Larry Lee is a specialist in rural education and a native Alabaman. He explains here why the state superintendent resigned or was forced out after only one year and one day.

“Thank God and Greyhound”

By Larry Lee

In 1970 country singer Roy Clark cranked out a little tune, Thank God and Greyhound. When I got the news on Sept. 13 that Alabama’s state school superintendent had resigned, this song came immediately to mind.

And why not?

Since he took office one year and one day from his resignation, the reign of Mike Sentance had been one misadventure after another. It involved two governors, a rogue state school board member, the state Ethics Commission, a legislative committee digging into a smear campaign and questionable contracts and hires.

It was a reality show on steroids, something like Naked and Afraid Meets Honey Boo Boo.

As much as anything it’s the tale of some grownups acting like children and trying to advance their own political agendas instead of the 730,000 students who go to public schools in Alabama.

This calamity was set in motion a year before Mike Sentance showed up from Massachusetts. That was when former Governor Robert Bentley, who resigned in disgrace early in 2017, appointed a totally unqualified person to a vacancy on the state board. (What else can you call someone who never went to public school a day in his life and had just finished spearheading an effort to defeat a school tax in his home county?)

This person’s vote was crucial when the board selected Sentence to be superintendent in August 2016.

(Alabama is one of only seven states with an elected state school board. Eight members are elected from districts and serve four-year staggered terms. The governor chairs the board by virtue of their office, though they rarely show up. So, five votes win the day and the aforementioned member was one of the five who voted for Sentance. Along with the governor who appointed him.)

State superintendent Tommy Bice unexpectedly stepped down in March 2016. It wasn’t long before the circus began.
The application deadline for the state job was June 7, 2016. There were initially 12 applicants. Three were local school system superintendents in Alabama. Most were not from Alabama.

One was Michael Sentance from Boston. He had no formal training as an educator and had never been a teacher, principal or local superintendent. He served for one year in the mid-90s as Secretary of Education in Massachusetts, a policy slot appointed by the governor.

The Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education is the person in the Bay State with responsibility of actually running K 12 schools. (This person is equivalent to Alabama’s State Superintendent.)

Sentance sought the commissioner job in 1998, but was unsuccessful. He last worked in Massachusetts in 2001. According to his resume’ his only employment from 2009 until coming to Alabama in September 2016 was an eight-month stint with a consulting firm.

Apparently, his primary job during this period was trying to find a job. Records show he applied for jobs in Kentucky, Nebraska, Wyoming, Nevada, Utah, Nashville and Ohio from 2009 to 2016. He even applied in Alabama in 2011, but did not get an interview.

Still, Sentance sent a letter to Alabama State Department of Education General Counsel Julianna Dean on June 27 saying he was withdrawing his application because of family concerns.

But at the urging of state board member Mary Scott Hunter, Dean called Sentance and asked him to re-consider. No other board members knew of this call or the involvement of Hunter. Sentance called Dean on June 28 to tell her he wished to remain a candidate.

Later in the process other board members raised serious concerns about allowing someone to, in essence, reapply weeks after the original deadline.

Another applicant, former West Virginia state superintendent Steve Paine, also withdrew. His resume’ was chockful of hands-on education experience. No one tried to talk him into reconsidering.

Clearly both Hunter and Dean overstepped their authority. Hunter is one of eight elected board members but did not consult other members before taking action. Dean is the board’s legal counsel and should not have complied with the directions of just one member.

This episode was the first inkling that something was amiss in the search process. Why do you want to make sure an applicant with so few qualifications remains, but one much more qualified is not given the same consideration?
From the outset, Jefferson County superintendent Craig Pouncey was expected to be the leading candidate. He was definitely the clear favorite of many local superintendents. Prior to going to Jefferson County he worked at the state department a number of years and was chief of staff for Bice. Regardless the issue, Pouncey was usually the “go to” guy for superintendents because he went out of his way to help them.

But Pouncey is not a shrinking violet and defends public education with a passion.

However, in Alabama, as in many other places these days, there are people who do not appreciate this quality. They look to Jeb Bush and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) for information about how education should be done and they don’t like road blocks.

One of these is state representative Terri Collins who chairs the Alabama House Education Policy Committee. Whether A-F school report cards, funding for Teach for America, charters, supporting the voucher program of the Alabama Accountability Act or the constant cry of “choice,” Collins is supportive.

She sent an email to state board members during the search process urging they not consider Pouncey, claiming the Speaker of the House had written Bice telling him to not allow Pouncey back in legislative chambers. There was no such letter.

And Pouncey’s sin? He stood up for public schools in a committee meeting when a state rep “went off” on them.
Another player is the Business Council of Alabama. They support vouchers, charters, school choice and say schools should be run like businesses.

BCA is also one of the state’s major political players through a very large political action committee. In 2016, this PAC invested more than $300,000 in state school board races.

Hunter has been a favorite of this group, getting $15,000 from them in 2010 and $75,000 in 2014.

(Hunter is not seeking re-election to her board seat in 2018 and is running for state senate. She earlier said she was running for Lt. Governor. Many feel her quest for higher office drives the majority of her actions and her decisions throughout the Sentance misadventure support this contention.)

Things really got funky at the state board meeting on July 12.

Each board member got an envelope with an unsigned “complaint” to the state Ethics Commission alleging that Pouncey plagiarized his 2009 doctoral dissertation for Samford University, as well as getting excessive help from department employees.

The Ethics Commission will not investigate unsigned complaints so the info became a moot point. In fact, six of the eight board members testified that they paid no attention to this letter and discarded it.
But Hunter saw things differently.

She gave the info to interim state superintendent Phillip Cleveland, directed him to give it to Dean and then called the executive director of the Ethics Commission to tell him about it.

Hunter, who is an attorney, was asked at a legislative hearing if she knew that the Ethics Commission does not investigate unsigned complaints. She said she did not, even though the board had recently had a retreat about ethics.

Not long after the letter surfaced on July 12, Hunter attended a statewide Business Council of Alabama event where she told several legislators that Pouncey would not be considered for state superintendent because of the ethics complaint.

This statement was untrue since there never was a legitimate complaint.

After Hunter’s call to the head of the Ethics Commission (she did not disclose that the complaint was unsigned), he asked his legal counsel to get a copy of the bogus info. This was hand-delivered to the Ethics Commission by the department’s general counsel.

The Ethics Commission lawyer sent a letter back to the education lawyer saying that they had received the info concerning Pouncey, who was identified in the letter.

Not long afterwards, a copy of this letter was leaked to media. Suddenly news sources across the state were reporting Pouncey was under investigation. All of this took place prior to the state board selecting the next superintendent on August 11.

Each board member could nominate up to five applicants to be interviewed. Seven were nominated. One was the choice of only two people and was eliminated. Sentence and another tied with three, so both were interviewed.
Seven members selected Pouncey. Only the governor and Hunter did not have him in their top five.
Six candidates were interviewed in early August.

Looking back, one has to wonder how well each was vetted by the department’s legal counsel. The requirements advertised stated that applicants should have “experience in successfully managing a large organization” and “experience in administering large budgets.” Alabama Code Section 16-4-1 requires that the state superintendent be “knowledgeable in school administration.” Two of the six interviewed did not meet these qualifications.

A former legal counsel for the state department said these two applications should have been tossed by general counsel and never even given to the board.

Sentance was an applicant for the Alabama job in 2011 and did not generate enough interest to get an interview. Five of the board members who made the 2016 selection were also on the board in 2011. However, they were never told that Sentence had previously applied. Nor were they told about the numerous job rejections he had in the last several years.

The board voted on Aug. 11. But even the process used that day was contested. The governor wanted to use paper ballots. However, one board member pointed out that such a vote must be done publicly. So, the paper ballots were discarded.

Someone would nominate a candidate, then a show of hands recorded. Sentance was nominated on the second ballot by Matt Brown, the governor’s 2015 appointee to the board, and by this time a lame duck board member having been soundly defeated in the Republican primary earlier in the year.

Sentance got four votes.

Then Pouncey was nominated. He too got four votes. No other candidate got more than three.
Since no one received a five-vote majority through the first “round,” Hunter nominated Sentance for the second time. The governor clearly counted votes before raising his hand to be the fifth and deciding vote.

There were 25-30 local superintendents in the audience that day. They began to file out, each looking as if they had seen a ghost.

And why not? Not a single superintendent had encouraged any board member to pick Sentance.

The education community throughout the state was dumbfounded. How do you pick a state superintendent who had no formal training in education, and had never been a teacher, principal or local superintendent?

It was a huge slap in the face. It was acknowledgement that five members of the state board felt those who work in schools and administrative positions are not professionals and training and experience mean little.

Those who voted for Sentance scrambled to explain why they did so. Governor Bentley hung his hat on the fact that 4th grade NAEP math scores in Massachusetts were the highest in the country and tried to rationalize that hiring someone from there would magically advance Alabama performance to the same level.

But he never mentioned that Sentance had not worked in Massachusetts in 15 years, nor that they spend $6,000 more per pupil than Alabama does.

Hunter said the longer she looked at Sentance’s resume, the more it grew on her. Yet she did not say that since he had not worked since he applied for the Alabama position in 2011, his resume was the same in 2016 as in 2011. And it obviously did not grow on her back then when she was in her first term on the board.

Alabama educators woke up the morning of Aug. 12, 2016 with a brand-new state superintendent selected with a process that was definitely tainted.

How much?

Enough so that Pouncey later filed a legal action against Hunter, the department general counsel and two of her associates and the interim superintendent.

He charged that they had acted in concert to discredit his name. This suit is awaiting a judge’s decision concerning dismissal.

Also, an internal investigation by a state department attorney (selected by Sentance) concluded that there had been collusion among these five individuals.

And though he called for this investigation, Sentence did not agree with its findings. This report has been given to the Ethics Commission and the Attorney General.

Why all the shenanigans?

There is little unity of purpose among board members and certainly was no consensus going into the selection process as to what the state’s top education priorities were and what kind of person and experience were needed to get us to that point.

Of the six finalists, three were local superintendents, one was a member of the governor’s cabinet and two were policy wonks from California and Massachusetts with no hands-on education experience.

So, there were two distinct groups with the cabinet member being something of a hybrid candidate.

Hunter’s vote shows how truly bizarre things were. Of the six candidates, she voted for FOUR of them. Two were local superintendents, one was the cabinet member and one was Sentence, a policy person.

In other words, she thought that all FOUR of these very different type people were equally qualified to run the state school system. That kind of thinking is impossible to comprehend.

Which brings us to the more plausible reason.

Politics.

Pure and simple.

You simply don’t go through such a Keystone Kops routine unless your focus is on something other than what is best for students. Looking back through the magnifying glass of time, listening to testimony, reading through the department’s own documentation of wrong doing and watching one board member’s plans for higher office unfold, one comes to think this process was much more about STOPPING Craig Pouncey from being named superintendent than it was about finding the best candidate.

Why does one board member go rogue, ignoring fellow board members, giving directions to department staffers, spreading gossip to legislators, etc. unless they are primarily driven by political self-interest? Unless they are trying to ingratiate themselves to entities who have the capacity to give substantially to political candidates?

Such intentions may never be proven unequivocally, but there is ample reason to believe they are not far from their mark.

The result of it all?

One year and one day of an administration of someone totally unprepared for the job, someone who made one mistake after another, was infatuated with high-priced consultants, loved to hire staff who lacked sound judgement and common sense and was openly hostile to the board which hired him.

Sentance’s first mistake was coming to town with an attitude that reeked of “I am a lot smarter than any of you rednecks.”

Folks in Alabama are generally good, decent, hospitable folks, maybe with sometimes a touch too much pride for their own good. And when you tend to “high hat” them, you quickly run aground.

Sentance seemed to go out of his way to alienate Alabama educators. He denigrated teachers, said nothing kind about the universities who train them and had harsh words for very successful K-12 programs. He stirred up a hornet’s nest when he tried to reorganize the state’s career tech program. In fact, he had only been on the job six months when the Alabama Association for Career Technical Education called for his termination.

Sentance made no effort at all to understand Alabama. One of his most inane statements was that he understood poverty because “Massachusetts was the poorest state in New England.” There are 14 counties in Massachusetts. Berkshire County has the lowest median household income in the state. But of Alabama’s 67 counties, Berkshire has a higher median household income than 61 of them.

The average median household income in Massachusetts is 54 percent greater than in Alabama. Sentance’s attempt to find common ground with his new state fell flat on its face.

He had little empathy for local school systems and could not seem to understand that decisions made at the state level had real consequences by the time they trickled down to a school. On one visit to a high-performing elementary school in Mobile, he refused to visit classrooms.

He had never worked for a board before and had great difficulty trying to make this adjustment. Instead, he gravitated toward the governor and certain legislators; leading one board member to remind him at a meeting that “he worked for the board, not the governor.”

Communications between him and the board were strained at best. Work sessions turned into three or four-hour affairs while the board tried to pry info from him.

His single biggest blunder may have been the ill-advised state takeover of the Montgomery County school system. Systems are normally taken over in Alabama because of either financial or academic issues—sometimes both. This was the case with Montgomery.

So right out of the box Sentance let a no-bid three-year contract for $750,000 to bring in a new CFO who had held the same position with Huntsville city schools. Then he contracted for $536,000 to a Massachusetts consulting firm to do an assessment of about half the Montgomery schools. (Sentance once had a brief relationship with this company.)

The state determined that 27 of the 56 Montgomery schools were in trouble so they would take over only these schools. (Leaving many to wonder how you take over only one-half a system.) He brought in someone from the Mobile County system to be in charge of the intervention—even though his credentials for such work were questionable.

Sentance decided to give all 27 principals a 10 percent raise, while ignoring those at the best-performing schools. He rehired nine prinicpals whose contracts were up for renewal, even though the system planned to terminate four of them.

In Alabama, when the state intervenes, the local school board becomes powerless. Basically, the state superintendent becomes czar.

The Montgomery superintendent retired in July 2017 and Sentance said she could not be replaced as long as the intervention was in place.

The state board was very troubled by what was going on and put a hiring freeze in place at the state level to slow down the bleeding in Montgomery. But Sentance went to the Attorney General and got an opinion that said he was sole authority of the takeover and could not be questioned by the state board.

On July 17, 2017 Sentance wrote the Vice President of the board, Stephanie Bell of Montgomery: “you have sought to interject yourself again into the operations of the district, it is time to stop.”

Suddenly he was a man without a master and things only got worse. He hired someone from Philadelphia, PA to come and be the state’s “turnaround” specialist. This person shortly hired four colleagues from across the country and put them on the Montgomery central office payroll at a cost of about $500,000.

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 and another 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.

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