By Larry Lee
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.