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The Montgomery intervention: Lots of money, little change

Highschool students carrying out written task

By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter

A few hours after a State School Board meeting on Tuesday, Reginald Eggleston, the Chief Education Officer for Montgomery Public Schools, sent an email to several administrators to update them on a District personnel situation.

A few weeks earlier, the State School Board had placed a hiring freeze on State Superintendent Michael Sentance, preventing him from hiring anymore administrative-level personnel for the State’s intervention into 27 underperforming MPS schools. But on Monday, Sentance had fired back at the Board, citing an Attorney General’s opinion and claiming he had sole authority to manage the MPS intervention, including making all personnel moves.

After surviving a brutal Board meeting a day later, Sentance had almost immediately acted to thaw that freeze.

“(Sentence) has formally approved the employment of all central office personnel whose names were withdrawn from the July 18, 2017 MPS board meeting personnel report,” Eggleston wrote to his colleagues. “These individuals will begin work tomorrow.”

That personnel report contains an astonishing number of six-figure, and near-six-figure, salaries, mostly new hires within the MPS system. In total, 10 people on that report will now earn more than $100,000 – a significant increase from the pre-takeover payroll, MPS officials and board members told APR – and those figures don’t include existing high-dollar salaries for Eggleston, other MPS administrators or the State Department personnel (Eggleston is being paid more than $208,000 annually).

The influx of new hires – State Department officials said there are 31 new hires related to the MPS takeover – and their large salaries are just the start of the concerns MPS officials, county school board members and local leaders have in regards to the takeover.

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That takeover, they say, has not gone as promised. There has been little collaboration with local officials, little of the State money spent has gone towards hiring additional teachers, none of the State money has gone towards improving security at schools and there seems to be no plan in place to make any real improvements.

And now, less than two weeks until school starts, MPS officials are concerned that the intervention has actually placed the system in a worse position.

“You can quote me on this: It’s like Stevie Wonder is driving this bus,” Montgomery County School Board member Mary Briers said. “This is the worst thing that has ever happened to this system. Listen, everyone involved here knew we had problems, and we voted as a board, unanimously, to step aside and let them do this takeover. I voted for it because I thought it would mean an influx of money to hire more teachers and bring down the student-teacher ratios in all of our schools. I thought it would mean more security officers and safer schools. I thought it would mean more infrastructure. But what it’s meant is that some people got to hire their friends and the good ol’ boys are making money.”

There are two issues of primary concern for local officials: the increase in salaries, which they believe they’ll have to carry long after the state intervention team packs up, and the large amounts of money being paid to consultants to perform questionable jobs.

Copies of documents obtained by APR show ALSDE paid two firms more than $200,000 each – one to perform an audit of the system and the other to provide principals a week’s worth of professional development.

Several principals within MPS contacted APR to complain about the auditing process and accused the auditors of spending little time in schools and even less time speaking with teachers and principals.

Sentance defended the audits in a recent interview, saying it was similar to the audits used to judge charter schools in other states.

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To illustrate the sloppiness of the audit, one high school principal pointed to the audit for King Elementary, which states that the audit team, in order to reach its conclusions, interviewed the principal, assistant-principal and other administrators. Small problem: there is no assistant principal at King.

“See, those are the sorts of mistakes – and there are others like it in those forms – that your make when you have people doing a halfway, rush job,” said the principal, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity because he feared retribution. “They just copied and pasted a lot of stuff on these. Read them. They all sound the same.”

The State paid the firm Class Measures more than $256,000 to complete that audit.

It also paid more than $200,000, according to MPS officials, to an organization called Achievement Network to conduct professional development training. Achievement Network is essentially one person – Vaughn Thompson, a former principal and charter school leader who was banned from working in the New York City school system after admitting to misusing more than $9,000 in school funds and having an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate, according to The New York Post.

Thompson later went on to work in New Jersey and Memphis, but his presentation to Montgomery principals has not been well received.

“They’ve been calling me all day for two days now talking about this,” Briers said. “It’s just a waste of time for them, and a waste of money for the rest of us. Most of the principals in there have more experience than (Thompson).”

But by far the biggest beef local officials – a group that includes both school officials and local politicians, State lawmakers and local leaders – have with the takeover is the money being spent on new, administrative hires and inexplicable salary increases for existing employees.

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On the July 18, personnel report, for example, there are six positions labeled “principal lead,” with all six working under the newly-created chief education officer position. All six earn just under $110,000 annually.

The Chief Education Officer, Catherliene Williamson, earns nearly $116,000 annually. And the Chief Academic Officer, Stephen Bournes, earns $120,000 annually. The Chief of Staff to the Chief Education officer will be paid $115,000.

On the same personnel report, the hirings of several teachers are also listed. Just below a run of 10 administrators all earning at least $75,000 for non-classroom jobs, there’s Donielle Lepine, a BTW Magnet School math teacher making $38,342.

“We’ve got people who were caught having sex in a closet making over $100,000 a year, but teachers who make a difference for our kids are getting the same $38,000 – it’s disgusting,” said a Montgomery County board member who asked not to be named. She is referencing an embarrassing incident that occurred several years ago between an administrator and an assistant superintendent – the details of which have been kept from the public but were part of legal action and personnel matters within MPS.

“I don’t know how we can be expected to sustain these increases going forward,” the board member continued. “But we’re going to be expected to do that.”

And those increases are on top of a 10-percent pay bump that Sentance awarded all Montgomery principals – a move he was forced to make after originally, and inexplicably, offering three-year extensions and 10-percent increases to the principals only in the 27 underperforming MPS schools. After outrage from all sides, Sentance made the increases system-wide.

But that didn’t exactly have the desired effect, either.

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“We had some principals who were thinking about retiring, probably should have retired, who decided to stick around when he did that,” Briers said. “Because that can bump up their retirement money.”

And really, for Briers and others, it is those sort of simple, easy-to-see mistakes that are killing the takeover and turning it into something that’s much different than what local officials envisioned.

“Very few of us in this system are under the impression that things are great and we don’t need help,” Briers said. “We take a lot of criticism, and some of it we deserve, but we own our mistakes and we asked sincerely for help – not for us but for these kids who desperately need it. These people are wasting money – money that could be going to help these children. And I’m sick of it.”

 

Josh Moon
Written By

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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