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Alabama’s education circus never stops

Josh Moon

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Alabama Superintendent Michael Sentance

By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter

The Alabama State Department of Education circus keeps chugging along.

As department staff and superintendent Michael Sentance gear up for an all-important board meeting next week – yet another meeting that could bring an end to Sentance’s tenure – ALSDE has been dealing with fires on a number of fronts.

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News of Sentance’s decision to fire popular deputy superintendent Jeff Langham has angered most of the state’s education community. Several sources have told APR that State Board members were also angered by the move and see it as the final indication that a future with Sentance at the helm is unworkable.

To that end, two sources have told APR that the deck is so stacked against Sentance heading into that meeting that Alabama Board of Education attorney Lewis Gillis has been attempting to contact Sentance’s attorneys in an effort to possibly negotiate a severance arrangement to facilitate a smooth transition. However, neither Sentance nor his attorney have responded to Gillis.

In the meantime, Sentance has carried forward with ALSDE business and exploring ways to trim the department’s budget in order to offset a projected $3 million-$8 million shortfall. Sources within the department said more layoffs have been discussed – rumors of which have only added to the tense feel around the office.

Perhaps the oddest development has been ALSDE staff trolling a popular education blog, Education Matters, which operated by Larry Lee. Two high-ranking ALSDE officials have taken issue with a recent post by Lee.

The first was Jermall Wright, who was hired by Sentance to head up the Office of School Turnaround. Wright commented on a post about Langham’s firing to tell Lee that some minor information in the post was wrong. After Lee responded, Wright replied again to tell him that he didn’t understand the work his office was doing.

That same post caught the attention of Chasidy White, a former Tuscaloosa teacher who gained some attention for herself by being an outspoken Common Core critic. She was Sentance’s first hire and serves as his director of strategic initiatives.

White was so offended by Lee’s characterization of her job as Sentance’s “chief cheerleader and political operative” that she nearly had a heart attack. At least, that’s what she claimed in a Facebook message she apparently wrote to a person at the company that hosts Lee’s blog.

“… you own the domain which hosts and strategically promotes Larry Lee’s blog,” White wrote, according to a screen shot of the message posted by Lee. “Last week, he published an article which maliciously libeled me, and intentionally was defamation of my character. This was intentional infliction of emotional distress, and I had to go to the emergency room because it almost caused a heart attack. It is my sincere hope that you take the article down.”

Lee was unmoved.

“This is a small, but very, very sad example of what a charade is now taking place at our State Department of Education,” Lee wrote on his blog.

And the circus rolls on.

 

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 | We could do worse than John Merrill

Josh Moon

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I’m going to do something that my progressive friends will mostly not like.

I’m going to say nice things about Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill.

I know. I know.

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But hear me out.

Because part of the reason that I’m doing this is I believe politics at every level has devolved into such a scorched-earth, I-hate-everyone-on-the-other-side sort of spectacle that we’re no longer willing to say any person from the other team is doing anything good. Even when they are.

And Merrill is.

Yes, I know he’s blocked several dozen people on Twitter, and I find that silly and pointless and illegal.

And yes, I know he has been snarky and sarcastic to some of you. And to me.

But even so, we’re lucky we have Merrill.

Because it could be so much worse.

If you doubt this, I would like to point you to news stories from other states with Republican-dominated legislatures. Like Ohio, where they’re booting active voters off rolls for missing a single election. Or North Carolina, which implemented the most unreasonable voter ID law in the nation to prevent minorities from going to the polls.

Alabama has one of those voter ID laws, too. And it has the right now to kick voters off the rolls for missing an election.

But what you don’t have in Alabama is anywhere near the level of disenfranchisement of voters. Even a federal judge agreed, when upholding Alabama’s ID law.

That’s mostly due to Merrill’s work.

When Alabama’s legislature passed its voter ID law a few years ago, it placed very few requirements on Merrill’s office for how to go about making those IDs available. It was a stupid, pointless law that in no way deterred voter fraud, but it was a law that Merrill’s office had to deal with.

Instead of taking the usual Alabama path and doing the absolute bare minimum required in the job, Merrill went the other way. In the years since that law was passed, his office has put a mobile ID unit on the street, they’ve coordinated with various groups to set up registration drives in underserved areas, they’ve actually visited the homes of people to issue voter IDs and they’ve implemented electronic registration.

That last one has been the biggie, with more than 60 percent of voters registered during Merrill’s tenure coming since the electronic registration went live a little more than a year ago. That electronic rollout also included an app — an app built by the staff of the Secretary of State’s office.

They’ve tried to work with the county Boards of Registrars to get registration info into the communities and schools. They’ve pushed registration through an ad campaign. And they’ve been willing to travel to pretty much any festival, ball game, bake sale or other community function to set up a registration drive.  

And let me repeat: None of this was required of the Secretary of State’s office.

At the same time, Merrill took a different approach from Ohio to cleaning up the voting rolls (removing deceased voters, people who moved, etc.). Instead of labeling voters who fail to return a verification card as “inactive,” the SoS office implemented a two-step process that began when only if the Post Office returned a notice for a voter.

And even if the two notices were somehow missed, if a voter shows up to the polls and finds themselves on the inactive list, the fix is simply updating the SoS address card at the polling place and then voting a regular ballot (not a provisional one).  

Again, this wasn’t required. And a much more mean-spirited, onerous process is now perfectly legal, according to our Supreme Court.

The decision to make Alabama’s process reasonable and fair was Merrill’s.

And look, it’s perfectly reasonable to say that Merrill and his staff shouldn’t get huge praise for doing the job they should be doing. After all, voter registration is the top priority in that gig, and there’s not a close second. So maybe we shouldn’t be handing out cookies for stuff the Secretary of State is supposed to do.

But that line of thinking ignores the reality of Alabama politics and the reality of the politically polarized country in which we live.

Because you just know that nine out of 10 Republican politicians wouldn’t have done half the things Merrill has. They would’ve offered a Jeff Sessions, little-kid-burning-ants, evil grin and hid behind the law and the lack of funds and the indifference.

That’s the norm.

So, yeah, Merrill loves the spotlight and camera lights. He has weird, right-wing beliefs that I wholly disagree with. And he has not always done enough to protect voter rights.

But man, things could be so much worse without him.

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Opinion | State schools chief backtracks, Montgomery schools mess grows

Josh Moon

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Never mind.

That’s essentially what state schools superintendent Eric Mackey told parents, business leaders, school system employees and everyone else on Tuesday, telling the Montgomery Advertiser that he — the top executive in all of Alabama public education — might have been mistaken when he talked about the effects of Montgomery’s public schools potentially losing accreditation.

Oops.

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A little more than a week ago, a few days before school board elections in the county, Mackey stood before the Montgomery Chamber of Commerce and Montgomery County Commission and told a dire tale of hardship that was certain to set upon the poor children of Montgomery if board changes were not made.

No out-of-state colleges.

No private colleges.

No federal aid.

The effects would be devastating, driving people from the capital city at a pace faster than they’re currently leaving.

Small problem: None of that was true.

I called Mackey on it. I asked his office to provide evidence that it was true, because the Federal Student Aid office told me it wasn’t and two college presidents said it wasn’t.

But that was prior to the elections still, so the best I could get from Mackey was a garbled statement explaining that a loss of accreditation was very bad, which, of course, no one was arguing. But it’s one thing to say it’s bad and quite another to have the state schools superintendent stand before you and say your kids won’t be able to attend college unless you make changes to the school board.

That last part is what Mackey did. He was flat wrong.

And now he’s saying so. But he’s blaming it on an unnamed source. Because apparently Alabama’s superintendent of schools needs to be told by someone else what accreditation loss means.

Mackey wouldn’t tell the Advertiser who the source was, but he insisted that the source was “reputable.”

You’ll have to decide whether, at this point, Mackey is reputable enough to be believed.

Because that’s not all Mackey was apparently wrong about. During that speech to the County Commission, Mackey was discussing an accreditation report on MPS from the district’s accreditation agency, AdvancED. The report was, to put it lightly, not good.

But to hear Mackey and Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange talk, unless those board changes were made — changes that were being pushed by a political action committee tied to the mayor and his consultants — well there was just no way to avoid a loss of accreditation.

Fast forward to the same Advertiser interview: Mackey now says not to sweat that loss of accreditation, because MPS was forced into selling off Georgia Washington Middle School and because it’s operating a summer reading program that was already scheduled when the accreditation review took place.

Read that again. Let it sink in.

MPS losing accreditation, according to Mackey and other city leaders, rested on the sale of a middle school building and a summer reading program. Oh, and don’t let me forget those terrible board arguments — the ones that never rose to the level of formal complaints, rules violations or violations of state open meetings laws.

If all of that is true, AdvancED accreditation is worthless.

But slightly less worthless than the opinion of anyone from the state department of education on the operation of a local school district. Because if the state’s operation of Montgomery’s school district is any indication, they have no idea what they’re doing.

MPS was better run by MPS.

In the year and a half or so that ALSDE has been in charge of MPS, they have overspent on administrators, overspent on an odd cleaning contract instead of allowing already-employed custodians to do it, gave out raises to failing school principals, then had to give out raises to all principals, forgot to get their expensive administrators certified (some still aren’t), hired a guy who was barred from all of New York City’s schools and had to quietly run off most of the administrative hires it made.

But here are the two kickers: 1. After all of the money that has been spent, there hasn’t been a single additional teacher, aide, coach or book purchased to help improve the learning environment of a child in MPS, and 2. After all the complaints of mismanagement, not a single principal was removed.

Now, look here, MPS has serious, serious problems, and there isn’t a soul alive who would deny that. But what’s taking place in Montgomery right now isn’t an effort to better anything for those poor kids. It’s an effort to protect the pocketbooks of a few wealthy businessmen.

It’s an effort to simply change the image of MPS, instead of its culture and basic operation. It’s yet another attempt to educate the advantaged at the expense of the disadvantaged.

It’s wrong. As wrong as the state superintendent.

 

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Opinion | We’re perfecting the “art” of being mean

Joey Kennedy

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My mother, Patricia Ann Harper Kennedy, has been dead more than 21 years now. She died young, in 1997. She had cancer. She did not have health insurance.

Mom couldn’t get health insurance because she had a “pre-existing,” non-malignant tumor a decade before her fatal cancer. She wanted insurance. She could have paid for insurance. But she couldn’t get it. The insurance industry wouldn’t let her have it.

Despite the promises of the Affordable Care Act, we’re moving right back to that horror again today.

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Under the ACA, or Obamacare, as Obama-haters like to call it, people couldn’t be denied insurance because of pre-existing conditions. Nor was there a limit on how much an insurance company was obligated to pay for a health issue. Our kids can remain on our own insurance until they’re 26.

We’re the only First-World nation in the world that doesn’t view health care as a right. We don’t mind if sick people shoot up schools, clubs, churches, or concerts with their Second Amendment rights, but we won’t promote the general welfare by making sure sick people can see a doctor in a timely manner.

The Donald Trump administration’s Justice Department, under the leadership now of our former and long-terrible U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, is doing all it can to destroy the ACA. And, like so many progressive, successful, and humane programs started during Barack Obama’s eight years in office, Trump and Sessions are doing a great job tearing those programs down.

America – and Alabama, too – are becoming more mean every day. Sessions is mean, and that is reflected in his Justice Department’s policies.

So the Justice Department will no longer defend certain provisions of the Affordable Care Act. The decisions Sessions and his mean colleagues are making will lead to even higher health insurance premiums. Even more mommas dying without insurance.

But the meanness isn’t simply reflected in damage to the ACA.

Sessions no longer will allow citizens of countries that basically condone gender abuse to get asylum in the United States. Go ahead and beat those women to death; that’s not our problem.

Home of the brave.

Compassion? Trump and Sessions likely can’t even spell the word, much less define it. It is not “covfefe.”

A “true” state’s righter, Sessions demands that the federal government enforce laws against recreational marijuana use in the states that have already approved it. Hypocrisy is a Republican value.

Temporary refugees from so-called (by this administration) “sh—hole” countries are finding they’re losing their protection. Go home. Leave us alone. Be murdered.

A woman’s right to manage her own body is under unprecedented assault. By men.

The LGBTQ community, which only recently won the right of marriage, finds itself the target of “legal” discrimination under this administration. Our transgender and gay members of the military are now at risk.

Children and parents trying to get asylum in the “land of the free” are being brutally separated. Many hundreds of those children are now, literally, “lost.”

We’re friends with North Korea’s brutal dictator, but are confrontational with the leaders of our strongest allies, including Canada, Mexico, Great Britain, France, and Germany.

We’ve got a mean streak that was suppressed by better angels in previous administrations, but has now been unleashed by Trump and his hate-filled minions, including Sessions.

Sadly, in our state, many politicians (all Republicans) tout this hateful Trumpism as a reason to vote for them in their TV commercials. Too many hateful voters feel enabled by that. So we get people like child molester Roy Moore running for the U.S. Senate, and supported by Alabama’s first woman governor since Lurleen Wallace.

We let our worse demons loose to kill our better angels.

We’re killing angels.

We want to make Medicaid practically impossible for our poorest to get. And we’re a very poor state. We want to deny food aid to children. We want to privatize public education and prisons, so private corporations can make more money.

We celebrate being mean. We monetize being mean.

Angels are dying.

My mother was too young two decades ago when she died of cancer. She was helped along to her early death by the highly profitable health insurance industry. The one we are bringing back.

Today, I don’t have health insurance. I cannot afford it. I haven’t been to a doctor in 18 months. My hope depends on living until I’m 65 and can get Medicare, which I’ve paid into my entire professional career. That is, If Medicare as we know it still exists in 2021. These Trump Republicans want to get rid of that, too.

I am 62 years old. Next year, I’ll be my mother’s age when she died. So little has changed.

Well, except we’re even more mean.

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

 

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Alabama’s education circus never stops

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