By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter
Something stinks at the Alabama State Department of Education.
I’m just not sure who smells the most.
On Thursday, the Legislature’s Contract Review Committee held up its second ALSDE proposed contract – this one for more than $760,000 going to a company named Northbay Strategic Partners.
It was held up, committee members said, because Rep. John Knight, who didn’t attend the meeting, had questions. Knight told me later that his questions centered on the amount of the contract and the fact that it was more than triple the cost of the original contract ALSDE officials sent to the committee. (The difference, Knight later discovered, was the original contract was for one year and the one ultimately presented was for three years — a fact ALSDE failed to disclose to the committee.)
But the bigger issue on that contract was the company listed – Northbay Strategic Partners.
There are fruit flies older than Northbay.
According to records on the Alabama Secretary of State’s website, Northbay was formed on Jan. 26 – a little more than a week after the State board voted to give new State schools superintendent Michael Sentance the authority to intervene in the Montgomery system. Northbay is listed at 1910 1st Ave., in Birmingham — the same address as the Bishop, Colvin, Johnson & Kent lawfirm.
At Thursday’s Contract Review Committee meeting, a $245,000 contract for the Bishop, Colvin, Johnson & Kent firm — requested by attorneys from ALSDE — was approved.
Northbay is owned by Jason Taylor, who currently serves as the chief financial officer for the Huntsville school system. Northbay is listed in an office complex in Birmingham, where seven other companies
It’s unclear whether Taylor plans to leave his current gig, but with $760,000 rolling in down here, it’s a fairly safe bet that the Huntsville system won’t be getting his full attention.
That’s all more than a little fishy, right?
There is certainly enough circumstantial evidence to suggest something is off. But nothing appears to be illegal. The contract wasn’t subject to bid laws, and a source close to the situation said the only way Taylor would accept the Montgomery gig – with its political pitfalls – was by way of a contract that guaranteed his pay.
Taylor’s caution, the sources said, stems from what state department officials believe they will find – and have already uncovered – within the Montgomery system’s financial books.
Two sources closely linked to Montgomery Public Schools told me that initial forays into the MPS financials have revealed “an absolute mess of things,” with potential criminal fraud, staggering levels of incorrect financial management and serious issues with nepotism.
There are also teacher pay disparity issues, with teachers at some schools earning significantly higher pay despite holding similar credentials to teachers working at more challenging schools in the district. Some of the salary issues, the sources said, appeared to be related to personal or familial relationships.
The problems within MPS don’t explain away all of ALSDE’s recent issues, however.
Last week, the Decatur Daily reported that Sentance possibly improperly talked with the vice president of a Massachusetts-based company, Class Measures, that was awarded a $536,000 contract. Sentance, who is from Massachusetts and has a history with Class Measures, has denied any impropriety, but an email obtained by the newspaper showed he alerted Class Measures’ VP to the need for work some three weeks before the proposal was made public.
State school board members have been critical of the lack of discussions about that contract. They also have been generally frustrated with their lack of communication with Sentance.
The production of the latest contract, it appears, was just as secretive. Board members who spoke with the media on Thursday all expressed no knowledge of the move to hire Taylor’s newly-formed company. Ella Bell, whose district covers the majority of Montgomery’s school zone, said she had no clue, but she added that she was aware of Sentance’s plan to hire “a very strong CFO who could help that system.”
If all of that wasn’t enough, there’s also now a lawsuit filed by former assistant superintendent over the hiring process last year that landed Sentance in his current role. Craig Pouncey, the current superintendent for Jefferson County and the former frontrunner for the State gig, alleged in a suit filed last week in Montgomery Circuit Court that members of ALSDE’s legal office conspired with State school board member Mary Scott Hunter to push false ethics allegations.
Whether there was anything illegal or enough improper activity to bring Pouncey damages, I don’t know. But I can tell you one thing for certain: there’s zero doubt in my mind that some people concocted bogus allegations against Pouncey and pushed them to damage his chances at the gig.
So, add that smell to the rest of it. And the Department of Education is stinking up the place.