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Thank God And Greyhound — The Sentance Saga, Part 3

Larry Lee

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By Larry Lee
Education Matters

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.

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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.

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Opinion | Setting our funding priorities

Bradley Byrne

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I know this may be hard for you to believe, but there was a major, bipartisan victory in Congress last week that failed to gain any of the attention it deserved. I want to highlight some of the progress we made last week and explain why it should matter to those of us back in Alabama.

Last week, both the House and the Senate passed a funding bill that covered three very important parts of our government: military construction and veterans services, energy and water development, and Legislative Branch operations.

I am pleased to see us passing targeted funding bills instead of waiting until the last minute to pass a massive omnibus funding bill. Over the last few years, the House has been able to pass funding bills only to see the process stall out in the Senate.

Thankfully, since Alabama Senator Richard Shelby became Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, the process has actually been moving again in the Senate. This has allowed us to focus on passing the smaller funding packages that are targeted toward our priorities.

So why is this funding bill important? Obviously funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is important for our state given the large number of veterans that call Alabama home. The bill includes the largest dollar amount in funding for the VA in our nation’s history. This means the VA will have the resources necessary to take care of our veterans, hire high-quality employees, and cut back on the claims backlog.

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There have been serious issues at the VA over the last few years, so I am pleased the funding bill dedicates more for the VA inspector general. This money will allow for stronger accountability at the VA as we work to make sure no veteran is left behind.

The bill also includes funding for military construction programs in Alabama and across the country. As we work to rebuild our nation’s military, we must not forget about our military infrastructure. This funding includes money set aside for military housing programs. If we are to retain the best and brightest in our military, we need to ensure they have first class facilities.

Next, the funding bill sets aside funding for the Army Corps of Engineers. Those of us in Southwest Alabama know the important work the Corps does on a daily basis to keep our waterways open and navigable. This is important to those of us who like to spend time on the water for recreational purposes, but it is especially important for our economy since so much of our commerce is conducted on waterways.

Just consider the Port of Mobile and the important commerce that goes in and out of that Port each day. Under this funding bill, the Corps will receive $7 billion for navigation projects, the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, and to help with flood prevention and restoration projects. This money is very important for our country, but especially important for our state.

Finally, the bill funds our nation’s nuclear security strategy by dedicating money to support our nation’s nuclear weapons and the Navy’s nuclear reactors. The bill sets aside money to ensure nuclear weapons do not fall into the wrong hands and funding to prevent against cyberattacks. Our national security must always be the top priority.

As you can see, this commonsense government funding bill is good for our country and Alabama.  I was pleased to see it pass the House on a strong vote of 377 to 20, and I hope we can keep up the positive momentum to continue getting the job done for the American people.

 

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Opinion | Next Generation Alabama PAC

Randall Woodfin

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For the third consecutive year, the Alabama Crimson Tide sit atop of the Associated Press college football preseason poll. This ranking comes on the heels of celebrating the university’s fifth national title in 11 years and securing one of the nation’s top recruiting classes.

But building a winning program like Alabama is not easy. The team loses dozens of talented players to graduation and the NFL draft every year, and assistant coaches often leave the program for coveted opportunities with other universities. But thanks to the legendary coach Nick Saban and his next man up mantra, everyone affiliated with the program is adequately prepared and expected to successfully assume the role of the person before.

This is the type of culture and continuity that I long for in the Democratic Party, and wish to replicate in conservative states across the South – especially in Alabama.

As mayor of the largest, most progressive city in Alabama, my role encompasses more than just serving as Birmingham’s chief executive. I am also obligated to fight for issues that I don’t control, but directly affect families in my community. These issues range from affordable healthcare, high-quality early childhood education, and inclusive economic policies that move communities like Ensley and Collegeville forward.

Effective advocacy demands that I bring a distinct voice and consideration to shaping the future for Democrats in my state.  To that end, I am proud to present “Next Generation Alabama” as a tool to cultivate progressive leadership in every corner of the state.

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NextGen Alabama is an Alabama political action committee focused solely on building the Democratic bench in Alabama. We will create our own next (wo)man up mentality in state and local elections across Alabama, supporting talented candidates and passionate campaigns that truly make a difference.

Too many times, Democrats execute campaign strategies that fail to leave behind a grassroots infrastructure that will position the party for future success. We do not register nearly enough new voters or engage infrequent voters. Nor do we invest nearly enough in voter contact data, or develop the campaign operatives and volunteers that other races can leverage down the road.

NextGen Alabama seeks to modify this antiquated approach to Democratic campaigning by focusing on movement building and longevity. We must meet voters in their communities, on their doorsteps and in their churches. That is the only way Democrats will be able to flip conservative states in the South.

We will only invest in nontraditional campaigns that prioritize grassroots organizing and voter contact. And we will only support progressive candidates that are unapologetic about engaging directly with our base and infrequent voters – the kinds of voters who can unlock the chokehold that Republicans have had on Alabama for far too long.

NextGen Alabama is not meant to challenge the Democratic State Party.  If anything, the Democratic Party of Alabama will be our partner in progress. The depth of our challenges in Alabama deserve an all-hands-on-deck strategy. Birmingham deserves to play a leading role in fashioning the future for Democrats in the state, and NextGen will be the platform for doing so.

Think about it. Our values and common decency are currently under assault. Republican leadership in Washington and Montgomery continue to put the profits of millionaires and large corporations before the interests of average families like those I serve in Birmingham. But we can’t change Washington or Montgomery if we don’t first rethink the pipeline of men and women that we send there.

I urge fellow Southern Democratic mayors, particularly in conservative states, to capitalize on your platform. Building our personal brand is not enough, we must build our party and elect the right people who will support the policies that affect the quality of life of our residents.

If you find yourself – like me – representing a blue island in a sea of red, you have an obligation to change the tide for the communities you serve.

Sparking Democratic enthusiasm in your own city will no longer suffice. Democrats across the state need your energy and resources.

Remember, dynasties and winning programs aren’t created overnight. They are only created when individuals are committed to a cause greater than themselves. We all have a role to play, and NextGen Alabama is just getting started.

 

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Guest Columnists

Opinion | Alabamians need an Ethics Commission that will enforce the laws

Secretary of State John Merrill

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I am disappointed to find myself, once again, in a position to ask what purpose the Alabama Ethics Commission serves to the people of this state. To whom are the elected officials or those seeking public office to look to for ethical political leadership? The people of Alabama need an Ethics Commission that will enforce the laws and regulations it is charged with enforcing, with consistency.

When campaigns file their fundraising disclosures with the Secretary of State’s office, they are required to file on a given date no later than 11:59 p.m. When candidates and political action committees (PACs) fail to file these reports in a timely manner, the law requires the Secretary of State’s Office to issue a civil penalty based on the amount of contributions and expenditures from that reporting period. In the event that a candidate or PAC wishes to appeal the penalty, the Secretary of State’s office is required to send those requests to the Alabama Ethics Commission, allowing members of the Commission to determine whether the penalty should be upheld or not.

At three previous Ethics Commission meetings, in February, April and June of 2018, the commission waived fines on 12 appeals that were filed outside the 14-day window allowed by law.

However, during the Commission’s meeting on Sept. 5, they declined to hear cases filed outside the 14-day window, saying they didn’t have jurisdiction and declining to rule on whether that penalty would stand — despite having previously done so previously 12 times in 2018.

It the position of the Secretary of State’s Office that these specific matters were improperly set aside and should be reinstated by the Commission. And, in spite of a request from counsel for the Ethics Commission, the Secretary of State’s Office will continue to adhere to the requirements of state law which clearly establishes the Commission as the sole body with authority to overturn a penalty issued for a campaign or political action committee filing a financial disclosure form after the due date.

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Previously, Ethics Commission Executive Director Tom Albritton stated, “the commissioners reviewed those files and discussed them in detail before our meeting. So they reviewed every one of them as they have for every meeting.” If that is true, then why have they just now become aware of these appeal date issues? Each appeal delivered to the Alabama Ethics Commission is delivered as a file which includes each file that was not timely filed and a copy of the date the appeal was filed.

The Code of Alabama directs the Secretary of State’s Office to work in conjunction with the Alabama Ethics Commission to administer the Fair Campaign Practices Act. Therefore, without communication and cooperation between our agencies, as well as the commission’s consistent application of the laws and rules established by the Legislature, the FCPA does not work.

 

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Opinion | A more patriotic Alabama

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The terrorist attacks on September 11 changed the lives of every American, including me, in a million different ways. I remember hearing the news that Tuesday while in the National Museum of Ireland. I was there with other Americans studying terrorism in Ireland and Northern Ireland. We had been hearing the Irish tell stories of ambushes, rioting, and car bombs, but when the news reached us within the quiet confines of a museum, we did not believe it. Surely such terror could not be happening on our own beloved soil.

For me, 9/11 meant a new sense of American vulnerability. But for our men and women in uniform and their families, 9/11 meant a profoundly different way of life. They courageously answered the call to service and have endured hardship, separation, and sacrifice on our behalf. Today, on the seventeenth anniversary of the attacks, we remember both the unwitting victims of a cowardly attack and the brave responders who ran toward danger in the hopes of saving others.

Through these last seventeen years, our service members have kept their promise to defend our freedoms, but we have not always kept our promises to them. For all that they do for us, we can and should ensure that they and their family members are supported during their service and taken care of when it is done.

First and foremost, we must do better for our veterans by providing excellent health care – for body and mind – both during and after their service. While we’ve made great strides as a society toward accepting and treating the invisible wounds of war, there is still so much to be done to help our vets address the health challenges that come after countless deployments and almost two decades of war. Right now, veterans discharged for PTSD-related behavioral problems can’t access VA mental healthcare. It is my belief that every veteran – regardless of discharge status – should be eligible to receive mental health services for life.

We must also take seriously our obligation to help our veterans succeed once they leave the service. Nationally, student veteran graduation rates are among the lowest of any group, in large part because predatory, for-profit colleges lure veterans into using their hard-earned GI Bill only to abandon them when they ask for support and guidance. Yet Betsy DeVos defends these predatory institutions and is rolling back restrictions on them. Being a non-traditional student is hard enough when a college is invested in their students’ success, but nearly impossible when they just see our veterans as a government-guaranteed check. We should be punishing predatory colleges that take advantage of student veterans and defraud the government of our tax dollars, not letting them off the hook.

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We must also remember the families of our servicemembers, because strong military families are essential to a healthy and effective force. General Cotton at Maxwell AFB reminded us just a few weeks ago that failing Montgomery public schools are the reason that many assigned to Maxwell leave their families behind, and the reason many airmen choose to retire rather than take an assignment at Maxwell. What good is an F-35 in Montgomery if no one who can fly it wants to move their families here?

We can also support military families by ensuring that the Military Lending Act is proactively enforced, protecting military families from companies that prey on service members with high-interest loans and arbitration clauses that deny service members due process.

This 9/11, I am profoundly grateful for the men and women in uniform who stepped up and answered the call to service after that horrific day. We owe them – and all veterans – so much for their courage and sacrifice. We can and must do better by them. Let’s do more than wave flags on holidays. Let’s make Alabama a land of prosperity and opportunity for veterans and their families. Nothing could be more patriotic.

 

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Thank God And Greyhound — The Sentance Saga, Part 3

by Larry Lee Read Time: 5 min
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