mayor of Huntsville, Loretta Spencer. He was making a plea to keep us from getting arrested. What a guy.

We went on about this for a little while, and I must have walked past my truck a half-dozen times, “searching”. Part of this time, I was on the phone with Dad. He wanted progress on the protest, as I’d told my folks about it earlier that week. I also figured that, if I went to jail, he’d want to know. I was on the phone with him when some idiot decided to place one of their placard on the rear glass of an HPD cruiser. An HPD patrolman quickly saw it and declared it cause for interference with his duties. I quickly told Dad, “I’ll call you later, hopefully not from jail,” and hung up. I quickly pleaded my case, but I was told to get my crowd to disperse or I and a number of others would go to jail. Knowing that we’d crossed the line at that point, I shrugged and walked directly to my truck, telling everyone else to leave. I swore loudly and vehemently in the truck on the way home, but I got it out on the five-minute ride back to campus. I figured that the TV guys might follow us there—they’d been covering us, ready to roll tape if I got the cuffs slapped on me—and they did. I needed to be cool for them, and I was. We declared victory and dispersed a little while later for a beer. Or five.

In the end, K-12 salaries were protected, but proration happened to everyone else—K-12 non-teacher budgets, community college budgets, and higher education. It hurt—it amounted to a 10% cut, and about a 50% cut from there to year-end—but given that we’d already done the planning for no budget, we found a way to make it work. I’d like to think that we played our part in focusing the debate a bit, but that could just be delusions of grandeur on my part.

Today, it’s dead Don who’s about to head to jail. Maybe I’ll visit him in there.