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Alabama education: Lying, screaming and gavel banging

By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter

I think we might be doing education wrong.

If Tuesday was an indication, we certainly could be doing it better. Because Tuesday, man … it was … awful? An embarrassment? A colossal disservice to taxpayers?

All of the above.

It started with one of the cattiest, oddest board meetings in recent history and ended with a legislative committee hearing that continued to expose the dumbest, sloppiest executed conspiracy of all time.

Let us begin with the former.

Here’s the best way to describe the tone of that meeting: At one point, board vice-president Stephanie Bell began banging a gavel any time board member Mary Scott Hunter attempted to speak.

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Yeah, it was like that.

But that level of vitriol wasn’t exactly a surprise. Hunter had been going after Bell for the better part of a week, following Bell’s decision to add a surprise evaluation of superintendent Michael Sentance to the meeting agenda.

Hunter flatly refused to participate in the evaluation and spent much of the weekend talking to media outlets about how terrible and unfair it was to poor ol’ Sentance. (You should probably store this image of Hunter discussing unfair processes for when we get to Part 2 of this embarrassing day.)

Anyway, everyone knew long before the meeting started that Hunter and Bell were going to disagree, because when the whole thing is boiled down, they want different things.

Bell, and at least five other board members, want to fire Sentance.

Hunter, and maybe Betty Peters if Sentance will promise to repeal Common Core and hire some guidance counselors, want to keep Sentance.

And off they went on a shade-throwing extravaganza that would make one of those “Real Housewives of (wherever)” shows jealous.

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To be certain, there’s nothing quite like a proper southern lady tossing about shade, either. There’s just something about the drawl tinged with insincere sweetness that makes merely saying the other person’s name – Ms. Huntahhh … — so condescending it would make a British royal feel shame.

Somewhere in the midst of that spectacle, it was revealed that Sentance had scored around a 1 on much of his evaluation. If you’re wondering, 1 was the worst and 3 was the highest.

Think of it like this: If Michael Sentance were a school, under the Alabama Accountability Act, students could now transfer out of him.

Except, because this is Alabama, there was an accounting error. Hunter was told that failing to fill out the evaluation of Sentance would lead to scores of 0 being logged for her response. So, to get the average scores for each category, attorneys for the board – and why the board needed attorneys to do basic math is an issue we should probably discuss at some point – used a divisor of 8 instead of 7.

Bell agreed to recalculate the scores later and the updated evaluation was placed on the State Department of Education’s website late Tuesday evening. Sentance went from a 1 to 1.3. (I’m exaggerating the awfulness of his averaged score – it was probably somewhere around 1.6, since he only scored 2 or higher in four of 37 categories.)

Despite the protests of Hunter, the board overwhelmingly voted to accept the results of the evaluation and give Sentance an opportunity to respond by the next scheduled meeting in August.

Sources close to the board told APR on Tuesday that the board majority hopes this jumpstarts plans for a negotiated resignation for Sentance. Prior to an executive session, board attorney Lewis Gillis mentioned that one possible legal reason for the executive session was to discuss mediation or negotiations that might emerge.

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If/when Sentance does head back to Massachusetts, there will be a search for a new superintendent. And we can only hope that search goes as smoothly as the last one.

Because it was the subject of legislative committee hearing on Tuesday. Again.

The bipartisan committee, co-chaired by Sens. Gerald Dial and Quinton Ross, took on the unenviable task of getting to the bottom of the dumbest conspiracy in the history of Alabama public education – the smear job of Jefferson County superintendent Craig Pouncey.

Pouncey, a longtime educator in the state, was the clear frontrunner for the state superintendent job when an anonymous letter claiming he misused state resources to complete his dissertation was presented to board members.

Hunter was the only board member to take it seriously, and she took it way seriously. She gave it to interim superintendent Philip Cleveland and phoned the Ethics Commission to let them know about it. This was after she had convinced ALSDE attorney Juliana Dean to call Sentance, who had withdrawn his name from consideration for the job, and tell him to jump back in the fray.

Hunter then went down to a BCA conference in Point Clear and told anyone who would listen – including Dial and at least seven other lawmakers – that Pouncey had “ethics problems.”

And then everyone involved tried to act like it was normal that anonymous allegations of a seven-year-old made-up incident resulted in a letter from the Ethics Commission confirming an investigation and naming Pouncey in one freakin’ day.

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See? It’s so dumb it hurts.

But that didn’t stop Dean and Hunter from once again rolling into a seventh-floor conference room and pretending to be outraged by the suggestions that they undermined Pouncey’s candidacy. And they both made it a point to mention that they were close friends with good ol’ Craig.

By the end of it, Dial, Ross and Rep. Merika Coleman had Hunter and Dean so twisted up by asking basic questions related to the convoluted timeline they presented that it was hard to watch.

Hunter’s testimony was particularly hard to watch, as Dial flatly accused her of lying to the committee and Ross and Coleman established that her reasoning for calling the Ethics Commission about the letter – to get guidance concerning what she should do with it – made no sense, since she had already given the letter to Cleveland by that time.

There was a new twist, however. Dial and his committee focused their questions to Hunter and Dean – two attorneys – on matters of legal ethics. The intent, obviously, was to move this matter before the state bar association for review – a move Dial said at the end of the hearing that he would make.

And then everyone went home. And not a whole lot had changed.

Except that we all lost a little more faith in the whole bunch.

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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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