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School Board Approves Sentence Contract. Surprise. Surprise.

By Larry Lee

As a rule, state school board meetings are amicable with emotions kept well in check. Not the one today, Sept. 8, 2016.

But given how contentious the selection of a new state superintendent has been over the last couple of months, today should not have surprised anyone. Today was when the board faced approving, or rejecting, a contract for new hire Michael Sentence of Massachusetts. And by the time the gavel fell to adjourn, some tempers grew short and emotions bubbled to the surface.

Governor Bentley chaired the meeting. The first hitch occurred when Vice-Chair Yvette Richardson wanted to add voting on a resolution to the agenda. Her resolution called for a full-scale investigation of the now infamous “smear sheet” campaign against applicant Craig Pouncey, Jefferson County superintendent.

To recount, someone placed an anonymous packet at the seat of each board member at the regular July 12 meeting. This included unsigned allocations that Pouncey received far too much help in 2009 when he did his doctoral dissertation for Samford University. It included copies of emails from state department staff from 2009. (For the record, all of the paperwork and notes from Pouncey’s work on his dissertation are now in several boxes at the state department.)

This info was transmitted to the Ethics Commission, even though it is common knowledge that the agency does not investigate unsigned complaints. On July 15, Hugh Evans, III, general counsel at Ethics sent a letter to Juliana Dean, general counsel at the department of education that they had received the information. Shortly after this, one board member told several legislators that Pouncey would not be considered because of this complaint.

Richardson was unsuccessful in getting her resolution on the agenda as the governor, Matt Brown, Betty Peters, Cynthia McCarty and Mary Scott Hunter voted against it. Those in favor were Richardson, Ella Bell, Jeff Newman and Stephanie Bell.

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(There was a board work session after lunch where the investigation resolution was again discussed. Hopefully a resolution will be on the agenda at the Oct. 13 board meeting.)

Next order of business was approval of the contract which calls for a base salary of $198,000 annually and goes through Dec. 31, 2018. (Including various benefits such as a $21,000 per year housing allowance. the package is worth nearly $250,000 annually.)

Since the public is allowed to speak to any agenda item by signing up in advance, seven people were on the list. Having been the first to sign, I was first. Remarks are limited to only two minutes and I had made sure I could have my say in 120 seconds. The governor reminded everyone that comments must pertain to the contract. About 15-20 seconds into my prepared remarks the governor cut me off telling me I had to talk about the contract. I explained that since no one had a copy of the contract, I could not speak to the document specifically.

The governor then recessed the meeting until copies could be provided. I was called back to the podium, tossed my prepared remarks and simply said that I thought there were way too many unanswered questions to move forward with the contract.

Six others spoke. Four spoke in opposition, two in support. Senator Gerald Dial pointed out the hiring process has ignored several sections of the Alabama Code and he feels that by going ahead with the contract, the state board is opening itself to legal action.

At this point board members began a discussion of the contract and Mr. Sentance’s qualifications for the position.

On June 27 Sentence sent an email to legal counsel Juliana Dean saying that for “personal issues” he was withdrawing his name from contention. This is where things get murky.

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In this article, Sentence said after withdrawing he got a phone call from general counsel Dean telling him “there was interest from the board for him to put his name back into consideration.” But apparently some board members did not know about this call and wonder how Dean could speak for them.

Member Jeff Newman, former Lamar County school superintendent, stated that it was normal practice when someone withdraws their name from consideration “they are gone and will not be considered for the position they applied for.”

After getting the call from Dean, Sentence left a voice mail to her on June 28 that he wished to remain a candidate. But since the deadline for applying was June 7, some contend that Sentence could not legally re-apply and should not have been considered beyond that point.

In fact, member Ella Bell asked Dean if she had been directed to call Sentence at the direction of member Mary Scott Hunter. Dean did not answer. The governor stated that since the process moved forward without anyone contesting it at that time, the board had “condoned” everything that happened. He spoke of two Alabama Supreme Count decisions that support his contention, however, an attorney friend says these decisions are not germane to the issue of the Sentence hire.

So here we are. We have a new superintendent–and a LOT of unanswered questions about the process.

For instance:

Dr. Steven Paine of West Virginia also withdrew. Did anyone contact him and ask him to reconsider? If not, why was Sentence given special treatment?

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Why did the board ignore at least three of the required qualifications they advertised?

Alabama code section 16-4-11 says the state superintendent must be knowledgeable in school administration. Sentence is not. Why was this ignored?

Who sent the anonymous smear sheet to the Ethics Commission and who told them to do so?

How did someone access the state department of education computer system and
retrieve emails from 2009?

As long as these questions and others go unanswered, the taint we now smell will not go away.

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