Let me show my age again. Some of us recall in a faraway time of black and white TV when John Cameron Swayze touted the durability of Timex watches. He put them on the blade of a motor boat engine, spun them underwater at 4,500 RPM and then showed us that the watch was still running.
“It takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’,” we were told.
So when I read Josh Moon’s report on The Alabama Political Reporter site about how taxpayers paid thousands of dollars to the Balch & Bingham law firm for their involvement in the “Sentence case,” I thought back to John Cameron Swayze and the fact that the most dreadful hire of a state school chief Alabama has ever had just “keeps on tickin’.”
You can see the entire article here.
Here are excerpts that caught my attention:
“Balch & Bingham attorneys, the records show, also drove to Montgomery and to “coach” both Dean and school board member Mary Scott Hunter before they answered questions from a legislative committee that was investigating the superintendent search process.
Asked about the use of Balch & Bingham attorneys for tasks that appear to be either so mundane that the ALSDE counsel should handle them or that are of a personal nature and outside of the scope of their daily job duties, an ALSDE spokesman declined to answer the specific questions and instead focused on the fact that the information had become public.
Jefferson County superintendent Craig Pouncey, who was considered the frontrunner for the job, has filed a lawsuit against Hunter and others at the state department for concocting and carrying out a scheme to prevent him from landing the job. A Montgomery judge last month dismissed all but Hunter and another ALSDE lawyer from the suit, including Dean.
Pouncey filed his lawsuit in Feb. 2016 and it was announced after that date that because of the legal action, ALSDE would be on the hook for private attorneys to represent Dean, Hunter and two other ALSDE attorneys, James Ward and Susan Crowther.
But the records obtained by APR show that Balch & Bingham attorneys had long been providing legal guidance to the four.
The bills also include several charges related to legal guidance for Hunter, which is, at best, a gray area. School board members clamored for months about hiring an attorney that would represent the board, and ultimately last year moved forward with hiring Lewis Gillis. Prior to that hire, however, it was the policy of the board that it was represented in all legal matters, unless the board took specific action otherwise, by Dean.
But on Nov. 1, 2016, the billing records show a $146.25 charge for a “talk” between Dorman Walker and Hunter about “her prospective testimony before the (legislative) committee.” There was another talk with Hunter on Nov. 8., and a conference on Nov. 9. The related charges totaled $1,170.”
Balch & Bingham is an excellent law firm. I know a number of attorneys who work for them. But to me, the real issue is not so much about the firm involved, as it is about why taxpayers had to foot the bill to “coach” people to go before a legislative committee to answer questions? Both Hunter and Dean are attorneys themselves. Why did they have to be prepped?
There are eight elected members of the state board of education, including Hunter. All eight testified before the legislative committee. Why was Hunter the only board member who got special treatment in this instance?
And remember, this was months before Pouncey filed his lawsuit naming both Hunter and Dean.
As pointed out above, while Dean has been dismissed from the legal action, Hunter has not. Which brings us to a very sticky issue. The state board of education is now conducting a search for a new superintendent. They hope to have someone within the next two months.
One of the applicants is Craig Pouncey. If he is a finalist, Hunter will once again sit in judgment, just as she did in 2016 when she voted for four of the six finalists–but never for Pouncey. How “fair and impartial” will she be with the law suit hanging over her head?
The honorable thing for her to do is to recuse herself from the search process. We know the process in 2016 was tainted. The last thing we need is to give the appearance of doing it again.
Interim state superintendent Ed Richardson spent 30 minutes or more at the Nov. 9 state board work session discussing the experiences and skill set needed by the next state school chief.
As is his nature, Richardson was candid and left no one in doubt as to how he felt.
Here are points he covered::
Experience in managing large, preferably public, governmental organizations in a manner producing measurable positive results.
Richardson reminded the board that governmental organizations frequently expand in size, without increasing efficiency. When this happens the organizations tend to subdivide into silos that become self-serving. He stressed that the superintendent must work with the board to identify and establish goals.
Experience in interacting with state legislators, elected officials, state agency officials, postsecondary and higher education, state organization leaders and the business community.
“It is essential that the superintendent and the state department of education have credibility with the legislature<” said Richardson. He also stressed that the department should be an advocate for education when the legislature is working on the education trust fund. He does not think that has been the case recently.
Possesses a broad knowledge of educational trends and existing program.
He pointed out that unless a superintendent has extensive experience at all levels of K 12 education, they will never have the confidence and trust of local educators.
Possesses sufficient knowledge of Alabama’s framework for providing educational service. In addition, clearly understands the primary role of the State Department of Education in regard to oversight and assistance to local education agencies.
State superintendent must be able to maintain a vigorous and demanding work schedule, be highly proficient in the effective utilization of time and making timely decisions.
Richardson also emphasized that the Alabama code says the state board and superintendent “shall seek in every way to direct and develop public sentiment in support of public education.” Unfortunately, this attitude has not always been prevalent.
As Richardson ran through his list, several thoughts kept going through my mind. One being that everything he said would be considered “common sense” by 99 out of 100 Alabamians. How do you not insist on experience in managing an organization similar to the state department?
And it was impossible to not think back to the summer of 2016 when the board hired someone who was woefully lacking in most of the things this job demands?
Governor Ivey presided at the work session. She repeatedly stated that the upcoming superintendent hire will be the most important decision this board makes during their current term. Richardson echoed her and it is obvious the two of them are on the same page as this search moves forward.
In fact, the governor announced that at the December board meeting she will offer a motion to hire a national firm to conduct the next search. She does not want to take a chance of repeating mistakes made by the board when they conducted their own search in 2016.
Nor do any educators in this state.
Editor’s note: We will soon start a new state superintendent search. In getting ready for the search that brought us Mike Sentance in 2016, I surveyed a number of local superintendents for their thoughts about what we should look for. Unfortunately their voices were ignored as not a single local superintendent supported Sentance during the selection process. Here again is the post from July 22, 2016 detailing what local superintendents said. Their comments are just as pertinent today as they were then. Let us hope they carry more weight this time.
As we draw closer to August 4th and the day the state school board will interview six applicants seeking to become our next state school superintendent, there has been no shortage of people coming forth with their recommendations as to what type person we need.
But there is one group I believe are uniquely qualified to have their voices heard in this instance because they are the ones who most often have direct contact with the state department of education. They are local school system superintendents.
So I contacted more than 20 of them for input. They are in all corners of the state and in all type systems, some very rural, some suburban, some largely inner-city. Big systems and small ones.
In some cases, many of the responses were almost identical. While this hardly comes under the heading of “scientific,” it is still an excellent cross-section of those in charge of our local systems and I believe captures the essence of the thinking of this community of educators.
The average experience level was 26.8 years, ranging from 18 to 41 years. On average their systems interact with the state at least once per week and the primary contact is the local superintendent. Here are some of my questions with select superintendent comments in italics.
Would you prefer that the new superintendent be someone who has worked in Alabama, or someone with no in-state experience?
One said prefer Alabama experience, but open to an outsider. One had no preference. All others greatly preferred Alabama experience.
“With the disarray in our legislative, executive and judicial branches, it is necessary a veteran school person with knowledge of Alabama politics lead our state system. It is likely an outsider would be blindsided by abysmal funding and underhanded political maneuvers.”
“We don’t have time to sit dead in the water while a new superintendent tries to figure out the legislature, state politics and what our strengths and weaknesses are.”
“Someone from outside the state would be faced with a steep learning curve, while we need strong leadership with immediate knowledge.”
“We are in the heart of Plan 2020 with majority education stakeholder buy-in, so bring in someone who hasn’t been a part of this will derail the implementation, as well as destroy what educators have spent so much time doing, to prepare our kids for college and career readiness.”
Do you think a state superintendent should be someone who “worked their way up through the ranks” of public education with experience as a teacher, principal, etc? Or is this unnecessary?
Respondents believed strongly that a new superintendent should have experience at multiple levels of education.
“It is an absolute to me that the person chosen have served as a teacher, principal and local superintendent.”
“It is very necessary that the state superintendent has experience as a teacher, principal and in a central office.”
“Someone with only theoretical knowledge of education will not be effective.”
“Without a broad base of experience, there is no credibility.”
“If I am having knee surgery I want an experienced surgeon who has operated on other folks in the same situation.”
“How can the cream rise to the top if it has never been part of the milk?”
What do you see as the role of the state department of education?
There is unanimity, though expressed in slightly different ways, that the state department of education is to give guidance and support to local school systems.
“Build relations and support with stakeholders.”
“A support mechanism for local superintendents.”
“The biggest cheerleader for our teachers and public throughout the state.”
“Provide teachers and employees professional development that has substance and addresses the issues that our teachers deal with daily.”
“Address the foolishness that goes on in Montgomery with legislators who think they know better than the experts how to lead public education.”
“The primary role for the state department is NOT to develop innovative plans, but rather to implement the basic policies of the state school board.”
“Allocate resources where they can make the most difference for students.”
“Report to the people of Alabama the progress of education.”
What do you think the No. 1 priority of the state department should be?
As with the preceding question there is unanimity that the chief mission of the state department is to partner with local systems.
“Continued support of the Alabama College & Career Ready standards.”
“Continue the implementation of Plan 2020.”
“Provide leadership for local school systems while ensuring parents and stakeholders of Alabama that every child will get an adequate education.”
“Fully understand the intent of Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).”
“Advocate for the needs of students.”.
“This is one of the most critical hires in the history of our state. Will we hire someone who will work with local systems or with the special interests who want to tear us down?”
“I think it is vitally important that our state superintendent have experience as a local superintendent. Many people can theorize, but are they able to put those theories into practice and successfully carry them out?”
“It concerns me when there are those who would usurp the role of the constitutionally elected board charged with the oversight of public education in Alabama.”
“We need a superintendent who has risen through the ranks in Alabama. Someone who knows the funding priorities of our schools. Someone who does not pander to special interest groups.”
“In Dr. Bice’s administration, Alabama made great strides to move beyond the cellar of education nationwide. This movement was made despite the work of special interest groups to take money and resources from the students we serve. We cannot afford to let those same groups have influence on who will run Alabama’s department of education.”
“Essential to the process of problem solving is analysis and reflection and although one may learn the concepts in a textbook, this skill is only honed through experience.”
“If my child is sick, I don’t take them to someone who has a degree to be a doctor but decided to do something else instead.”
“The state school board has an opportunity to deliver a powerful message to all education employees which is “We are listening to YOU, not special interest groups.'”
“The state school board needs to re-establish their sovereignty as elected officials and embrace a leader who fights for students, effective caring teachers and administrators.”
“Why roll the dice on the unknown?”
Embattled state school chief Mike Sentance submitted a letter of resignation to the state school board and Governor Kay Ivey today (Sept. 13, 2017). Ironically this comes one year and a day after he took office Sept. 12, 2016..
The state school board has a regularly scheduled meeting on Sept. 14 and one agenda item is discussion of Sentance’s contract. It has been widely felt that there were at least six solid votes (of the eight elected board members) to terminate him. Instead, they will now vote as to whether or not to accept the letter of resignation.
Earlier today Sentance sent the following to all ALSDE employees:
“To my colleagues in the Alabama State Department of Education,
As you may have heard, this is my last day working as the State Superintendent of Education. I have resigned this position.
I have enjoyed my work with you. The task of supporting educators and staff in this state is too often thankless as the demands are constant. However, I have admired your commitment to this work and to the children of Alabama. So I thank you for your diligence and perseverance. It is truly God’s work to improve the lives of children.
Shortly after the email, ALSDE sent out this press release:
“Montgomery, Ala. – Alabama State Superintendent of Education Michael Sentance has officially submitted his letter of resignation to the Alabama State Board of Education and to Alabama Governor Kay Ivey. After one year at the helm of the state’s education system, Sentance said his experience in Alabama has been incredible in many ways, not the least of which is getting to know the educators and administrators who care so much for children.
“I am humbled and appreciative of the opportunity to serve as state superintendent in Alabama,” Sentance said. “There are many good things happening in public education in this state. My hope is that Alabama makes educating all children the state’s highest priority, allowing the state to make significant educational gains and truly becoming the jewel of the south that it has the ability to become.”
Prior to coming to Alabama, Sentance worked as an education consultant and has worked with state, federal, local officials, and advocacy groups on strategies to improve public education. He has also served as the Secretary of Education in Massachusetts, as the Senior Education Advisor to Massachusetts Governors William Weld and Paul Cellucci, and in a senior-level position for the U.S. Department of Education.
Sentance’s resignation is effective immediately. Succession plans have not yet been determined, however they may be discussed at tomorrow’s regularly scheduled State Board of Education meeting.”
Representative Craig Ford of Gadsden is a veteran house member. And he’s never been one to mince words. As proof, here is what he posted on Facebook as to why he thinks state school chief Mike Sentance should be terminated.
“On Thursday, the State Board of Education will meet to discuss terminating State Superintendent Dr. Michael Sentance’s contract.
Politics has surrounded Dr. Sentance’s time in Alabama, starting even before he was hired. And if the Board decides to fire him, his supporters will claim that politics was the driving factor.
Sentance was the preferred choice of those who support charter schools and diverting tax dollars away from public schools to fund scholarships for private schools. And with his job on the line, most – if not all – of those who have publicly supported him have been those who support charter schools and the Accountability Act scholarship program.
If Sentance is fired, his supporters will blame the “education establishment” for opposing anyone who wants change. In fact, they’ve already had some editorials published in local papers.
But politics and opinions about education policy shouldn’t have anything to do with whether Sentance gets to keep his job. The time for that debate was before he was hired. Now he is a state employee, and he should be judged solely by how he has conducted himself as an employee.
So let’s look at this case based solely on the merits.
The first charge against Sentance comes from his attempt to get rid of the office of career technical education and workforce development, and place it under the office of academic affairs. That move would have also meant eliminating the deputy superintendent position that is in charge of career tech education.
Sentance made these plans without the consent of the Board, or even taking the time to tell the Board members what he was doing. When his plans became public, the Board members were caught by surprise when their offices started getting calls from the press and concerned educators demanding answers that Board members didn’t have because they had been left in the dark.
A second charge against Sentance comes from when the Department of Education posted incorrect graduation numbers on their website, once again catching Board members and school administrators off guard when they began getting calls from parents and the press. . Sentance failed to take responsibility, and instead blamed his staff.
While a staff member may have been responsible for the error, when you are the person in charge, the buck stops with you. Sentance never really took responsibility for the error, and that is unacceptable.
The third charge against Sentance comes from his handling of the state takeover of the Montgomery Public School system. When Board members began to get questions and phone calls about the takeover, they requested a list of names, titles, dates of hire, and current salaries and sources of salary funding connected to the Montgomery school intervention.
This request was reasonable, but Dr. Sentance’s response was not. His exact words were: “…you have sought to interject yourself again into the operations of the district, it is time to stop.”
In other words, he told the Board members to mind their own business and get out of his way.
Now, I own an insurance agency. If I had an office manager who began making drastic changes to how my office worked without telling me, then found out that office manager had allowed my customers to be given false information and blamed other employees instead of taking responsibility, and then, when I confronted that office manager, they told me to stop questioning them and get out of their way, that office manager would be fired immediately.
But there’s a fourth charge against Sentance: mismanaging public funds.
Recently, the news broke that the Department of Education is going to be over budget by at least $3 million, and that $3 million happens to coincide with a $2.9 million spike in salary expenses for the coming year. Most of that salary spike comes from consultants and administrators he hired as a part of the Montgomery school system takeover, as well as other high-level hires he made at the state Department of Education.
So, Sentance has failed to communicate adequately with his employer, been disrespectful and insubordinate to his employer, failed to take responsibility for his office’s actions, and mismanaged public funds.
Whatever your thoughts are about education reform and charter schools, there is no denying that Sentance deserves to be fired based solely on these failures as an employee.
I do not sit on the Board of Education, so I do not have a say in this decision. But by any reasonable definition, there is more than enough justification for the Board of Education to terminate Dr. Sentance’s contract.”
Voices expressing their disfavor with state school superintendent Mike Sentance continue to mount. A teachers organization in Jefferson County has now joined with others.
The Jefferson County affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, with 2,000 members, has passed a resolution of No Confidence in state school superintendent Mike Sentence and is calling for the State Board of Education to terminate him.
“Sentence has been on the job for a year now and his tenure has been a dismal failure,” said Marrianne Hayward, president of the organization. “He has gone out of his way to belittle our teachers and to harm proven programs such as the Alabama Math, Science Technology Imitative and Career Tech.”
Hayward points out the Sentence has no training as an educator and has never been a teacher, principal or local superintendent. “This is like asking someone to do open heart surgery who never went to medical school,” she said.
Hayward added that the future of the 730,000 public school students in Alabama is too important to be turned over to someone unqualified to be state superintendent.
Here is the resolution passed by AFT:
Whereas teachers, administrators and 730,000 public school students in Alabama are impacted by decisions made by the State Board of Education and the State Superintendent, and
Whereas it is vital that teachers, administrators and students have the utmost confidence in decisions made by the State Board of Education and the State Superintendent, and
Whereas the State Board of Education shattered this confidence and faith by hiring a State Superintendent with no formal education training and with no experience as either a teacher, principal or local superintendent, and
Whereas the State Superintendent has publicly made comments that cast doubt on the capacity and work ethic of Alabama teachers, and
Whereas the State Superintendent has created constant controversy by threatening to curtail funding of programs such as AMSTI and ARI, by letting contracts that cannot adequately be explained as to their need and by de-emphasizing a model career tech education program, therefore
Be it resolved that the 2,000 members of the Jefferson County American Federation of Teachers have reached a vote of No Confidence in the State Superintendent and call upon the state board of education to terminate him as soon as possible.