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The downfall of Michael Sentance

Josh Moon

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Alabama Superintendent Michael Sentance

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.

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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 Intervention

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.

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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.

The End

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.”

 

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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Tuberville calls for term limits, balanced budget and lobbying reform

Tuberville has also made a major media buy across the state to trumpet this message.

Brandon Moseley

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Republican Senate candidate Tommy Tuberville (TUBERVILLE CAMPAIGN)

Senate candidate Tommy Tuberville’s campaign began emphasizing key structural reforms that the Republican nominee hopes to advance if elected to the U.S. Senate including congressional term limits, withholding lawmakers’ paychecks unless a balanced budget is passed and a ban on former officials becoming lobbyists.

“Only an outsider like me can help President Trump drain the Swamp, and any of the proposals outlined in this ad will begin the process of pulling the plug,” Tuberville said in a statement. “Doug Jones has had his chance, and he failed our state, so now it’s time to elect a senator who will work to fundamentally change the way that Washington operates.”

Tuberville has also made a major media buy across the state to trumpet this message.

“You know Washington politicians could learn a lot from the folks in small town Alabama, but Doug Jones … he’s too liberal to teach them,” Tuberville added.

Polls consistently show that term limits are popular with people across both political parties, but the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that imposing term limits would be adding a qualification to be a member of Congress and that can only be done by constitutional amendment.

It is an unspoken truth that when Americans send someone to Congress they never come back. They either keep getting re-elected like Alabama’s own Sen. Richard Shelby, who is in his sixth term in the Senate after four terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. On the other hand, they may become lobbyists getting paid to influence their colleagues on behalf of corporations, foreign governments or some well funded non-government organization.

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Tuberville said he would ban that practice.

A balanced budget amendment almost passed in the 1980s and again in the 1990s.

Since that failure, Congress has increasingly passed bigger and bigger budget deficits. The U.S. government borrowed more money during the eight years of President George W. Bush’s presidency than the government had borrowed in the first 224 years of the country combined.

President Barack Obama followed and the TARP program propped up the post-Great Recession economy. Rather than cutting the deficit, President Donald Trump invested billions in the military and a tax cut without cutting domestic spending. The 2020 coronavirus crisis has further grown the budget.

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The government has borrowed trillions to prop up the economy and provide stimulus while investing billions into medical research and treating the virus victims. Congress is currently debating a fifth stimulus package that would add more to the deficit.

Both a balanced budget amendment and a term limits amendment would have to be ratified by the states if passed by Congress. Tuberville is challenging incumbent Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama.

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House passes General Fund Budget

Brandon Moseley

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By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter

The Alabama House of Representatives passed the state General Fund Budget on Tuesday.

The General Fund Budget for the 2019 fiscal year is Senate Bill 178. It is sponsored by Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Montrose. State Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, carried the budget on the House floor. Clouse chairs the House Ways and Means General Fund Committee.

Clouse said, “Last year we monetized the BP settlement money and held over $97 million to this year.”

Clouse said that the state is still trying to come up with a solution to the federal lawsuit over the state prisons. The Governor’s Office has made some progress after she took over from Gov. Robert Bentley. The supplemental we just passed added $30 million to prisons.

The budget adds $50 million to the Department of Corrections.

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Clouse said that the budget increased the money for prisons by $55,680,000 and includes $4.8 million to buy the privately-owned prison facility in Perry County.

Clouse said that the budget raises funding for the judicial system and raises the appropriation for the Forensic Sciences to $11.7 million.

The House passed a committee substitute so the Senate is either going to have to concur with the changes made by the House or a conference committee will have to be appointed. Clouse told reporters that he hoped that it did not have to go to conference.

Clouse said that the budget had added $860,000 to hire more Juvenile Probation Officers. After talking to officials with the court system that was cut in half in the amendment. The amendment also includes some wording the arbiters in the court lawsuit think we need.

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The state General Fund Budget, SB178, passed 98-1.

Both budgets have now passed the Alabama House of Representatives.

The 2019 fiscal year begins on Oct. 1, 2018.

In addition to the SGF, the House also passed a supplemental appropriation for the current 2018 budget year. SB175 is also sponsored by Pittman and was carried by Clouse on the floor of the House.

SB175 includes $30 million in additional 2018 money for the Department of Corrections. The Departmental Emergency Fund, the Examiners of Public Accounts, the Insurance Department and Forensic Sciences received additional money.

Clouse said, “We knew dealing with the federal lawsuit was going to be expensive. We are adding $80 million to the Department of Corrections.”

State Representative Johnny Mack Morrow, R-Red Bay, said that state Department of Forensics was cut from $14 million to $9 million. “Why are we adding money for DA and courts if we don’t have money for forensics to provide evidence? if there is any agency in law enforcement or the court system that should be funded it is Forensics.”

The supplemental 2018 appropriation passed 80 to 1.

The House also passed SB203. It was sponsored by Pittman and was carried in the House by State Rep. Ken Johnson, R-Moulton. It raises securities and registration fees for agents and investment advisors. It increases the filing fees for certain management investment companies. Johnson said that those fees had not been adjusted since 2009.

The House also passed SB176, which is an annual appropriation for the Coalition Against Domestic Violence. The bill requires that the agency have an operations plan, audited financial statement, and quarterly and end of year reports. SB176 is sponsored by Pittman and was carried on the House floor by State Rep. Elaine Beech, D-Chatham.

The House passed Senate Bill 185 which gives state employees a cost of living increase in the 2019 budget beginning on October 1. It was sponsored by Sen. Clyde Chambliss, R-Prattville and was being carried on the House floor by state Rep. Dimitri Polizos, R-Montgomery.

Polizos said that this was the first raise for non-education state employees in nine years. It is a 3 percent raise.

SB185 passed 101-0.

Senate Bill 215 gives retired state employees a one time bonus check. SB215 is sponsored by Senator Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, and was carried on the House floor by state Rep. Kerry Rich, R-Guntersville.

Rich said that retired employees will get a bonus $1  for every month that they worked for the state. For employees who retired with 25 years of service that will be a $300 one time bonus. A 20-year retiree would get $240 and a 35-year employee would get $420.

SB215 passed the House 87-0.

The House passed Senate Bill 231, which is the appropriation bill increase amount to the Emergency Forest Fire and Insect and Disease Fund. SB231 is sponsored by Sen. Steve Livingston, R-Scottsboro, and was carried on the House floor by state Rep. Kyle South, R-Fayette.

State Rep. Elaine Beech, D-Chathom, said, “Thank you for bringing this bill my district is full of trees and you never know when a forest fire will hit.

SB231 passed 87-2.

The state of Alabama is unique among the states in that most of the money is earmarked for specific purposes allowing the Legislature little year-to-year flexibility in moving funds around.

The SGF includes appropriations for the Alabama Medicaid Agency, the courts, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, the Alabama Department of Corrections, mental health, and most state agencies that are no education related. The Alabama Department of Transportation gets their funding mostly from state fuel taxes.

The Legislature also gives ALEA a portion of the gas taxes. K-12 education, the two year college system, and all the universities get their state support from the education trust fund (ETF) budget. There are also billions of dollars in revenue that are earmarked for a variety of purposes that does not show up in the SGF or ETF budgets.

Examples of that include the Public Service Commission, which collects utility taxes from the industries that it regulates. The PSC is supported entirely by its own revenue streams and contributes $13 million to the SGF. The Secretary of State’s Office is entirely funded by its corporate filing and other fees and gets no SGF appropriation.

Clouse warned reporters that part of the reason this budget had so much money was due to the BP oil spill settlement that provided money for the 2018 budget and $97 million for the 2019 budget. Clouse said they elected to make a $13 million repayment to the Alabama Trust fund that was not due until 2020 but that is all that was held over for 2020.

Clouse predicted that the Legislature will have to make some hard decisions about revenue in next year’s session.

 

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Day Care bill delayed for second time on Senate floor, may be back Thursday

Sam Mattison

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By Samuel Mattison
Alabama Political Reporter

The day care bill, which would license certain day care centers in Alabama, was once again delayed on the state Senate floor after one lawmaker requested more information.

Its brief appearance Tuesday ended with state Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, saying a compromise had not yet been worked out with the bill’s detractors.

Alabama’s Senate has been hesitant to act on the legislation because of complaints of state Sen. Shay Shelnutt, R-Trussville, who has been an opponent of the bill since its introduction last year. The bill’s delay on Tuesday marks the second time its been taken off the Senate’s agenda.

The bill has had a rocky time in this year’s session, but the bill’s sponsor state Rep. Pebblin Warren, D-Tuskegee, said she is still confident about its passage out of the Legislature.

Warren, D-Tuskegee, filed the bill this session with the support of influential lawmakers including Gov. Kay Ivey, who told reporters last year that she though all day cares should be licensed.

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Mainly sparked by the death of 5-year-old boy in the care of a unlicensed day care worker, the bill had great momentum coming into this year’ session.

Despite the growing support from lawmakers, Religious groups had concerns that the bill would increase state-sponsored reach into religious day cares in churches and non-profit groups.

Spearheading the dissenters was Alabama Citizens Action Program, a conservative religious-based PAC.

Warren, proponents, and ALCAP announced a compromise to the bill while it was still in the Alabama House.

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Announced by ALCAP originally, the new bill was a weaker version in that it did not require that all day cares in the state be regulated. Instead, religious-based day cares would only need to be registered if they received federal funds. At a Senate committee meeting in February, Warren said a similar requirement was about to come from federal law in Congress.

The bill moved through the House in a overwhelming vote in favor of the proposal and passed unanimously out of a Senate committee a few weeks ago.

Warren, speaking to reporters after its passage from the House, said she was unsure if the bill would encounter resistance in the upper chamber.

It was the Senate that killed the daycare bill last year amid a cramped last day where senators took the bill off the floor. The bill may face similar complications this year, as lawmakers seem to be preparing to adjourn within a few weeks.

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Fantasy sports bill fails on Senate floor

Sam Mattison

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By Samuel Mattison
Alabama Political Reporter

Would-be Fantasy Sports players in Alabama will have to wait to legally play in the state following a Senate vote on Tuesday.

The Alabama Senate decisively killed a bill to exempt fantasy sports from the state’s prohibition on gambling.

Not even entertaining a debate on the Senate floor, the proposal was killed during a vote for the Budget Isolation Resolution, which is usually a formality vote preluding a debate.

Fantasy sports are contests where participants select players from real teams to compete on fantasy teams using the real-world players’ stats.

Since 2016, the practice has been illegal in Alabama following a legal decision by the Attorney General’s Office that categorized it as gambling.

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The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Paul Sanford, R-Huntsville, predicted the bill’s failure during a committee meeting two weeks ago, where the bill passed unanimously.

Sen. Paul Sanford speaks to reporters after a Senate Committee meeting on Feb. 28, 2018. (Samuel Mattison/APR)

Speaking to reporter’s after the committee meeting, Sanford said the decision to file the bill was mainly a philosophical belief that the practice shouldn’t be illegal.

Sanford, a fantasy sports player before its ban, said that fantasy sports are a way to bring people closer together and not a means to win money. The Huntsville senator is not seeking re-election.

The bill’s failure in the Senate follows its trajectory last year too. A similar version of the bill, also sponsored by Sanford, failed in the Senate during the final days of the 2017 Legislative Session.

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Since Sanford is retiring, it is unclear if the bill will even come back next session, or if it will even have a Senate sponsor.

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