Editor’s note: Recently my friend Diane Ravitch in NYC asked me to write about the ins and outs of what I call the Sentance Saga. So I began to write and write and write. Suddenly I had nearly 4,000 words, far, far more than most of my blog posts. However, I felt that to understand what happened over the last two years, it was necessary to set out the context of all that went on. Diane used it here. I have broken this into four parts. Here is the final one:
The Alabama Education Association has now filed suit against Sentance and Reggie Eggleston, who is in charge of the Montgomery takeover, contending that the state cannot deny the elected school board the right to hire a superintendent.
Under Sentance and his “leadership team,” the work environment at the state department was described as “toxic.” Too many necessary jobs went unfilled. State board members were inundated with complaints from their district school systems about the difficulty of getting calls and emails answered.
A state board member asked Sentance after a board member to join her in meeting and thanking department employees. He refused.
Finances became suspect. At a recent board discussion of the 2017-18 operating budget for the department, the CFO said they were looking at a possible deficit of up to $8 million. Sentance denied he knew about this. However, the CFO had documentation that he had been informed of the situation months earlier.
Unfortunately, the list of blunders and missteps could go on and on. But it would serve no purpose.
Remember, Sentance was chosen by only five votes out of nine. Hardly a mandate. Then in January of this year one of his votes (Matt Brown) left the board. A few months later Governor Robert Bentley resigned in disgrace and there went another vote.
And somewhere along the way, the longest serving board member, Stephanie Bell who voted to hire Sentance, became very concerned about what she was seeing and realized under his leadership we were only going from bad to worse.
She was elected board Vice President in July, which means she is presiding officer whenever the governor is not present, and soon began putting a process in place to bring the situation to some type conclusion.
The first effort was an evaluation by board members. Hunter chose to boycott the evaluation and not participate, while Sentance’s last remaining supporter simply gave him the highest marks possible on each factor being judged. (The evaluation document was prepared within a few months of Sentence’s hire and he participated in the process.)
The evaluations were harsh and the hand-writing was on the wall.
After Robert Bentley resigned, Lt. Governor Kay Ivey took his place. She is a one-time teacher. After initially offering support for Sentance, she began to back off, due in part to the volume of email she was getting from educators around the state opposed to the superintendent.
And in spite of outcries from various Tea Party members who supported him and right-wing media who rushed to tout his competency, Sentance tendered his resignation letter on Sept. 13. The board voted to accept it the following day.
The entire episode was not pretty. Not by a long shot.
Way too much time, energy and resources were wasted on a battle that could have easily been avoided. And should have been had the search been conducted legitimately and had all board members been focused on the task at hand, instead of political agendas.
Ed Richardson was named as interim to replace Sentance. He served as state superintendent from 1995 to 2004, leaving to become president of Auburn University. He worked his way through the ranks as a teacher, principal and local superintendent before getting the state job.
He is known as decisive and no nonsense and is expected to take a close look at some of the initiatives Sentence started, especially the Montgomery intervention.
This was hardly Alabama’s finest hour. Far from it.
The morale of educators was shattered. Critics of public schools had a field day. The legislature will certainly weigh in as to how the state governs the state system.
But a great many people learned that their voice really does count. The effort to dislodge Sentance was truly from the grass roots. It was not coordinated by some political action group and supported with funding. It was citizens, one by one, going to their computers to write the governor and their state board member and using social media to keep issues front and center.
Hopefully some of the voices will remain energized. And when four new state board members are elected in 2018 they will give special attention to the candidates and their motive for running.
Ed Richardson summed it up well when he told the Associated Press, “You’ve got to have credibility. And the way you do that is the next time you hire a superintendent, you ask, ‘Have you ever done this work before.’”
Let’s pray the next search committee heeds this advice.