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Storm Clouds Gather Over State School Board

Larry Lee

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By Larry Lee
Education Matters

Most educators agree that the recent process the state school board went through to replace state superintendent Tommy Bice was more like an episode of the Keystone Kops than anything else. During my career I had five jobs where I reported to a board of directors. Thank goodness they all conducted themselves with far more professionalism than we just saw from the state school board.

One of the more egregious episodes was the attempt to make sure Craig Pouncey, Jefferson County school superintendent and former chief of staff for Tommy Bice, did not get the job. Someone even reached into a political “dirty bag of tricks” and came up with a smear sheet in an attempt to discredit him.
The anonymous info accuses Pouncey of not writing his own doctoral dissertation and having state employees do much of the work. This charge has been vigorously denied by both Pouncey and his major professor who oversaw his graduate work.

Still, the stain remains and Pouncey has retained Montgomery attorney Kenny Mendelsohn to represent him in an effort to find out who was responsible for the smear campaign and why.

WSFA television in Montgomery reported this story on Oct. 5, 2016. You can read about it here. Here are excerpts:

“Certain people did a horrible thing by providing information and accusing him of unethical, and basically an unconscionable conduct,” Mendelsohn said. “All based on some anonymous letter that I believe was fabricated.”

The letter claimed Pouncey cheated and plagiarized his doctoral dissertation, and used state resources, something he flatly denies.

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“They have defamed him and accused him of this conduct,” Mendelsohn said. “It affects any job opportunities in the future, it could affect his job now. He did not plagiarize anything, he did not lie about his dissertation, he did not use state resources in it or anything like that. The accusations were totally false, it accomplished what these people wanted.”

The anonymous letter was also submitted to the Ethics Commission, something Mendelsohn feels strongly about.

“The Ethics Commission doesn’t investigate anonymous complaints,” added Mendelsohn. “Nothing should have been done with this; if someone won’t sign their name to it, they shouldn’t look into it. And somebody in that department had to have contacted the Ethics Commission, there’s a letter back from the Ethics Commission saying they complied with statutory reporting. There’s obviously interplay between.”

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“We’ve requested opportunities to clear it up, and nobody wants to talk to us,” said Mendelsohn. “What I am probably going to do is have to file a lawsuit and getting people under oath. And then get to the bottom of it.”

“There are people at the State Department who don’t want this all to come out,” Mendelsohn said. “Part of the solution is whoever did this, doesn’t need to be associated with education, whether it’s an employee, board member or a secretary; those people need to be exposed for doing something like this.”

At the Sept. 8 board meeting, vice-chair Yvette Richardson wanted to put a resolution on the agenda calling for an internal investigation into the smear sheet episode. This was voted down, 5-4.

We put up a survey on this site shortly after the Aug. 11 vote on the new superintendent. More than 1,250 people responded. Go here to see all responses. After watching this all unfold, it is little wonder that 91 percent of respondents opposed the hire and that 64 percent gave the state school board a failing grade of D or F.

One of the more bizarre parts of all of this is looking at how the board members voted on Aug. 11. There were six candidates. Three were Alabama local superintendents, one was a member of Governor Bentley’s cabinet and two were from outside the state, neither with experience as a superintendent at either the local or state level.

So there were clear differences among the choices. And one would expect that board members would have had a clear understanding on Aug. 11 of what they were looking for. And in most cases this was true. For instance, Matt Brown only voted for Mike Sentence. Yvette Richardson, Jeff Newman and Ella Bell only voted for Craig Pouncey.

But Stephanie Bell voted for Bill Evers, Mike Sentance and Craig Pouncey Mary Scott Hunter outdid her. She voted for four different candidates. Mike Sentence, Dee Fowler, Janet Womack and Jeana Ross.

So there are six candidates and you think four of them are equal? You vote for an Alabama superintendent with 30+ years experience at all levels of education and you also vote for someone with no education credentials which means you think their backgrounds are similar?

And when it is all over the public is told by state school board members that this is “all about the children.” Anyone who believes that needs to call me about some beach front property my family has in Covington County.

I wish Craig Pouncey and Kenny Mendelsohn well.

The 740,000 students in Alabama public schools deserve some answers.

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Opinion | There’s still work to be done

Chris Elliott

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Last weekend should have been a shining moment for the state of Alabama, a celebration of the life and efforts of Congressman John Lewis — a true freedom fighter and hero for civil rights and equality in our nation.

It was also an opportunity to reflect on our past and be proud of how far we Alabamians have come. Republicans and Democrats, blacks and whites — all came together to honor and remember the life of Alabama’s courageous and remarkable son.

Well, not all, apparently.

What possible reason could a public official have to attend a 199th birthday party for the founder of the Ku Klux Klan while you’re in the same city as the funeral procession of a venerated civil rights hero who was literally beaten by that same Klan?

It almost seems absurd that we should have to have these conversations here in 2020, but here we are.

It is especially disconcerting to see behavior like this coming from someone so young. Perhaps one could expect this sort of thing from a grandparent or great-grandparent, as they were products of an era that may still hold those problematic, antiquated views — but from a 30-year-old, someone who should exemplify how far we have come as a state? It is worrying, to say the least.

To lack the basic knowledge of history to know that the 199-year-old birthday boy at your party was the founder of the KKK seems incongruent with the career of this young House member, who continues to claim to be a student of Confederate history. Perhaps it’s willful ignorance — it’s tough to tell.

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For all the progress our state has made in moving forward from our history of racial divisiveness and strife, incidents like the one involving this young State representative are an important lesson that while it is important for us to remember our past, our priority must be our continued journey to the better, brighter future that awaits us all and that, thanks to Will Dismukes, that journey is clearly not over yet.

Rep. Dismukes has, however, shone a bright light for those of us that thought racism was something we could put behind us. In the words of Congressman John Lewis from our own Edmund Pettus Bridge, “We must use this moment to recommit ourselves to do all we can to finish the work. There’s still work left to be done.”

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Opinion | Dr. Wayne Reynolds should resign from the State Board of Education

Glenn Henry

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Dear Dr. Wayne Reynolds, Thank you so very much for apologizing to our awesome Gov. Kay Ivey for your comments made recently. First, let’s talk honestly about the little girl with freckles from Camden, Alabama, who grew up to be our nation’s best governor.

In Alabama, the most trusted and powerful elected officials are Sen. Richard Shelby and Gov. Kay Ivey. The reasons are due to their core values, such as honesty, integrity, trust, accountability, responsibility, and prudent decision-making.

Dr. Reynolds, when I first read your comments concerning Gov. Kay Ivey, I was very upset. Although I’m a 63-year old African-American Republican, those comments hurt me, because I have worked with Gov. Ivey for years to solve problems. I was worried that she may be hurt.

Just for your information, due to the poorly performing state school superintendent, Alabama State Department of Education and State Board of Education, there is a lack of trust from the public.

Gov. Ivey has earned trust from the nation — from the president of the United States, vice president, secretary of defense, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, secretary of the Air Force and the chief of staff of the Air Force. Truthfully, she is the only person who can get things done. I personally know.

I have binders and documents stacked 6 feet high, concerning numerous issues and solutions Gov. Ivey has provided. Although I send emails to the state superintendent, State Department of Education and the State Board of Education. I can recall no solutions coming from any of these entities. Basically, all I see are people following parliamentary protocols, and raising their hands — but never solving any problems, including no solutions from Dr. Reynolds.

Due to these poor perceptions, many people are wondering if these entities are needed. In my view, since Gov. Ivey seems to be the only one solving all of the problems, and she is out-thinking all of us, why do we need a state school superintendent, State Department of Education or State Board of Education?

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Dr. Reynolds, sir, we can’t be observing women’s bodies — looking at their rear ends and commenting on their weight. You claimed you were just making an observation. Sir, we have a mission to accomplish, and we have too much work to do. Education must be fixed.  The state of Alabama is dead last in math, and we are at the bottom of all national lists.

Dr. Reynolds, sir, please spend more of your time providing solutions to the numerous problems facing our great state. If you can’t provide solutions, you should respectfully resign instead of discussing foolishness.

I was raised to compliment and help our leaders, especially our female leaders, by placing them on a pedestal and helping them to be successful.

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Gov. Ivey has earned the respect from the highest levels of the federal government. She is one of our trusted wingmen, because she has been doing the jobs of the state superintendent, State Department of Education and the State School Board. She doesn’t have time to waste on craziness.

Respectfully, Dr. Reynolds, if you and the other board members resign, you can be easily replaced. We are in last place anyway. The lack of trust, and foolish comments by Dr. Reynolds, surely do not help the State Board of Education, which continues to be ineffective. No one is following you.  Folks are running away from you.

Haven’t you recognized this yet? Gov. Ivey is basically doing your job anyway.

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Opinion | Alabama’s finest hour

Progress for unity comes in fits and starts, Sunday in Alabama was a giant leap forward and a day that helps define our future.

Will Sellers

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The casket of former congressman John Lewis as he lays in state at the Capitol Sunday, July 26, 2020 in Montgomery, Ala. (Governor's Office/Hal Yeager)

In describing his constituents, George Wallace used to say that “the people of Alabama are just as cultured, refined and gracious as anyone else in America.” Whether it was true when he said it or not, it made Alabamians stand a little higher and feel better about their circumstances.

If actions speak louder than words, on Sunday, the people Alabama in memorializing John Lewis demonstrated to the nation how truly refined, gracious and cultured we really are. While other parts of the nation were literally on fire and factions seethed with hate, Alabamians provided a stark contrast in honoring Congressman Lewis.

Where 55 years ago State Troopers severely beat John Lewis, on Sunday fully integrated law enforcement officers saluted him and gave him the dignity and respect he earned and deserved. Where once the governor of Alabama prevented Civil Rights marchers from entering the Capitol, on Sunday, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, silently stood near Jefferson Davis’s star and with respect and solemnity saluted and welcomed the casket of the 80-year-old congressman.

In other parts of America, where Democrats and Republicans engage in angry debates neither giving nor receiving quarter, in Montgomery, on Sunday, members of both parties came together, transcended partisanship and found common ground in recognizing someone who lived a faithful life in support of peace, justice and mutual understanding.

Indeed, in some cities in our country federal law enforcement officials, without invitation or consent from mayors or governors, were engaged in riot control. At the Capitol in Montgomery, federal officials were not only invited but attended and participated in a memorial service. Federal troops came, not with a show of force, but as an honor guard to drape the mortal remains with an American flag as a pall to lie in state. While Federal marshals were present, they were there to pay their respects and mourn Lewis, not to protect federal property from destruction.

On Sunday, Alabama taught the world what racial harmony looks like; Alabama showed an integrated community embracing a hopeful future. Any outsider saw clearly that Alabama is no longer tied to a past anchored in division, but is a mosaic of people from all walks of life coming together, laying aside their differences and agreeing that when a great man dies, the brightness of his sun setting reveals a glorious legacy for all to pause, reflect and regard in all its majesty.

Sunday was a testament to dreams anticipated and while not yet fulfilled, much closer to reality. The celebration of Lewis in his native Alabama served to acknowledge the legacy of the civil rights movement that still motivates us to judge people not on their externals, but on the internals of kindness reflected in the content of each one’s character.

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Progress for unity comes in fits and starts, Sunday in Alabama was a giant leap forward and a day that helps define our future.

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Guest Columnists

Opinion | Prison system issues show “lack of institutional control”

“Our Department of Corrections is not being run in a manner that the people of Alabama should accept, and it is past time to make a change there.”

Matt Simpson

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“Lack of institutional control.”

Growing up as a sports fan in Alabama, and even when I attended the University of Alabama, I became familiar with that phrase as the NCAA brought down sanctions on our beloved athletic programs.

Our athletics programs should hold themselves to higher standards, the champion level programs we’ve come to expect in our state, whether you say “Roll Tide” or “War Eagle.”

Shouldn’t we hold the officials in charge of running and managing Alabama’s prison systems to at least a modicum of the same standards?

When you look at the Department of Justice report released last week detailing the continued horrendous abuses within our state’s prison system, there is no way that you can read the horrors outlined there and not think there’s a lack of institutional control that starts at the very top.

When a prisoner handcuffed to a bed is beaten with a baton while an officer yells “I am the reaper of death, now say my name!”, there is a lack of institutional control.

When an inmate is punched in the face for simply sticking their tongue out, there is a lack of institutional control.

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When the officials in charge of our prison system have known about these violations for years and know they are under investigation from the federal government and the abuses still continue to happen, there is a lack of institutional control.

Our prison guards, corrections officers and staff are overworked, underpaid and understaffed, with some of our prisons remaining at half of their full hiring capacity – despite the fact that last year, the Legislature appropriated more than enough money to fill those positions and create new ones to help secure and make safer our correctional institutions. Those positions, both current and new, have not been filled, so our officers and staff at these prisons continue to not get the support they need and deserve due to the inaction of our Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner.

Not using the ample resources and funding that have been given to you – again, it’s a clear lack of institutional control by the Alabama Department of Corrections’ leadership and something has to change.

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We need new leadership who is actually willing to address these problems head-on and make the changes necessary to fix these problems.

We need new leadership who is willing to work with the Legislature and not try to do things behind the scenes of behind closed doors. The entire nation is watching how we handle this, and we need to be as open, as honest and as transparent as we possibly can be.

Our Department of Corrections is not being run in a manner that the people of Alabama should accept, and it is past time to make a change there.

Lack of institutional control – we would not allow and have not tolerated it from a football coach, and we certainly don’t need to continue to tolerate it from appointed government officials who should be working for the people.

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