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Alabama education: Lying, screaming and gavel banging

Josh Moon

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By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter

I think we might be doing education wrong.

If Tuesday was an indication, we certainly could be doing it better. Because Tuesday, man … it was … awful? An embarrassment? A colossal disservice to taxpayers?

All of the above.

It started with one of the cattiest, oddest board meetings in recent history and ended with a legislative committee hearing that continued to expose the dumbest, sloppiest executed conspiracy of all time.

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Let us begin with the former.

Here’s the best way to describe the tone of that meeting: At one point, board vice-president Stephanie Bell began banging a gavel any time board member Mary Scott Hunter attempted to speak.

Yeah, it was like that.

But that level of vitriol wasn’t exactly a surprise. Hunter had been going after Bell for the better part of a week, following Bell’s decision to add a surprise evaluation of superintendent Michael Sentance to the meeting agenda.

Hunter flatly refused to participate in the evaluation and spent much of the weekend talking to media outlets about how terrible and unfair it was to poor ol’ Sentance. (You should probably store this image of Hunter discussing unfair processes for when we get to Part 2 of this embarrassing day.)

Anyway, everyone knew long before the meeting started that Hunter and Bell were going to disagree, because when the whole thing is boiled down, they want different things.

Bell, and at least five other board members, want to fire Sentance.

Hunter, and maybe Betty Peters if Sentance will promise to repeal Common Core and hire some guidance counselors, want to keep Sentance.

And off they went on a shade-throwing extravaganza that would make one of those “Real Housewives of (wherever)” shows jealous.

To be certain, there’s nothing quite like a proper southern lady tossing about shade, either. There’s just something about the drawl tinged with insincere sweetness that makes merely saying the other person’s name – Ms. Huntahhh … — so condescending it would make a British royal feel shame.

Somewhere in the midst of that spectacle, it was revealed that Sentance had scored around a 1 on much of his evaluation. If you’re wondering, 1 was the worst and 3 was the highest.

Think of it like this: If Michael Sentance were a school, under the Alabama Accountability Act, students could now transfer out of him.

Except, because this is Alabama, there was an accounting error. Hunter was told that failing to fill out the evaluation of Sentance would lead to scores of 0 being logged for her response. So, to get the average scores for each category, attorneys for the board – and why the board needed attorneys to do basic math is an issue we should probably discuss at some point – used a divisor of 8 instead of 7.

Bell agreed to recalculate the scores later and the updated evaluation was placed on the State Department of Education’s website late Tuesday evening. Sentance went from a 1 to 1.3. (I’m exaggerating the awfulness of his averaged score – it was probably somewhere around 1.6, since he only scored 2 or higher in four of 37 categories.)

Despite the protests of Hunter, the board overwhelmingly voted to accept the results of the evaluation and give Sentance an opportunity to respond by the next scheduled meeting in August.

Sources close to the board told APR on Tuesday that the board majority hopes this jumpstarts plans for a negotiated resignation for Sentance. Prior to an executive session, board attorney Lewis Gillis mentioned that one possible legal reason for the executive session was to discuss mediation or negotiations that might emerge.

If/when Sentance does head back to Massachusetts, there will be a search for a new superintendent. And we can only hope that search goes as smoothly as the last one.

Because it was the subject of legislative committee hearing on Tuesday. Again.

The bipartisan committee, co-chaired by Sens. Gerald Dial and Quinton Ross, took on the unenviable task of getting to the bottom of the dumbest conspiracy in the history of Alabama public education – the smear job of Jefferson County superintendent Craig Pouncey.

Pouncey, a longtime educator in the state, was the clear frontrunner for the state superintendent job when an anonymous letter claiming he misused state resources to complete his dissertation was presented to board members.

Hunter was the only board member to take it seriously, and she took it way seriously. She gave it to interim superintendent Philip Cleveland and phoned the Ethics Commission to let them know about it. This was after she had convinced ALSDE attorney Juliana Dean to call Sentance, who had withdrawn his name from consideration for the job, and tell him to jump back in the fray.

Hunter then went down to a BCA conference in Point Clear and told anyone who would listen – including Dial and at least seven other lawmakers – that Pouncey had “ethics problems.”

And then everyone involved tried to act like it was normal that anonymous allegations of a seven-year-old made-up incident resulted in a letter from the Ethics Commission confirming an investigation and naming Pouncey in one freakin’ day.

See? It’s so dumb it hurts.

But that didn’t stop Dean and Hunter from once again rolling into a seventh-floor conference room and pretending to be outraged by the suggestions that they undermined Pouncey’s candidacy. And they both made it a point to mention that they were close friends with good ol’ Craig.

By the end of it, Dial, Ross and Rep. Merika Coleman had Hunter and Dean so twisted up by asking basic questions related to the convoluted timeline they presented that it was hard to watch.

Hunter’s testimony was particularly hard to watch, as Dial flatly accused her of lying to the committee and Ross and Coleman established that her reasoning for calling the Ethics Commission about the letter – to get guidance concerning what she should do with it – made no sense, since she had already given the letter to Cleveland by that time.

There was a new twist, however. Dial and his committee focused their questions to Hunter and Dean – two attorneys – on matters of legal ethics. The intent, obviously, was to move this matter before the state bar association for review – a move Dial said at the end of the hearing that he would make.

And then everyone went home. And not a whole lot had changed.

Except that we all lost a little more faith in the whole bunch.

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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Opinion | Alabama voters, you just don’t care

Joey Kennedy

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Secretary of State John Merrill expected turnout in Tuesday’s Democratic and Republican Party primary runoffs to be “extraordinarily low.”

Merrill said he thought, on average, 15 percent to 18 percent of the state’s registered voters would go to the polls.

Even that was wishful thinking.

Alabama voters: You don’t care. With as much going on in Alabama and American politics at this moment in history, you just don’t give a damn.

Early numbers indicated fewer than 12 percent of Alabama’s registered voters bothered to take a few minutes to be heard in Tuesday’s runoffs.

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True, in some areas, Democrats didn’t really have runoffs. But Republicans had runoffs in key statewide races, including lieutenant governor, attorney general, and the courts.

And even where Democrats had runoffs – Jefferson County is an example – voting numbers were low.

Alabama voters, you just don’t care.
Of course a lot of this is on Merrill and Republicans in control of the House, Senate, and governor’s mansion, where the goal, truly, is a low voter turnout. Republicans don’t want voters to go to the polls because they’ll have more trouble staying in control if they do.

Strict photo voter ID, a prohibition against crossover voting in taxpayer-funded primaries, purges of voter rolls, keeping former inmates from re-registering to vote, partisan gerrymandering, the lack of early voting or multiple-day voting – all of this is part of the GOP’s efforts to suppress voter turnout.

That hideous, mean-spirited strategy is wildly successful, too.

Consider also that the turnout of “registered” voters does not mean “eligible” voters. Many voters are eligible, but for whatever reason, don’t register to vote. So Tuesday’s turnout of eligible voters was likely quite a bit below 10 percent.

In that vote, Republicans nominated their candidates for lieutenant governor (the second highest position in Alabama government) and attorney general (the state’s top law enforcement officer).

U.S. Rep. Martha Roby, a disaster and embarrassment for Alabama in Congress for awhile now, was re-nominated for her fifth term and will likely defeat her Democratic Party opponent in November.

Another career politician, Republican Twinkle Andress Cavanaugh, was defeated in her primary for lieutenant governor, but this was a free election for political opportunist Cavanaugh. She’ll simply return to her post as president of the Alabama Public Service Commission, having lost little, and where she’ll continue to do little. But Cavanaugh will be well-rested for whatever political opportunity she tries to grab in 2020.

Important runoffs in Jefferson County for the five-member County Commission saw two of the most contentious Birmingham City Council members unseat more reasonable incumbents. At least these two are off the City Council now, but they’ll no doubt take their professional dysfunction to the Jefferson County Commission.

Because voter turnout was so low, the results don’t truly reflect what might have happened had voters turned out in the numbers they should have.

But c’mon, Alabama voters: You don’t really care, do you? Oh, you’ll gripe at the results, sure. You’ll moan and roll your eyes when the candidates you didn’t vote for embarrass your county or state. But you really don’t give a damn.

Maybe that’ll change some if the Southern Poverty Law Center’s and Campaign Legal Center’s Alabama Voting Rights Project is successful.

Secretary of State Merrill won’t like it, but that’s really more of a recommendation for the project than not.

The SPLC and CLC want to make it clear to tens of thousands of Alabamians that a felony conviction doesn’t permanently take away a person’s right to vote. Once an individual has fully paid for his crime, he can get his voting rights reinstated.

According to the SPLC’s July 12 announcement, “Workers will organize and train local leaders in communities across the state, participate in community events and forums, and go door to door to work with formerly incarcerated people who may be eligible to vote under Alabama law. They will also make use of an online tool, www.alabamavotingrights.com, that will guide formerly incarcerated Alabamians through the process of registering or re-establishing their voting status.”

Many of these “criminals” were convicted of nonviolent drug or other nonviolent offenses. They’ve paid their debt. Being eligible to vote again is an important part of their successful return to society.

“So many people fought and died to ensure that all citizens have a voice in our society through the right to vote, yet many men and women – disproportionately people of color and poor people – have been denied the right to vote even after serving their time and completing their sentences,” said Lecia Brooks, outreach director for the SPLC, in the announcement. “The Alabama Voting Rights Project is dedicated to ensuring that every person who is eligible to vote in Alabama is registered and that each one of them can access the franchise. A healthy democracy depends on full participation by all members of society.”

And that’s what bothers Merrill and his Republican Party minions. “People of color and poor people” are disproportionally going to vote against Republicans. That’s probably why Merrill hasn’t done his duty to make sure these folks know they can regain their voting rights. The SPLC and CLC believe “(t)ens of thousands of additional Alabamians may be eligible to restore their right to vote through a simple application for a state Certificate of Eligibility to Register to Vote.”

So yeah, the dastardly plan worked Tuesday – and it has in many previous elections where our state leaders are happy if even 30 percent of registered voters show up.

As the state’s top election official, Merrill should be working to guarantee all eligible citizens are registered to vote, to make it convenient for them to vote, to get the highest voter turnout possible.

That’s not the strategy, though, and mainly because: 1) Voters don’t care enough to go vote. And, 2) because those in charge simply don’t want them to vote.

Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writes a column every week for Alabama Political Reporter. Email: [email protected]

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Opinion | Alabama: The confused state

Josh Moon

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Alabama is a confusing state.

A state that prides itself on its hardworking, blue-collar image but somehow turned out overwhelmingly to vote for the (alleged) billionaire, reality TV star for president was just as bi-polar during Tuesday’s primary runoff election.

On one hand, voters seemed to want to rid themselves of long-serving, stagnant politicians, rejecting Democrats Alvin Holmes, John Knight and Johnny Ford and Republicans Twinkle Cavanaugh and Gerald Dial. They seemed to be saying that they wanted ethics and term limits and candidates that were more responsive and energetic.

But on the other hand, still standing at the end of the night were Steve Marshall, Martha Roby and Larry Stutts. So, voters were also saying they were cool with a complete lack of ethics, a complete disregard for constituents and a completely awful human.

Maybe this is why pre-election polling in Alabama is always so screwed up. How can a pollster figure out what you people want when even you don’t know?

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So, let’s try to dissect this a bit and come up with a few answers. 

Let’s start with the Democrats, because they’re easier to understand.

Holmes and Knight, with a combined 70 years of experience serving in the Alabama House, lost to two dudes who have combined to serve for exactly zero years in any state office. David Burkette, who beat Knight for what seemed like the 50th time in the past year, has served as a city councilman in Montgomery, but that’s the extent of their political experience. Kirk Hatcher, who I couldn’t pick out of a lineup with The Beatles, has zero political experience.

All of this fits with a recent trend in the Democratic Party to push for candidates who relate better to real, everyday people. They believe the old-school guys, particularly the multi-term lawmakers, are out of touch with the real people they serve and are selling them out.

And those voters are right.

For example, while I’ll happily vote for Chuck Schumer over pretty much any dollar-seeking, Bible-thumping Republican, I’d sure like to have an option that isn’t sitting right in the middle of the big banks’ pockets.

And so, the Dems have decided to clean house wherever it’s possible.

It was possible in Montgomery.

Republicans, however, are a different story, which is usually the case. Because while certain factions of the GOP love to play up this alleged independent streak they claim to have, at the end of the day, it’s hard for them to turn their backs on the guy they came in with.

They get trapped by the lights and sparkle of the incumbent’s deep pockets.

Or at least they used to.

Before Twinkle turned dull and Dial time ran out.

In those races, Republicans voted against the lifelong politicians, putting Will Ainsworth and Rick Pate, respectively, into office.

Ainsworth’s win was particularly satisfying, yet also so confusing. He’s a pro-ethics, pro-term limits guy who once stood up to Mike Hubbard and told him he needed to go.

How do you vote for a guy like Ainsworth and then also vote for Steve Marshall? Or Larry Stutts?

Marshall, in particular, has governed pretty much the opposite of Ainsworth and former AG candidate Alice Martin, who picked up nearly a third of the votes in the primary. Marshall’s not chasing crime and corruption. His major accomplishments have been weakening the state’s ethics laws  — a move the business community rewarded him for — and pushing back against the law that outlaws political action committee (PAC)-to-PAC transfers.

Marshall is OK with such transfers now that he’s raking in millions from PACs doing exactly what is outlawed.

Speaking of outlaws, I’m not sure how Stutts is even on the ballot, much less still winning GOP elections. He has been nothing but an embarrassment, selling out women and children and selling out everyone else fairly routinely.

And yet, he won.

I just don’t get it. At the end of these elections, there’s supposed to be a pattern. We’re supposed to be able to look at who won and who lost and tell people what it all means. That voters were tired of this, or happy about that, or that they want a certain type of candidate.

Not in Alabama.

We apparently do things a bit different here.

 

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Opinion | Inside the Statehouse: Potpourri/Notebook from June 5 primary

Steve Flowers

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You have the results of Tuesday’s runoff elections. I had to go to press with my column before the results were known.

There are some fantastic runoff races which should be close and interesting. The four best will be Troy King versus Steve Marshall in the Attorney General’s race. The Lt. Governor runoff between Twinkle Cavanaugh and Will Ainsworth will be interesting. The Agriculture race between Rick Pate and Gerald Dial will be good. It will be interesting to see if Bobby Bright ousted Martha Roby from Congress in the 2nd district.

Let me share some thoughts and analyses from the first primary on June 5th. Kay Ivey and Walt Maddox won their party’s nominations very impressively. Governor Ivey used the mantle of incumbency to win a decisive victory with 56 percent of the vote against three thought to be viable, well financed opponents. Her campaign was brilliantly run. Her television ads were excellent.

The mastermind of her campaign was Brent Buchanan. He is now the master of political campaigns in Alabama. His polling arm, Cygnal, is the most accurate on the scene. He uses his polling adroitly to design brilliant ads. Buchanan runs many campaigns out of state. He only ran two in the state, Ivey’s gubernatorial contest and Gerald Dials’ race for Agriculture Commissioner. In fact, Buchanan came up with the best ad of the campaign season. The jingle ad for Dial in the Ag race was spectacular.

Walt Maddox’s waltz to victory over five opponents without a runoff was impressive. It became apparent in the closing days that he was going to win without a runoff. He ran the table on all of the important endorsements. He got the Alabama Democratic Conference, New South Coalition, but even more importantly the endorsement of and use of the young Birmingham Mayor, Randall Woodfin’s organization. This was a recipe for a big win.

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Maddox is the best candidate that the Democrats have fielded for governor in two decades. He is young, vibrant, and has a proven track record as a Chief Executive/Mayor of one of Alabama’s largest and most important cities, Tuscaloosa.

However, we are still a very red state. All 29 of our statewide elected offices are held by Republicans. Kay Ivey is not only the Republican nominee, she is the sitting Republican governor who can continue to cut ribbons and claim credit for every industrial announcement as well as the outstanding national economy and job growth. She will refuse to debate or go unscripted. In addition, as the incumbent she can raise substantial campaign funds.

In the June 5th primary, there were twice as many votes cast in the GOP Primary as there was in the Democratic Primary. There were 340,000 votes cast for Kay Ivey, whereas there were only 284,000 votes cast for all of the Democratic gubernatorial candidates combined. Therefore, 174,000 more people voted for Governor Kay Ivey than Mayor Walt Maddox.

I would handicap this race 56 to 44 in favor of Ivey going into the Fall. The only way that Maddox can win is for Kay to falter. Her handlers should keep her close to home and limit her appearances. They should continue to not discuss the issues that face the state or take any positions or offer any plans for the state woes. Under no circumstance should they allow her to debate. The young articulate mayor would eat her lunch. The contrast in appearance itself would be dramatic.

Maddox, if not elected, will live to run another day. The divide between the two political parties is narrowing in the state. Younger voters are trending Democratic, even in the Heart of Dixie.

Tommy Battle ran a very successful get acquainted race for governor. He will be the favorite in 2022. You could see a Walt Maddox vs. Tommy Battle contest in four years.

Battle built name ID and got 25 percent of the vote against a popular incumbent governor. He goes back to being Mayor of Alabama’s most prosperous and fastest growing city. If you think Huntsville has prospered and boomed the last 10 years, you ain’t seen nothing yet! It could very easily be the boom town of America in the next five to ten years.

Maddox’s city of Tuscaloosa is growing right behind Huntsville. Quite frankly, Battle and Maddox have much better jobs as mayors of Huntsville and Tuscaloosa than if they were Governor of Alabama.

See you next week.

Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He served 16 years in the state legislature. Steve may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.

 

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Alabama education: Lying, screaming and gavel banging

by Josh Moon Read Time: 5 min
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