If anyone ever does a case study of how NOT to handle a local school system intervention, there probably is no better example than what has been going on with the Montgomery County system since last January.
This has been a train wreck from the moment Mike Sentance declared the state was stepping in. And with the passage of time, more and more trains have fallen off the track into the river below.
In no particular order we had Sentence awarding a three-year no bid contract for $750,000 to Jason Taylor, former chief financial officer for the Huntsville city system. The announcement that the state would only take control of 27 schools considered the poorest performing and that each of these principals would get a 10 percent raise–but not principals at top schools.
There was the issue of all principals having their contracts renewed, though paperwork had been completed to let some go. And the matter of Sentence making sure a company in Massachusetts he was once involved with got a contract for $536,000 to do assessments.
And recently we learned that four people hired for the Montgomery central office do not have credentials or certification to work in Alabama.
Sentance hired Reggie Eggleston from the Mobile County system to led the Montgomery takeover. Superintendent Margaret Allen retired several months ago and Eggleston assumed her duties under the title of Chief Executive Officer, even though he lacks experience in leading a school system of any size.
And now we learn that Eggleston approved a system budget and submitted it to the state without seeking school board approval. Apparently this highly unusual move is possible because the present organization chart for the system shows that EVERYONE answers to Eggleston. Even the elected school board. So he is really not the CEO. He is czar.
Maybe he remembered a few months ago when Sentence got an opinion from the Attorney General saying that he could do anything he wanted to in regards to the Montgomery intervention and did not have to get approval from the state school board. In fact, he sent a letter to board vice-president Stephanie Bell telling her, in so many words, to mind her own business.
But the most intriguing news coming out of the Montgomery central office of late is a report by CFO Jason Taylor (the one with the $750,000 contract) that the system’s general fund has magically gained $8 million because of the state intervention.
You can read all about this development here.
I am anything but a financial wizard. I know nothing about the intricacies of school budgeting. But I do know some folks who are. My first reaction after reading this tale was, “This makes no sense. Someone is playing games.”
So I did what I always do, looked for help. I asked superintendents, educators and CFOs to look at the newspaper report and report back. They did and their remarks were scathing.
“Wow. This is the definition of a classic shell game,” said a CFO I’ve known a long time and certainly trust. He pointed out that Federal dollars can not legally be included in a system’s general fund. “This is clearly a manipulation of funds to make them appear better than they really are. What is being done is clearly not right.”
A superintendent said, “Moving funds around like they are doing is like using one credit card to pay off another card. Very risky.”
So I checked with sources in Huntsville where Taylor worked before hitting the $750,000 jackpot with Mike Sentance.
None of them were surprised. “This is the same sort of smoke and mirrors he used in Huntsville.” said an educator. He pointed out that Huntsville has a deficit budget for the second year in a row and learned in their most recent budget hearings that apparently Taylor overestimated local revenue by $10 million.
Another educator pointed out that general fund reserves in Huntsville dropped from $40 million in 2015 to $22 million this year.
The state department of education is paying Taylor’s contract–not the Montgomery system. ALSDE also gave Montgomery $400,000 for textbooks.
Besides Montgomery, there are 137 other school systems in the state. While Montgomery definitely needs help, so do many other systems. It’s time the taxpayers of Alabama begin getting something for their money in Montgomery far beyond a “shell game.”