By Larry Lee
When State Superintendent of Education Mike Sentance told the State School Board Dec. 8, that the Office of Inspector General of the US Department of Education had determined that the State’s high school graduation rate was inaccurate, reaction was swift and true to form.
Members of the Legislature who consistently oppose public education were quick to tell media that there should be consequences for deceiving the public. (Would this include the 22 senators and 51 house members who voted for the Alabama Accountability Act in 2013 and told the public that this was all about “helping poor kids stuck in failing schools by their zip codes?”)
Senator Del Marsh said the graduation rate issue “is all the more reason for school choice.”
But it was the reaction of State School Board members that really got my attention. Mary Scott Hunter told The Decatur Daily that there will be consequences for dishonesty.
Take the time to go on the ALSDE web site and watch the video of the work session and you will hear these comments from board members: “I never believed our graduation rates were accurate.” “I can’t speak. I was lied to.” “I have been betrayed.” “We all hate to be blindsided.” “The public has been left out.” “We must pay attention to ethics.” “We’ve put our credibility on the line.”
All of these comments would ring legitimate–if we erased the last six months from this board’s record.
Here is what they want us to forget:
The deadline for applicants for state superintendent was June 7. On June 27, Mike Sentance informed ALSDE legal counsel Juliana Dean in writing that he was withdrawing his name from consideration. According to Sentance, Dean called him shortly thereafter and told him that board members wanted him to reconsider. Dean works for the entire board. She did not ask them if she should call Sentance. He left her a voice mail on June 28, that he still wanted to be considered.
Mary Scott Hunter told the Decatur Daily that she expressed her disappointment to Dean that Sentance had withdrawn but could not remember if she asked Dean to call Sentance or not.
What no one ever mentions is that another candidate, Dr. Steven Paine, former state superintendent for West Virginia, also applied and withdrew. Unlike Sentance, who has no training in education and did not meet the “required qualifications” the state board said an applicant had to have, Paine has three degrees in education, is a former teacher, principal, local superintendent and state superintendent and oversaw a $2.4 billion budget.
No one called and asked him to remain a candidate.
Someone made sure board members got an anonymous “smear sheet” at the July 12 board meeting. This was intended to discredit applicant Craig Pouncey, Jefferson County superintendent and former chief of staff for State Superintendent Tommy Bice. By the end of the week, this info made its way to the Ethics Commission, which in turn wrote Dean a letter naming Pouncey at the object of the letter. Dean distributed a copy of the Ethics Commission letter to all board members and shortly thereafter, the media had a copy.
This incident prompted creation of a legislative committee who are now trying to determine what took place. All eight elected board members have appeared before this committee. Six of them said they paid little attention to the info because it was not signed and could not therefore be investigated by the Ethics Commission. However, members Matt Brown and Hunter told the committee they were very concerned with the allegations.
Hunter stated that she gave the info to interiem superintendent Phillip Cleveland on July 13 and asked him to give it to Dean. She also called Tom Albritton, executive director of the Ethics Commission and discussed it with him.
When Senator Gerald Dial asked Hunter if she knew that an unsigned complaint could not be acted on by the Ethics Commission, she said, “I did not know the rules” However, earlier that same day member Cynthia McCarty stated that the board had a retreat in February 2016 and one of the speakers was Tom Allbritton.
Hunter also confirmed to Dial that shortly after this incident that she told him at a meeting of the Business Council of Alabama that Pouncey would not be considered for state superintendent because of the Ethics Commission complaint. However, this was untrue as there has never been an actionable complaint submitted to the Ethics Commisssion (And had the info given to the board members been signed, the statue of limitations has long since expired regarding the supposed offense).
The State Board voted to hire Sentance on Aug. 11. He was nominated by Hunter and received votes from her, Matt Brown, Betty Peters, Stephanie Bell and Governor Bentley.
To say this hire stunned the education community is an understatement of the highest order. If a single educator in Alabama recommended Sentance to a state board member, I have not found him/her. Which is what makes the cries of “betrayal” coming from the state school board almost comical.
The day after the work session last week, board member Hunter sent out a newsletter by email. She states, “Trust has been broken and must be rebuilt.” She could have sent this out the day after she voted to hire Mike Sentance and it been just as true.
We sent out an on-line survey with 23 questions on Nov. 29. To date, we’ve had 970 responses (Since there is no way to control for who responds, this can not be considered what some call a “scientific” poll where respondents correlate to local demographics. In this case, 90 percent of respondents are white, 69 percent are female, 70 percent work for a school system and 61 percent have children or grandchildren in a public school. However, trends are certainly valid, especially as to how educators feel).
To see all questions and all results, click here.
Go to question 16; What grade would you give the Alabama School Board?
Out of 904 respondents (66 skipped this question), 3 say A, 39 say B, 219 say C, 373 say D and 270 say F. So 4.6 percent give the state board an A or B, while 95.4 percent say C, D, or F.
Couple this with the fact that 92 percent disagree with the Sentance hire, 70.8 percent say a state superintendent should have previous experience in Alabama schools and 75.4 percent say a state superintendent should have experience as a local superintendent and you quickly see that this State School Board squandered whatever trust or credibility they had with the public last summer.
Ironic that the shoe is now on the other foot and board members now say they have the same feelings the public had back in August.
Opinion | Sessions’ anti-animal protection record
Jeff Sessions has had a long career in politics and countless opportunities to demonstrate opposition to cruelty to animals. Yet, in 20 years in the Senate, it’s hard to put your arms around a single positive thing he did. Sure, Alabama is an agricultural state, with a rich tradition of hunting, but we’re not talking about those things. We’re talking basic decency when it comes to treating the least among us and showing mercy for God’s creation.
The first political campaign I ever volunteered to work on was Sessions’ first bid for the U.S. Senate in 1996. I liked so much about him and his pledges, but boy, did I learn that caring for animals was not part of his worldview. I grew up in the horse industry, showing horses and competing, and I understood from a very young age that most Alabamians are connected to animals, especially those of us who grew up in rural areas.
One type of cruelty that Republicans and Democrats took on during the two decades that Sessions served in the Senate was dogfighting and cockfighting. But, surprisingly, they didn’t find an ally in Sessions. During the 107th Congress, Republican Senator and large-animal veterinarian Wayne Allard attracted nearly two thirds of the Senate on his bill (S. 345) to close the loophole in the Animal Welfare Act that allowed interstate shipment of fighting birds, but Sessions was an opponent. And in the 108th Congress, he failed to cosponsor the Animal Fighting Prohibition Enforcement Act (S. 736) to establish felony-level penalties for dogfighting and cockfighting. In the 109th and 110th Congresses, Sessions failed to support animal fighting legislation (S. 382 and S. 261) to establish federal level penalties for dog and cockfighting. And in the 112thCongress, Sessions was among a handful of Senators who voted against efforts to make it a crime to attend a dogfight or cockfight or to bring a child to such a spectacle (Roll Call Vote # 154).
U.S. Senator Richard Shelby supported the prohibition on attending animal fights, and later, Sessions’ successor, Doug Jones, co-sponsored legislation to ban animal fighting everywhere in the U.S. – the Parity in Animal Cruelty Enforcement (PACE) Act – a provision included in the 2018 Farm bill, with six of seven of Alabama’s U.S. Representatives favoring the anti-animal fighting language. President Trump signed that provision into law, and it took effect in December 2019.
Sessions has been hostile to other reforms, opposing an amendment to the 2005 Farm Bill to stop horse slaughter by prohibiting the use of tax dollars to fund USDA inspection of horse slaughterhouses.
Sessions voted to table an amendment to the 2000 Interior Appropriations bill to prohibit the use of funds to authorize, permit, administer, or promote the use of any jawed leghold trap or neck snare in any unit of the National Wildlife Refuge System. Animals trapped by these devices, which sometimes ensnare family pets or endangered species, suffer crushed bones, gangrene, and starvation.
Sessions failed to support reforms to stop the abuse of cows too sick or injured to walk and then dragged into slaughterhouses, putting consumers at risk of consuming diseased animals. Just months after Congress failed to address the matter, the USDA determined a cow slaughtered in Washington state had Mad Cow Disease. That cow was a “downer,” and if the ban on slaughtering “downers” had been in place, it would have never been dragged into the slaughterhouse and created a global food safety panic. This was the first finding of a cow with this disease in the U.S., and in response, more than 80 nations closed their markets to U.S. beef imports, causing a loss to the cattle industry in excess of $10 billion.
And in the 113th, 114th, and 115th Congresses, Sessions failed to support the Republican-led Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act, an amendment to the Horse Protection Act of 1970 that would ensure the protection of the Alabama’s official state Racking Horse whose world grand champion is crowned in Priceville each year.
As a native Alabamian, and a life-long Republican who cares about animals, I got turned off to my political hero when he showed such a hard heart toward animals. Whether hunters or non-hunters, farmers or just consumers, most every Alabamian I know cares about animals. It’s a shame that Jeff Sessions didn’t figure that out about Alabamians in his long tenure in Washington. Alabamians should step up against animal abuse and send an electoral verdict that cruelty is never acceptable.
Opinion | Solving Alabama’s unemployment crisis is a matter of patriotism
Patriotism is at the top of my mind these days as we prepare for this weekend’s Fourth of July celebrations. I feel a great sense of pride in our nation, even though I often disagree with political leaders at various levels of government.
You can love your country and love many things about your country but still see problems and areas where we can do better as a city, state or nation. And one of the areas where we seem to be struggling here in Alabama is with our unemployment situation.
No one in leadership could have predicted that the coronavirus would hit us the way that it has, and our leaders have struggled to balance the need to keep our people healthy with the need to keep our economy running.
It’s a difficult balance, and while the numbers of new infections of the coronavirus keep going up and keep getting media attention, we are also seeing our unemployment benefits being stretched to the max.
The Alabama Department of Labor is understaffed and overwhelmed by the flood of people filing for unemployment benefits. The Department’s employees are making a heroic effort to make sure that those with legitimate needs are getting the help they need to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. But even so, the unemployed have to wait for hours just to get a ticket that would allow them to speak with an employee and file a claim for their benefits.
But what’s even more concerning is the fact that the state’s unemployment fund is on track to become financially insolvent by the end of the summer. If that happens, then the state will have no choice but to borrow more money from the federal government.
Of course, everyone’s hope is that this coronavirus will begin to slow down, a vaccine will be invented, and business will be able to return to normal. Most people don’t want to rely on government checks to survive and would much rather get back to work as soon as possible.
But for now, at least, the economy is recovering slowly and our unemployment rate, while improving, is still over 6 percent. And that means that, even with borrowed federal money and the recently announced federal extended benefits program, Alabama is still in trouble and our unemployment funds are still in a dangerous situation.
As bad as the situation is, there is a possible solution that our state leaders can and should be considering, if they can get past their current bickering.
The federal government has already sent funding through the CARES Act to help the state battle the coronavirus. Most of that money should be going to providing healthcare services, such as testing for COVID-19, and personal protection equipment like masks and gloves for healthcare workers and employees in essential industries.
However, there’s no reason why some of that money can’t also go towards our unemployment program to help those who are out of work because of the coronavirus.
If some state leaders think they can use up to $200 million of that money to build a new State House, then why can’t they use that money to keep Alabama families fed and housed for a few more weeks?
As the legislative session came to an end a few weeks ago, lawmakers and the governor went to war with each other over how to spend that money. Instead of fighting over pet projects, they should be putting that money into Alabama’s families to help them survive this crisis.
The Fourth of July is all about patriotism, and there’s nothing more patriotic that solving our unemployment crisis and helping Alabama families get back on their feet.
Craig Ford is the owner of Ford Insurance Agency and the Gadsden Messenger. He represented Gadsden and Etowah County in the Alabama House of Representatives for 18 years.
Opinion | Gov. Ivey: This is our time, Alabama
In a few days, America will celebrate her 244th birthday. Traditionally, many towns and cities around the country light up the night with fireworks and music festivals. In 1776, John Adams predicted that Independence Day would be “celebrated by succeeding generations” with “pomp and circumstance…bonfires and illuminations.”
However, largely because of COVID-19, this year’s observance of our country’s birth will likely be a bit more subdued than previous years. While unfortunate, this is certainly understandable.
Today – and very likely in the days that will follow – instead of talking about what unites us as one nation – other conversations will occur that are, quite frankly, a bit more difficult and challenging.
My personal hope – and prayer – for this year’s 4th of July is that the marvel of our great country – how we started, what we’ve had to overcome, what we’ve accomplished and where we are going – isn’t lost on any of us.
We are all searching for “a more perfect union” during these trying and demanding days.
Over the past several weeks, our nation has been having one of those painful, yet overdue, discussions about the subject of race.
The mere mention of race often makes some people uncomfortable, even though it is a topic that has been around since the beginning of time.
Nationally, a conversation about race brings with it the opportunity where even friends can disagree on solutions; it also can be a catalyst to help total strangers find common ground and see things eye-to-eye with someone they previously did not even know.
Here in Alabama, conversations about race are often set against a backdrop of our state’s long – and at times – ugly history on the subject.
No one can say that America’s history hasn’t had its own share of darkness, pain and suffering.
But with challenge always comes opportunity.
For instance, Montgomery is both the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement, as well as the cradle of the Confederacy. What a contrast for our Capital City.
The fact is our entire state has, in many ways, played a central role in the ever-evolving story of America and how our wonderful country has, itself, changed and progressed through the years.
Ever since the senseless death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, thousands of Alabamians – of all races, young and old – have taken to the streets of our largest cities and smallest towns in protest to demand change and to seek justice.
These frustrations are understandable.
Change often comes too slowly for some and too quickly for others. As only the second female to be elected governor of our state in more than 200 years, I can attest to this.
Most of us recognize that our views on issues such as race relations tend to grow out of our own background and experiences. But, fortunately, our views can change and broaden as we talk and learn from each other.
As a nation, we believe that all people are created equal in their own rights as citizens, but we also know that making this ideal a reality is still a challenge for us.
Even with the election of America’s first African American president 12 years ago, racial, economic and social barriers continue to exist throughout our country. This just happens to be our time in history to ensure we are building on the progress of the past, as we take steps forward on what has proven to be a long, difficult journey.
Folks, the fact is we need to have real discussions – as an Alabama family. No one should be under the false illusion that simply renaming a building or pulling a monument down, in and of itself, will completely fix systemic discrimination.
Back in January, I invited a group of 65 prominent African American leaders – from all throughout Alabama – to meet with me in Montgomery to begin having a dialogue on issues that truly matter to our African American community in this state. This dedicated group – known as Alabama United – is helping to bring some very legitimate concerns and issues to the table for both conversation and action.
As an example, Alabama will continue to support law enforcement that is sensitive to the communities in which they serve. We have thousands of dedicated men and women who put their lives on the line to protect our state every single day. But we can – and must – make certain that our state’s policies and procedures reflect the legitimate concerns that many citizens have about these important issues.
I am confident all these conversations – and hopefully many more – will lead to a host of inspirational ideas that will lead to a more informed debate and enactment of sound public policy.
We must develop ways to advance all communities that lack access to good schools, jobs, and other opportunities. As governor, I will continue to make education and achieving a good job a priority – it distresses me that some of our rural areas and inner cities face some of the greatest challenges in education.
There are other critical issues that must be addressed, and I will continue to look for solutions along with you.
Everyone knows government cannot solve these problems alone. Some of the greatest solutions will come from private citizens as well as businesses, higher education, churches and foundations. Together, we can all be a part of supporting and building more inclusive communities.
In other words, solving these problems comes from leaning on the principles that make us who we are – our faith – which is embodied in the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
My beliefs on how to treat people were shaped in Wilcox County and my faith was developed at the Camden Baptist Church.
The bible tells us over and over that our number one goal is to love God with all of one’s heart and then to love our neighbor as we love our self. That is what I strive to do every day.
When anyone feels forgotten and marginalized, compassion compels us to embrace, assist and share in their suffering. We must not let race divide us. We must grow and advance together.
Being informed by our past, let us now carefully examine our future and work towards positive change. Together, we can envision an Alabama where all her people truly live up to the greatness within our grasp. We cannot change the past or erase our history… But we can build a future that values the worth of each and every citizen.
So, in closing, my hope and prayer for our country as we pause to celebrate America’s 244th birthday, is that we make the most of this moment.
As for our state, let’s make this a time to heal, to commit ourselves to finding consensus, not conflict, and to show the rest of the nation how far we have come, even as we have further to go.
These first steps – just as we are beginning our third century as a state – may be our most important steps yet.
This is our time, Alabama. May God continue to bless each of you and the great state of Alabama.
Opinion | Our sacred honor
This weekend America will celebrate its 244th birthday. Unfortunately, we do so in a time of a pandemic, a struggling economy, and violent protests. But, it’s still our birthday, and we should both commemorate and celebrate it.
We usually do a good job in our celebration, although this year will be different since social distancing means we’ll be in smaller groups and public fireworks displays have been cancelled. I suspect most of us will find a way to gather with family and close friends to cook out and show the red, white, and blue.
But, a commemoration is more than that. Merriam-Webster defines “commemorate” as “to call to remembrance” or “to serve as a memorial of.” How many of us will stop and remember what it meant for the Second Continental Congress to not only declare our independence from Britain but also to state our reasons for doing so in majestic language positing the highest ideals?
Let me make a suggestion. This Fourth, get a copy of the Declaration and read it. My extended family and friends usually get together and have several of us read the various portions of the Declaration out loud and talk about its meaning. It doesn’t take much time and we always experience a renewed appreciation for the gift that is our country. This year we will do it virtually, in smaller groups.
The Declaration was meant to be read out loud. Indeed, on July 4, Congress not only voted to accept it but also provided for its distribution to the states and the Continental Army. On July 6, John Hancock, as President of Congress, sent letters to the states and to General Washington enclosing broadsides of the Declaration requesting that they have it “proclaimed.” It was read out loud to celebrations in dozens of cities and towns in July and August, and to the Continental Army on July 9 as it prepared for the British Invasion of New York.
To some extent these events were meant to inform and inspire the people of a newly independent nation. But then, and now, the Declaration is a defining document. It not only said we were an independent nation but also who we aspired to be. Freedom and equality were to be at the heart of the nation’s character. And the rights stated in the Declaration—life liberty and the pursuit of happiness—are clearly labeled gifts from God himself to all of us.
The story of our country is really the unfolding of the efforts to live up to these aspirations. President Lincoln used it as a primary basis for arguing against slavery, as in the Gettysburg Address where he famously said, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” As a result of the Civil War these ideals were enshrined in the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution.
Martin Luther King used it in his 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech, referring to the Declaration and the Constitution as a promissory note to all Americans which he and others in the Civil Rights Movement called upon the nation to honor. As a result of the Movement, Congress passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and in 1965 the Voting Rights Act.
I know it is fashionable now among our nation’s elites to view America as evil from our birth, evil in our institutions, and evil in our character. That view is a myth, untethered to the reality of our history. This myth is just a false preamble to lay the groundwork for their efforts to radically reorganize our society and have government run every detail of our lives, all the while piling tax upon tax on us. Isn’t this type of government what caused the founders to declare independence in the first place? These elites call themselves “progressive,” but their plan is actually a regression to a tyrannical central government taxing us against our will.
Despite our faults, some of which have been grievous, we are a nation established upon the highest ideals and which has the strength of its character and institutions to self-correct as we strive toward those ideals. Our history repeatedly demonstrates that is who we are.
David McCullough, the Pulitzer Prize winning author and historian, several years ago told a gathering of those of us in Congress that Americans would be more hopeful if we only knew our history. How true. Complicated and contradictory, yes, but it is also a history of spectacular success and of a major force for good, here and abroad.
So, this week let’s celebrate and commemorate who we are. Let’s pause in the middle of our present troubles to renew our pride as Americans and draw lessons from our founding and history for the resolution of the issues of the day. And let us, like our founders, “mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.