Another chapter will be written June 21 in the ongoing saga about the hiring of Mike Sentance last year as state superintendent. This time the state school board is scheduled to hold an executive session to review an internally prepared report exploring the attempt in July 2016 to discredit candidate Craig Pouncey through an anonymous smear sheet that ended up at the Ethics Commission.
This is just the most recent event in what appears to be more a script for a reality show than an example of how to best run a statewide school system with 730,000 students. If Honey Boo Boo shows up at a state board meeting, I’m not sure anyone will be surprised.
The smear sheet turned up at the July 11, 2016 board meeting. Each elected board member got a packet contending that Pouncey had plagiarized his doctorate from Samford University in 2009 and that he had also mis-used state personnel and property in preparing the document.
And even though the supposed complaint was unsigned and therefore could not be investigated by the Ethics Commission, it soon made its way to the Ethics Commission. (In addition to not being signed, the complaint was made several years past the statute of limitations for such.)
Soon afterwards, a letter from the Ethics Commission to the legal counsel at the state department of education (ALSDE) citing Pouncey by name found its way to the media.
As a result, Pouncey filed legal action against former interim superintendent Phillip Cleveland, state board member Mary Scott Hunter, legal counsel Juliana Dean and two of her associates. Also State Senator Gerald Dial was instrumental in creating a House/Senate committee to investigate the affair.
I attended all of these meetings and the most telling moment was when board member Mary Scott Hunter said that she did not know the Ethics Commission could not pursue unsigned complaints. This was only a few moments after another board member said that the board had recently had a work session on ethics led by Tom Allbritton, executive director of the Ethics Commission.
Hunter has already announced she is a candidate for Lt. Governor in 2018. However, these plans could be severely disrupted if the report to be released to the board indicates that she over stepped her bounds as a board member in this sordid episode.
While six board members testified they paid little attention to the smear sheet, especially since it was not signed, Hunter said she was very troubled by it, gave her copy to Phillip Cleveland and told him to give it to legal counsel Juliana Dean. Hunter also testified that he then called Tom Allbritton at the Ethics Commission and told him about the information. However, she apparently did not tell him the document was unsigned.
(She also testified that she held Craig Pouncey in high regard. Which flies in the face of the fact that in the selection process all board members could name up to five candidates they wished to be interviewed and Hunter did not have Pouncey on her list.)
A hearing was held in the Montgomery courtroom of Circuit Judge Roman Shaul on May 1 to hear arguments from attorneys for the five defendants asking the case be dismissed. Lee Copeland, Hunter’s attorney argued that she was just doing her job as a state board member by reporting the smear sheet to ALSDE and the Ethics Commission. But in doing so, he infers that the six members who paid no attention to the info were NOT doing their jobs.
Truth is, this has been a bastardized and unseemly process from day one. And it would never be used as an example of how government should work. Just the opposite.
For instance, 12 candidates applied by the June 7, 2016 deadline. Alabama State Code Section 16-4-1 states: “The Superintendent of Education shall be a person of good moral character, with academic and professional education equivalent to graduation from a standard university or college, who is knowledgeable in school administration and has training and experience sufficient to qualify him to perform the duties of his office”
In addition, the job advertisement by ALSDE said under “Required Qualifications” Experience in successfully managing a large organization as a superintendent or other education leader and Experience in administering large budgets.
Two candidates, Bill Evers of California and Mike Sentance, clearly did not meet these requirements as neither had any education administrative or budget management experience.
A former ALSDE legal counsel, one who conducted a search process for a state superintendent, says their applications should have not been forwarded to board members by legal counsel Juliana Dean because they were unqualified.
Then on June 27 Sentance sent a letter to Dean stating that he was withdrawing from consideration “Due to a series of personal issues, I am unable to commit myself to the challenges of leading the Alabama Department of Education. I must therefore withdraw my submission for the State Superintendent position.”
Dean forwarded this info to all board members. She then called Sentance and according to a statement he made to the media after being hired, Dean told him that board members wanted him to reconsider. However, no board members were aware of this call by Dean. When Hunter was asked if she called Dean and directed her to call she said that she could not recall.
But Sentance was not the only candidate to withdraw. Dr. Steve Paine, former West Virginia superintendent, also withdrew. However, when I talked to him by phone and asked if anyone in Alabama asked him to reconsider he was emphatic that no one did.
Unlike Sentance, Paine had an outstanding resume’ with experience as a teacher, principal, local superintendent and state superintendent. Sentance never taught, was a principal or a superintendent and has no formal training as an educator. So we ask the lesser qualified candidate to re-consider–but not the other?
They fact that Sentance withdrew in writing and was then allowed to, in essence, re-apply long after the June 7 deadline was vigorously debated at one board meeting before the vote to hire Senance on Aug. 11. In particular, Governor Bentley said this did not matter.
All in all it has been a sorry, sorry mess. The search was severely flawed, if not in fact manipulated.
And 730,000 Alabama children have paid the price as Sentance has blundered his way through the last several months with one questionable decision after another. From a $750,000 no bid contract, to taking every opportunity possible to denigrate our education system and teachers, to giving 10 percent raises to principals of failing schools in Montgomery, to refusing to take responsibility for his own actions, to not communicating with the board who hired him, etc.
There are 137 local school superintendents in Alabama. If Sentance has the support or confidence of just ONE of them, damned if I can find that person.
But who knows, maybe we are on the verge of learning whose political agenda has been directing this charade.