Recently we reported on a state school board meeting Aug. 23 when members learned of a potential $8 million deficit in the 2017-2018 state department operating budget. And true to form, state superintendent Mike Sentance denied any knowledge of the shortfall.
However, as AL.com reporter Trish Crain reports here, Chief Financial Officer Andy Craig sent a memo to both Sentance and Chief of Staff Dee Fowler on April 4, 2017 notifying them of what he called “serious concerns” for the department’s fiscal outlook. (You can access Craig’s memo in the AL.com article.)
Craig recommended four “immediate actions” be taken. The first was to implement a hiring freeze. This was done by the state board several months ago.
The board has been troubled about the department’s financial status for some time. Most of this being fueled from what they have learned about new hires at the state department, as well as a number of hires related to the Montgomery County school intervention. Numbers revealed by Craig on Aug. 23 indicate their concerns are justified. Personnel expenses are projected to go from $23,581,134 this year to $26,495,799 next year. This is an increase of $2.9 million or 12.3 percent.
Another concern of the board, especially Dr. Cynthia McCarty, who teaches economics at Jacksonville University, is how much attention does Sentance or Fowler pay to Craig’s numbers and advice. This concern appears justified by Craig’s April 4 memo when he requests that the newly created department organizational chart be redone so that the CFO reports directly to the state superintendent. (The most recent org chart indicates this change was made.)
I contacted board vice president Stephanie Bell for comments. She provided the same info she gave to AL.com. She spoke to the board’s concern:
“The board’s hiring freeze, which has not been lifted, was done as a direct response to information board members received regarding insufficient financial resources available to cover the number of new staff positions Mr. Sentance was approving at the state department and in the Montgomery Public Schools intervention. MPS will be expected to repay the costs of state support of some of the local hires but local board members have also expressed concerns about covering the intervention expenditures and sustaining the new expenses incurred because of spending by state intervention employees.
Board members have been diligent about asking questions and requesting information. The budget discussion was on the August Special Called work session because board members requested the information for discussion.
Mr. Sentance has not been forthcoming about budget information even though the information had been provided to him by Mr. Craig and others.”
Bell also provided documentation from years past showing the board taking action on department budgets.
This situation is muddied even more by the fact that Fowler told a group of school superintendents this week that the deficit is a “myth.” Yet the next day, Sentance fired deputy superintendent Jeff Langham saying the department needs to address the budget “gap.”
Obviously any budget shortfall is concerning. But even more important is the pattern set by Sentance of being less than truthful time after time.
He told media that he hired Reggie Eggleston from the Mobile County system central office to run the Montgomery intervention because of his involvement in turnaround schools. Yet, sources with the Mobile system tell me Eggleston never held a job there involved with turnarounds.
Earlier this year Montgomery had nine principals whose contracts were up for renewal. According to two school board members, paperwork had been completed to terminate four of them. But they were all rehired and Sentance said the proper paperwork was never done.
The ALSDE attorney who Sentance selected to do an internal investigation of the Craig Pouncey smear campaign told the state board that when he showed the report to the superintendent, Sentance told him the information in it would ruin someone’s political campaign. Once again, Sentance said he did not say such.
A few days ago I asked, Who Can We Believe?
Here is one more example of why this question is so important.