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Montgomery school system takeover off to a rough start

By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter

MONTGOMERY—The State takeover of Montgomery’s school system is off to a less-than-optimal beginning.

At a press conference following Thursday’s State school board meeting — at which members voted to support State Superintendent Michael Sentance’s resolution declaring his intention to intervene in MPS — a collection of State and Montgomery school officials were met with a barrage of questions for which they had very few specific answers.

Much of the press conference was dominated by a group of Montgomery pastors, who peppered officials with questions and argued that the Montgomery community leaders were being shut out of the process. The pastors also questioned how this State intervention would be different from the last State action — an interposition taken in 2013 — that has led to few improvements in the district.

“I can tell you that I’ve researched the Code of Alabama and I’ve been unable to find anything resembling that (interposition),” Sentance said. “I’m not sure where it came from. I can tell you that I’m a different person.”

There were few official answers that Sentance and other State officials could provide on Thursday. State law requires the Superintendent and State board go through a specific process to declare the intervention, despite the fact that MPS officials seem perfectly accepting of the State’s action.

Once Sentance forwards the resolution to MPS officials, they will have 21 days to respond to his intervention plan with a plan of their own. At that point, Sentance will have to return to the State school board — likely in February, he said — and make an official recommendation for intervention in Montgomery.

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Once that is completed and the takeover is official, Sentance said he would hold community forums to get the public’s input. That did not sit well with the pastors.

“How can you implement the plan and then come to us to talk about the plan?” New Life Baptist pastor Charles Thomas asked Sentance. “The people should have some say in this.”

By the end of the press conference, Thomas and state school board member Ella Bell were having a loud, spirited discussion about the takeover.

The primary disagreement seemed to be centered around Montgomery’s magnet school program — which Sentance essentially said he wouldn’t touch — and whether the system can continue to have what amounts to two systems — the regular schools and the magnet schools — with a large percentage of the district’s best students isolated in the magnet schools.

Sentance said he was in the beginning stages of studying the specific issues in Montgomery, but he noted he has proposed a weighted funding mechanism for all schools that is based more on student need.

When asked for a timeframe for how long he thinks the intervention could last, if approved, Sentance said he felt three to five years would be adequate.

“One of the big problems with these state actions, in my opinion, is that they haven’t stayed long enough to change the culture,” Sentance said. “Studies have shown that it takes three years to change the culture at a school. That’s our focus.”

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Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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