By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter
In the end, it was his inability to accurately assess the political landscape that will cost Michael Sentance his job as the State’s School Superintendent.
Yes, he made mistakes, such as consistently alienating teachers and local superintendents with poor communication. Yes, his department made serious gaffes, such as the too-early release of bad graduation rate info. Yes, he angered lawmakers with his decisions to enter the State Department of Education into costly consulting contracts. And yes, his uneven and inconsistent handling of the Montgomery intervention was a mess that has angered almost everyone on every side.
But Michael Sentance could have withstood it all if he had been a little smarter about the politics of it all. If he had picked his sides a bit more carefully. If he had hitched his wagon to better horses.
There is no clearer example of this than Sentance’s bungling of his relationship with board member Ella Bell, a longtime, outspoken member of the State School Board and a fixture in education circles, particularly around Montgomery.
Sentance’s initial approach of Bell seemed to indicate that he understood the dynamic he was facing, that he recognized from almost the outset that he needed a powerful ally who could fend off the pitchfork mob that would certainly be coming after an outsider hired under questionable circumstances.
Bell provided such cover, and her price was reasonable and popular – takeover the Montgomery Public Schools system, rid the system of the leeches and pour money into revamping the State’s third-largest district. No one objected to such a move, and even MPS officials welcomed the takeover.
The problem with an intervention, however, is that you have to actually do it, and it is a big, complicated, nasty business. Particularly for someone who is unfamiliar with the political landscape and history of the district. In a matter of days, Sentance found himself besieged from all sides, and every move he made to placate one side seemed to anger all of the others.
He announced a full takeover – that angered MPS officials. He announced he was only taking over the failing schools in Montgomery – that angered Bell and lawmakers. He announced he was giving the principals at the failing schools raises in order to make up an unfair salary gap – that angered lawmakers.
State Sen. Dick Brewbaker, following Sentance’s decision on the raises, called it one of the dumbest ideas he’s ever heard. Up until that point, Brewbaker had been one of Sentance’s staunchest allies in the legislature, telling his fellow lawmakers that he was working with the new superintendent.
But the principal raises, coupled with the decision to give the principals at the failing schools three-year contract extensions, eroded Brewbaker’s trust. He would later tell a colleague that he was “washing my hands of Michael Sentance.”
Sentance later revised his plan and awarded all principals within MPS a 10-percent raise. He also continued talking with Brewbaker and has taken the lawmaker’s advice on several issues. Still, a source close to Brewbaker said he remains “confused” by Sentance’s “ability to tick off everyone around him.”
Perfect example: The MPS consulting contracts. When the MPS takeover began, most expected an increase in expense, but what few saw coming was the more than $1.3 million in no-bid consulting contracts that Sentance dished out.
“Several on the board believe this to be a huge waste of money, not to mention (the board is) not getting the opportunity to review these people before they’re hired,” a source close to the board said at the time. “This is not what the board approved when (it) approved this intervention.”
The board promptly implemented a hiring freeze, telling Sentance that he was going to have to make do with the personnel available. On Friday, Sentance struck back, telling board vice president Stephanie Bell to, essentially, butt out. In a letter sent to all board members, Sentance told the board that it was overstepping in its attempts to manage the MPS takeover.
Using an Alabama Attorney General’s Office opinion on the matter, Sentance noted that state law provides him sole authority to manage the takeover, including making hires and shuffling around personnel.
Obtaining the AG’s opinion and the decision to shoo the board away from the takeover are ideas several lawmakers and Montgomery city officials have been pushing for weeks, as they became increasingly displeased with the lack of progress in the district. It got them off his back, but it ignored a huge reality: in Sentance’s world, everyone’s happiness comes second to the board’s.
The Bell Factor
In his letter to Stephanie Bell about the board’s interference – a letter prompted by her request for information about recent hires – Sentance did not mince words. He told her that the board has “no authority” over the takeover.
“You have sought to interject yourself again into the operations of the district, it is time to stop,” Sentance wrote.
He also wrote that the board’s hiring freeze concerning Montgomery “is void.”
That letter will all but seal his fate, which is appropriate, since it is a microcosm of the miscommunication that has existed between Sentance and the board since his first day on the job.
The board’s hiring freeze, as several members attempted to explain to Sentance during a board work session two weeks ago, did not preclude him or his intervention team from hiring teachers and staff within MPS, nor did it prevent them from shuffling personnel. Instead, that hiring freeze was related specifically to administrative-level personnel.
“He doesn’t get it because he doesn’t want to get it,” said one board member, who asked not to be named. “If he’s not smart enough to figure out what we meant, that’s a bigger problem.”
Sentance certainly does not seem to be a dumb man, and even those who have vehement disagreements with his management style and decisions will readily say that he also has some terrific ideas.
“If you listen to what he says, some of what he wants to do is exactly what this state needs, especially in Montgomery,” Brewbaker said recently. “But he can’t do it alone, and that’s where he’s left himself. He’s made everyone angry.”
That is particularly true for the two Bells – Ella and Stephanie.
While it is Ella Bell’s discontent that will ultimately end Sentance’s tenure in Alabama, Stephanie Bell has been driving the train to lead him out of town for weeks.
In board meetings and work sessions, she has hammered Sentance repeatedly about miscommunications or a general lack of communication. She was visibly angry – a rarity for someone who is normally the textbook definition of composed – during discussions about the graduation rate snafu. She co-led the charge, along with board member Yvette Richardson, to get to the bottom of the smear campaign against Jefferson County superintendent Craig Pouncey, who, most everyone now agrees, was cheated out of the state superintendent’s job by a bogus ethics complaint.
It was quite the pivot for Stephanie Bell, given that she voted for Sentance to get the job last September and was likely the vote that brought him from Massachusetts to Montgomery. But Bell has grown increasingly frustrated with Sentance’s poor communication and his handling of the Montgomery intervention.
The Other Bell
Ella Bell did not vote for Sentance. She didn’t want him, felt he was unqualified and too far removed from the state to understand its political inner-workings. She has mostly been proven right about that, but she also accepted the early olive branch from Sentance – to takeover MPS – when it was offered.
Ella Bell has stuck by Sentance along the way, even as those with whom she normally sides have become disenchanted with him. She has defended him during public meetings and served as an occasional advisor privately. She does not pull punches about why.
“This man is finally providing the opportunity that has been so desperately needed in this community – an opportunity to give young children who have been forgotten a chance in life through a quality education,” Ella Bell said in an interview several weeks ago. “It’s too important an opportunity for us to pass up.”
And she has not. Ella Bell has been involved in the intervention, helping shield Sentance from criticism from MPS officials and Montgomery leaders.
It has not been an envious position, as Ella Bell has faced the wrath of many notable members of the black community, including four powerful pastors who believe the state takeover is removing local control of the city’s education system. They have said nasty things to Bell and threatened her political career.
Through it all, Bell stuck with Sentance, believing the intervention would change MPS, pump money into the district, bring about long-overdue changes and help children who she is tired of seeing suffer.
But her support of Sentance began to waver last month, when Bell started getting phone calls and talking with MPS teachers and principals. Already questioning some of the expensive outside hires that Sentance had made, she was told of other issues – like the $250,000 audit that consisted of the intervention teams spending less than an hour in some schools, failing to speak with some principals and not bothering to hear from county school board members. MPS officials and employees whose opinions Bell respects were upset and speaking out.
The big blow came late last month, at a board work session, where board members were set to hear a report from an internal investigation. Bell became so angry with Sentance’s handling of the matter, she decided she could no longer support him.
A source close to Bell said it was Sentance’s decision to hire former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Bernard Harwood that pushed her over the edge. With the hire of Harwood, the source said, it became clear to Bell that Sentance was protecting board member Mary Scott Hunter to the potential detriment of the entire department.
Hunter had been involved in the Pouncey smear campaign from the start, Meyer had found in his report, and that was not an unexpected finding for most on the board. After all, it was Hunter who asked Sentance to resubmit his name after he initially dropped his candidacy for superintendent. It was Hunter who took seriously the anonymous allegations against Pouncey. It was Hunter who arranged to have those allegations submitted to the Ethics Commission, even calling the executive director and putting pressure on him to rush the investigation.
To most on the board, Hunter’s involvement was clear. So, when Sentance hired Harwood – after allegedly telling Meyer that the report would end Hunter’s political career – Ella Bell took it as a sign that she couldn’t trust Sentance. And she let it be known that it was enough to end her support for him.
Following that debacle of a board work session, a source close to Sentance said the superintendent realized that he was spiraling towards termination without Ella Bell’s support. He began reaching out to a number of people, asking for advice and guidance.
Earlier this month, Sentance’s chief of staff, Dee Fowler, reached out to Ella Bell to ask what Sentance could do to save his job. A source familiar with that conversation said Bell told him that his only chance was to reach out to three board members – Stephanie Bell, Yvette Richardson and Jeff Newman – and ask them what he could do to make them happy.
If such an attempt was made by Sentance, it carried little weight. Last week, just two weeks into her tenure as board vice-president, Stephanie Bell unexpectedly sent superintendent evaluation forms to all board members, asking that they have them completed by the end of the week. A board meeting is set for Tuesday, at which the state board is expected to take up the matter of Sentance’s evaluation.
If Tuesday isn’t the end for him, the end will almost certainly be in sight. A source close to the board said that if Sentance’s termination is brought up Tuesday, it would pass easily. Most of the board members are simply tired of the drama – tired of hearing from teachers and principals and county superintendents who have unanswered questions, tired of hearing from state department workers who have been brushed aside or otherwise put out by Sentance gruff management style, tired of hearing from lawmakers wondering just what in the hell is going on and tired of having their own questions unanswered and their directives ignored.
They want it over with. And at this point, the votes are there to do it.
Last week, Ella Bell confided in a source that she told Fowler during their phone call that at this point, if Sentance can’t make significant progress in appeasing the board, “he’ll be back in Massachusetts by Labor Day.”