Sentance’s resignation: There’s one person to blame

September 14, 2017
Alabama Superintendent Michael Sentance

By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter

The relatively short state education nightmare is over.

Michael Sentance resigned on Wednesday, bowing out a day before he was sure to be fired by a state Board of Education long tired of dealing with him.

The end of Sentance’s tenure was, ironically, the one thing he managed to handle appropriately.

Quiet. Respectful. Appropriately communicated.

Had Sentance demonstrated those three qualities a bit more regularly in his day-to-day efforts as schools’ chief, he would likely still be with us.

To be clear, Sentance was not without good ideas and probably good intentions. In some respects, he was exactly the sort of superintendent the state needs – an outsider with a fresh perspective and a refreshing lack of obligation to any person or group.

To even those inclined to dislike him, Sentance’s ideas – grand and Pollyannaish as they might have been – were smart, well-intentioned and outside of the Alabama box.

But in practice – when it came to navigating the people and politics of the state – Sentance was an unmitigated disaster.

He failed to do basic, simple tasks that would have set him on a better course with board members. He failed to exhibit basic decency at times in dealing with staff at ALSDE – a staff with which he had zero allies.

To understand just how bad Sentance was at the politics of his position, a real life example is probably best.

In July, with Sentance facing increasing criticism from state board members and struggling to push the Montgomery intervention along, a handful of lawmakers offered him an idea: ask the attorney general’s office for an opinion on who holds ultimate authority during a takeover – the state board or the superintendent.

There was little doubt what the opinion would be, since state law clearly puts the authority with the superintendent.

Such an opinion was to be used as a bargaining chip – a way for Sentance to subtly back the board down and exert some control over the situation.

Instead, Sentance used it as a bazooka.

He forwarded copies of the opinion to all board members, along with an in-your-face letter that essentially told them all to get off his back.

“It’s one of the stupidest things I’ve ever seen anyone do,” said one of the lawmakers who tried to help Sentance.

And that’s basically how his entire tenure worked.

On one day, he’d navigate a nasty federal investigation with openness and professionalism.

On the next day, his department would screw up the release of graduation rates, and no one would know why.

On one day, he would announce a takeover of MPS and immediately garner the support of his biggest critic and most influential board member.

On the next, he would botch that intervention by handing out absurd contracts and making ridiculously expensive hires and generally fail to do any of the good things he promised.

That’s how it went for Sentance – a catastrophe every other day. And almost all of it his fault.

Almost.

Because it would be incredibly unfair to the man if I didn’t at least mention the Dumbest Conspiracy Ever that landed him the job.

You know what I’m talking about – that House of Cards-like scheme where an anonymous allegation against Craig Pouncey showed up, Mary Scott Hunter forgot all of the ethics laws except for the ones that said she should turn it in and make it seem really serious even though she loves loves loves her good friend Craig, and then the super awesome ALSDE legal team went to work making sure that no one would ever doubt that this was an obvious smear job.

After all of that nonsense, half of the education community hated Sentance before he ever stepped foot in the state. He was guilty by association, and he started at a serious disadvantage.

But that scandal is not what led to Sentance’s resignation.

The last year of scandals, fights, petty arguments, refusals to follow directions, ignoring board directives, outrageous overspending, ineffective communication with everyone and general mismanagement of people are what did it.

And for those things, there’s only one person to blame – Michael Sentance.

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