By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter
“It’s a mess.”
That’s the way a longtime employee at the Alabama State Department of Education described the last few months since Michael Sentance took over as State Superintendent of schools in August.
That person was not alone in criticism of Sentance and his management style. At least a half-dozen employees or contract workers who have spent time at ALSDE under Sentance, who is originally from Massachusetts, described the atmosphere as a mixture of chaotic and paranoid, as Sentance has fought to wrestle control of the department from longtime officials and establish himself as the State’s top school official.
Those efforts have been hampered, sources said, by Sentance’s unfamiliarity with any of the major players, as well as his abrasive attitude and demeanor around the ALSDE offices that has chased away support he might find there. In addition, his short stint has been filled with controversy – most of it not of his doing – and deep distrust from the people who matter most to State school board members and lawmakers who are seeking reelection: public school teachers and employees.
But the controversy he had a direct hand – dishing out $1.3 million in consulting contracts – might be his undoing.
State school board members will meet at 3:30 on Wednesday to discuss those contracts and Sentance’s lack of communication with them. At least, that’s the public presentation of the meeting.
Privately, some board members have confided in supporters that this meeting potentially is the first step in a process that could see them remove Sentance.
While that would be a lightning-quick hook for the State’s public schools chief, most of those board members – and many of the State’s top powerbrokers – view Sentance’s selection as superintendent the result of a manipulated search process.
That manipulation is currently the subject of a lawsuit filed in Montgomery Circuit Court by Jefferson County Superintendent Craig Pouncey, who was considered the clear frontrunner for the job. At least, Craig was the frontrunner before an anonymous complaint was turned into allegations of a full-blown ethics investigation – an investigation that never was and never would be.
At the center of it all is school board member Mary Scott Hunter, who helped Sentance every step of the way. That included convincing Sentance to resubmit his name for the job after he had bowed out of the race when it seemed he had no chance.
In addition, Hunter played a major role in promoting the false allegations against Pouncey. Several sources said Hunter spread rumors of Pouncey’s investigation to prominent Republican donors and lawmakers and led the charge against his candidacy.
While slyly manipulating any process to achieve a desired result is a time-honored practice in politics, the manipulation in Pouncey’s case apparently stepped over a line when it involved the Alabama Ethics Commission. That’s when lawmakers started asking questions.
From those questions, several other players emerged – most of them within the ALSDE legal department. Those attorneys – Juliana Dean, James Ward and Susan Crowther – and the role they played in the scheme to upend Pouncey’s candidacy will also be the focus of Wednesday’s special-called meeting.
But the primary focus of that meeting will be determining just what the heck is going on.
Board members have spent quite a bit of time over the last two weeks telling reporters that they have no idea what the answer is to questions. That includes questions about contracts, about the Montgomery system’s takeover, about the consultants who are being hired and about the communication expectations between the superintendent and the board who oversees him.
Not surprisingly, many of Sentance’s most pressing problems are wrapped up in the intervention in Montgomery. Backlash has been mounting to the takeover – some of it from those worried about what might be uncovered, some of it from those worried about revenue sources going dry – and Sentance’s decisions on selecting companies to handle the takeover have done nothing but stoke anger.
Earlier this week, Montgomery school board member Mary Briers, a powerful voice on the board and in the community who at one time voiced support for the takeover, blasted Sentance for reneging on a promised collaboration and bringing in outside consultants to do the jobs.
“This is not the collaborative intervention we were promised,” Briers said.
Briers also raised questions about the hiring of Huntsville Schools’ CFO Jason Taylor. That deal, signed by Sentance without board approval or even board awareness, involved a sketchy chain of events that saw Taylor start his own company in late January and then receive a $760,000 no-bid contract a month later.
That contract closely followed a contract that went to a Massachusetts company that Sentance has worked with in the past. Emails showed Sentance alerted a top official at that company that a project would open up soon in Alabama, apparently giving the company a two-week jump on any others in preparing a bid.
Also on the table Wednesday will be consulting contracts totaling more than $80,000 that Sentance paid out for a reorganization plan that has been anything but popular. That plan restructured the technical training program – a move Sentance has promised will strengthen the program but one critics aren’t so sure about.
And, oh yeah, there’s also the small matters of a $17 million Aspire ACT test that’s apparently worthless, a federal investigation that’s found massive cheating and worthless diplomas and a school system that’s not exactly running like a fine-tuned machine.
Add it all up and even board members who originally voted for Sentance are now questioning if bringing in an outsider, given all of Alabama’s homegrown issues and problems, was the right move.
And Wednesday’s board meeting will be the first step in finding out.