By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter
The fight to fire State School Superintendent Michael Sentance rages on.
For the past week, State Board of Education members, an attorney for the Board, the Governor’s office and Sentance have been trading passive-aggressive emails, as they argue over a meeting.
That’s right. A meeting.
There’s a special called State Board meeting on Wednesday, which everyone seemed cool with until one entry appeared on the agenda: “Superintendent’s contract.”
Uh-oh, someone at the Business Council of Alabama probably said. Because Sentance is the BCA’s adopted darling, tasked with turning Alabama’s public education system into a more business-friendly, employee-producer.
Sentance didn’t start out to be that guy. He was from Massachusetts, and arrived here in the education graveyard with grand ideas of appropriately taxing citizens in order to implement necessary change and provide impoverished students with a fighting chance.
Unfortunately, he was hired by way of the dumbest conspiracy to ever be successful, and so he never got the chance to have his pie-in-the-sky funding dreams shattered by Alabama’s usual brand of racism and indifference. Long before that could happen, Sentance was forced to sell out in order to get the business backing necessary to maybe keep his job.
And so, here we are.
In less than a year, Sentance and his distrust of everyone who has previously held a job at the Alabama State Department of Education, has taken an outfit that wasn’t exactly doing a bang-up job and turned it into a ramblin’ wreck that would rival the Trump administration.
Every week, there’s another mini-disaster piled onto the disaster heap. And despite promises by Sentance to do better, to listen more, to stop criticizing teachers all the time, to communicate better with everyone, to stop berating people for no good reason and to at least allow people to put out the fires before he sets the fire trucks ablaze, things seem to be getting worse instead of better.
So, a majority of the School Board wants to, as Board member Ella Bell said to a friend, send Sentance “back to Massachusetts by Labor Day.”
That’s what the hoopla over Wednesday’s meeting is about.
The Board wants to fire Sentance. Some powerful business interests, including some with influence in the Governor’s office, want to keep him.
That led Gov. Kay Ivey’s general counsel Bryan Taylor to write a letter to board members late last week telling them that Wednesday’s meeting was likely illegal because it wasn’t called in accordance with the law.
According to Taylor’s letter, only the Governor or Superintendent can schedule a special-called meeting, and Board rules state that the agenda must be presented seven days prior to the meeting. In addition, the Governor’s office claimed the meeting was not properly called during its previous meeting, as required, and that placing Sentance’s contract on the agenda was improper.
Board attorney Lewis Gillis fired back at Taylor, saying Taylor had failed to quote the entire statute and noted that the law allows for meetings to be set by the board when in official setting, which it did during its last work session. He also noted that the agenda had been circulated more than a week before, and that the “personnel” item on that agenda allowed for Sentance’s contract to be added.
But that, of course, didn’t deter Taylor or the rest of governor’s legal staff. On Monday afternoon, the media was treated to an off-the-record chat with chief deputy legal counsel Will Parker.
It did not go smoothly.
Probably because the poor guys forced to handle the call were in an impossible situation – left hanging out there like that goat in the first “Jurassic Park” movie.
Because the central point of Taylor’s letter is absurd.
Nearly every special-called SBOE meeting has been scheduled – and since state law only calls for one meeting per year, they’re almost all “special” meetings – in the same manner in which Wednesday’s meeting was. Which means that if Taylor’s argument is correct, every special meeting not called by the Governor or Superintendent, in the history of the SBOE, would be illegal. And the actions taken at those meetings – hirings, firings, code changes, program implementations and personnel moves – could be open to legal challenge.
I asked the Governor’s office about this. Their response was it’s not their place to determine the legality of SBOE meetings. Which is an odd response, given that they’ve issued a letter and held a teleconference in the past four days on the legality of SBOE meetings.
But really, at this point, I’m beyond trying to make sense of things.
What I do know is there will probably be a meeting on Wednesday at which Sentance will be handed his walking papers.
I say “probably” because early on Monday, Sentance sent a letter to board members informing them that in light of Taylor’s letter, he was gonna go ahead and cancel Wednesday’s meeting. Which feels a bit like the death row inmate writing to cancel the execution.
Board Vice President Stephanie Bell was none too happy about that, saying “He apparently doesn’t know that he works for us, not the other way around.” But she wasn’t sure just where her other Board members stood on the matter, and she wanted to get in touch with them to make sure they were still comfortable with meeting on Wednesday.
Whatever they decide, this can’t go on.
Good ideas or not, Sentance has been an unmitigated disaster, mostly because he refuses to trust anyone with a 334 phone number. Minor issues have become raging wild fires because he couldn’t get advice or help from people who know the local systems and laws, who have experience working in this State.
There is no bigger example of this than in Montgomery, where a promise to flood the struggling system with resources six months ago instead turned into a flood of high-dollar administrators. And the kids got … well, when the doors opened at six schools last week, some classrooms, including two elementary school classrooms, had more than 35 students.
This fight has to end so the right one can begin.
Opinion | Groupthink voting is now literally killing us
I have many friends who can tell you the names of the offensive linemen who started last year for their favorite college football team. And most of them can also tell you who their backups are.
Very few of these people can name off their state senator, their state representative, the city councilmen or their county commissioners. I’d bet an embarrassing percentage couldn’t tell you who their U.S. senators and congressmen are.
And today, that disparity in knowledge is killing us.
As the coronavirus rips through this country, and as it rips through this mostly hospital-less state, it is exposing the absolute buffoons who have been elected to public office. Folks who few of us would allow to walk our dogs are being forced to confront an unprecedented national crisis, and they are failing miserably.
Nowhere is that more true than in the state of Alabama.
Where our governor hasn’t taken a live question from media or scared-to-death voters in going on a month now. Where our House leader and Senate president have apparently been sheltering in place in a bunker in the hills. Where the only people with plans and ideas and straight talk are the powerless lieutenant governor and the super-minority party.
And where we still — STILL! — are left without a shelter-in-place order.
From one end of this state to the other, the people on the frontlines of this crisis are screaming for help. They’ve been sounding alarms for weeks now, and they’ve caught the attention of no one in state leadership, it seems.
If not for this state’s proactive mayors, God only knows what shape we’d be in right now. Behind the scenes, those mayors — Randall Woodfin in Birmingham, Walt Maddox in Tuscaloosa, Steven Reed in Montgomery, Tommy Battle in Huntsville and Sandy Stimpson in Mobile, along with others — have been communicating with each other, bouncing ideas of one another and sharing plans.
We will never know how many lives they’ve saved by taking proactive measures before their state government did — and in a couple of cases, in defiance of state leaders — but it will be many.
As for our state leaders, hopefully this catastrophic failure will be a wake-up call for Alabama voters. But I have my doubts.
And the reason I have my doubts is what I mentioned above — too many people simply don’t place a value on educated voting.
Don’t get me wrong. These are not dumb people. It’s not that they’re too stupid to understand the issues that affect their lives and select a person who would best represent their interests. They’re absolutely smart enough to do that.
But they don’t want to.
They go to work. They take care of their kids and their house. They try to get some exercise in. And then they’d like to watch a ballgame and have a decent time.
And so, voting — if they vote at all — becomes a group-think exercise in which most of these people just vote like their friends. They follow their lead and vote for the popular candidate, who is only popular for superficial reasons.
They’re swayed by cheesy pandering using religious issues or guns or racism or some phony patriotism. Simple pitches work best, because they’re not really paying attention anyway.
That’s why the guy who offers up a detailed explanation for how taking slightly more from you in tax dollars will actually put considerably more money in your pocket on the back side always loses out to the “conservative” who just says, “No new taxes; I’mma let you keep yo money.”
This dumb pitch works on even people who aren’t dumb simply because they’re not interested enough to appropriately weigh the two arguments.
The growth of social media has made things worse. Now, in a matter of 15 minutes, the average person in Alabama can scroll through 100 political memes about libtards and MAGA from their friends, and they’re not going to be on the outside of the circle looking in. They want to laugh too. They want to be part of the group.
But very few are laughing now.
Because inevitably, what that group-think voting does is remove the requirement that a candidate actually try. That a candidate present an understanding of the complicated issues and then present solutions to solve them. That a candidate demonstrate an ability to think on his/her feet. That a candidate demonstrate any aptitude for problem solving.
You’ll do things like elect a woman governor who refused to debate any challenger.
When you know you’ve got the election in the bag simply because you’re running for the right party, who needs to try?
And when you’re voting without demanding that effort — and Alabamians have been doing so for decades now — you’re assuring that incompetent, unprepared, useless politicians are going to be put into positions of power.
On a good day, those sorts of politicians are a burden on all of us. On really bad days, like we’re experiencing now, they’re basically grim reapers.
It would be nice if on the other side of this crisis we placed a higher premium on educated voting that produces better, more qualified public officials.
But given our history, I have my doubts.
Opinion | Facing each day, finding hope
People text me news tips all the time. Most of them are unfounded rumors. I’m sure my other colleagues at Alabama Political Reporter get their share.
We should never simply pass on a rumor or, as Donald Trump says, “fake” news. And the vast majority of us in journalism understand our responsibility in this.
But if we have a person in authority telling us something credible, whether it be about the COVID-19 pandemic or a completely unrelated issue, on-the-record or off, we’re careless if we don’t start looking into it. Often, these embryonic stories go nowhere. Sometimes, they give birth to real news.
All of these tips are valuable, even the clearly obvious ones that fall simply under “unfounded rumor” or “conspiracy theory.” We have an obligation to stop a story if it’s wrong, or to intervene in the telling of that story if somebody is spreading it on social media or the mainstream media.
Lately, I’ve been getting texts and videos on unfounded cures for the novel coronavirus. I’m going to leave that up to the scientists and doctors. I tell stories and write informed opinion; I don’t have much of a brain for science and math on my own.
As I’ve often said, I’m kind of a one-trick pony: I speak and write in the only language I know. And writing, really, is all I know. I can become a half-hour expert if I have to, cramming credible research into a short amount of time so I can produce a story.
I do make mistakes, though, and I try to correct them as quickly as possible when I do.
When I’m teaching one of my English or Honors classes at UAB and a student asks a question I can’t answer on the spot, I just admit it. Then I promise to look into the question so that I can get the student an answer. And then I do.
I’ve been corrected by a student in real time in class. The Internet is right there, on their smartphone or their smartpad or their laptop. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, I don’t get flustered. I get smarter.
I’m also far more disciplined on social media than I once was. If we don’t learn from our mistakes, we don’t learn.
I hope, as a nation, we learn from the huge mistake we made when the coronavirus pandemic first started. We had two months to prepare before it got out of control in the United States and Alabama. It’s not as if the experts and intelligence agencies didn’t send a “heads-up” to the White House months ago. Yet, we were terribly, irresponsibly unprepared for this, and people have died because of that.
We have a president ill-equipped to instill confidence and calm into most of the people of his nation. We have a governor and a controlling political party that often stand around seemingly twiddling their thumbs.
But, then, appearances can be deceiving.
APR Editor in Chief Bill Britt reported Wednesday that a lot more is going on behind the scenes in Alabama than we’re aware of.
Writes Britt: “The Governor’s office is working in partnership with the state’s universities, businesses and others in an ongoing battle to curb the COVID-19 outbreak in the state.
“In times of crisis governments always stumble getting out of the gate; that’s what happens.
“The work presently being coordinated by the Governor’s staff and volunteers is not currently seen by the general public, but the efforts of these groups will affect the state now and in the future.”
Yes, we want to know our government is working to help end what very well may be the biggest crisis in generations.
We are a social society, and we want to be with our friends, and to take part in the organizations we support, and to hold an election this year. We want to attend sporting events and concerts and the symphony and the theatre.
The reality is that we don’t know how long this “new normal”will last. Axios reported this week that the NFL and college football seasons now are in jeopardy. We’re already without any of the spring and summer sports. The Olympics has been moved to next year, so Birmingham, the 2021 host of the World Gameswill now host them in 2022.
Still, thank God we live in a city and state that has a world-class research university, strong tech businesses, and top-notch hospitals to help find cures and treat people sickened from COVID-19.
I passed by one of our hospitals in Birmingham this week, and a big sign out front said: “Heroes Work Here.”
And they do.
UPDATE: Last week, I interviewed Pamela Franco, who was at University Hospital with a pretty vicious case of COVID-19. She is recovering and was released from the hospital over last weekend. She and her fiancé, Tim Stephens, are continuing to improve in quarantine at their home on Birmingham’s Southside. We wish them all the best.
Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writes a column each week for Alabama Political Reporter. Email: [email protected]
Opinion | 1964 Goldwater landslide was beginning of Republican dominance in the South
Our primary runoffs have been postponed until July 14, 2020. It was a wise and prudent decision by Secretary of State John Merrill and Gov. Kay Ivey. Most voters are older and you are asking them to come out and vote and at the same time stay home.
The main event will be the GOP runoff for the U.S. Senate. The two combatants, Jeff Sessions and Tommy Tuberville, will now square off in the middle of a hot Alabama summer. The winner will be heavily favored to go to Washington. We are a very reliably Republican state especially in a presidential election year.
Many of you have asked, “When did Alabama become a dominant one–party Republican state?” Well it all began in the Presidential year of 1964. The 1964 election was the turning point when the Deep South states of Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Louisiana and South Carolina voted for Barry Goldwater and never looked back. It was the race issue that won southerners over for Goldwater. The Republican Party captured the race issue that year and have never let go of it.
The South which was known as the “Solid South” for more than six decades, because we were solidly Democratic, are today known as the “Solid South” because we are solidly Republican.Presidential candidates ignore us during the campaign because it is a foregone conclusion that we will vote Republican, just as presidential candidates ignored us for the first 60 years of the 20th Century, because it was a foregone conclusion that we were going to vote Democratic.
George Wallace had ridden the race issue into the Governor’s office in 1962. It had reached a fever pitch in 1964. Democratic President, Lyndon Johnson, had passed sweeping Civil Rights legislation which white southerners detested.
The only non-southern senator to oppose the Civil Rights legislation was Republican Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona. When the Republican Party met at the old Cow Palace in San Francisco, they nominated Goldwater as their 1964 presidential candidate. Johnson annihilated him, nationwide, but Goldwater won the South in a landslide.
Before that fall day in November of 1964, there was no Republican Party in Alabama. There were no Republican officeholders. There was no Republican primary. Republicans chose their candidates in backroom conventions. Except for a few Lincoln Republicans in the hill counties, it was hard getting a white Alabamian even to admit they were Republican.
That all changed in 1964. Goldwater and the Republicans became identified with segregation and the white Southern voter fled the Democratic Party en masse. As the Fall election of 1964 approached the talk in the country stores around Alabama was that a good many good ole boys were going to vote straight Republican even if their daddies did turn over in their graves. Enterprising local bottling companies got into the debate and filled up drink boxes in the country stores labeled Johnson Juice and Gold Water. The Gold Water was outselling the Johnson Juice 3-to-1.
Alabamians not only voted for Barry Goldwater but also pulled the straight Republican lever out of anger towards Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights agenda. Most of Alabama’s eight-member Congressional delegation, with more than 100 years of seniority was wiped out by straight ticket Republican voting on that November 1964 day.
Earlier that year, Lyndon B. Johnson, the toughest, crudest, most corrupt and yes most effective man to ever serve in the White House, made a profound statement. As he signed the Civil Rights Bill he had pushed through Congress, he looked over at the great Southern Lion, Richard Russell of Georgia, and as Senator Russell glared at Johnson with his steel stare, Lyndon said, “I just signed the South over to the Republican Party for the next 60 years.” Johnson’s words were prophetic.
Folks, beginning with the 1964 election, there have been 17 presidential elections counting this year. If you assume that Donald Trump carries our state in November, that is a safe assumption, Alabama has voted for the Republican nominee 16 out of 17 elections over the past 56 years. Georgia peanut farmer, Jimmy Carter, is the only interloper for the Democrats in 1976.
The U.S. Senate seat up this year was first won by a Republican in 1996. That Republican was Jeff Sessions.
So folks, in 1964, Alabama became a Republican state and it happened in what was called the Southern Republican “Goldwater Landslide.”
See you next week.
Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He served 16 years in the state legislature. Steve may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.
Opinion | The “mainstream media” has been right all along
The mainstream media is just blowing this whole coronavirus thing out of proportion!
Have you heard that one? Possibly from a guy standing behind a podium that has the presidential seal attached to it? Or from one of your friends or family members? Or maybe you believe it yourself.
It’s all “the mainstream media,” the story goes.
They’re the ones sensationalizing this virus that kills less people than car wrecks and seasonal flu. “The mainstream media” is whipping everyone into a frenzy, causing people to go buy up all the toilet paper and bottled water — all over a virus that has a 99-percent recovery rate. It’s the mainstream media’s fault that businesses are being closed and shelter-in-place orders are being needlessly issued by knee-jerk politicians.
Pfft. Stupid mainstream media.
Except, one small thing: “The mainstream media” — whatever faceless, unidentifiable group of journalists to which you have assigned that designation — have been right.
The mainstream folks who work for your local newspapers and TV stations and online news outlets, and for the major national outlets, such as the New York Times, Washington Post and others, have provided the public with incredibly accurate information about this virus.
I don’t want to spend too much time singing our praises here, but APR is a perfect example of this. The collection of information compiled by our reporters has been better, more informative and far more accurate than even the information supplied by the Alabama Department of Public Health. I’ve heard personally from several lawmakers who check what they’re being told by the governor’s office and ADPH against what we’re reporting.
Other outlets in this state are doing similar work and providing their local communities with relevant, specific information and tells the story of this crisis in the places they live.
The reason mainstream outlets have been so successful and accurate in telling this story is mostly because we’ve done nothing but quote and cite the comments and work of reputable, respected doctors and scientists. We have presented you with their projections, their analyses, their breakdowns and their advice.
Back in early February, when President Pompous was telling everyone not to worry, that all is well and that soon we’d be “down to zero cases,” the mainstream media, citing doctors and health experts, told you that was crazy talk and that a real crisis was approaching this country. That soon we should expect a new normal.
I think we know who was right about that one.
As President My Uncle Was A Super-Genius was telling you that one day this will just disappear, the mainstream media was telling you to wash your hands, stay inside and avoid crowds. Because doing so could prevent a scenario in which American hospitals were overrun with patients, depleting our limited supply of ventilators. (The first ventilator story I can find came way back in January.)
And it was the mainstream media that first told you to expect a death toll that reaches into the six figures, and possibly beyond.
Of course, like all things, the reality of the crisis — and the facts and verifiable information — was lost in the political fight, and in the disinformation campaign required to prop up the dumbest presidential administration in history.
Because the president took, per usual, such an anti-science, anti-facts position from the outset, any confirmation of the facts that were long ago predicted by the doctors and scientists, and adopted by the mainstream media and most progressive politicians, had to be debunked or reframed in a manner that undercut the severity of the virus or the potential for death.
And so, on everyone’s favorite phony news network, there came an endless stream of false equivalencies and partial information — all of which were adopted by most Republicans and spread throughout their social media worlds — to the point that those who live within the conservative news bubble have been left believing that the entire country has been shut down by a simple, flu-like virus that is less deadly than seasonal flu and could probably be treated with aquarium cleaner.
And that the shutdown is being carried out, of course, to tear down the economy (that Obama built and Trump takes credit for) in the hopes of defeating an incumbent president (that had the worst approval ratings in history and trailed by double digits in the polls — including in swing states — to the presumptive Democratic nominee).
It’s so stupid it hurts. And that’s actually true this time.
The love that half of America has for being told what they want to hear instead of the actual news is now literally causing death and illness. And it’s going to get worse.
Even ol’ President Open By Easter is now conceding that this virus will likely kill upwards of 100,000 Americans in the short term, and maybe many more. Somehow, in his mind, that is a victory for him.
In reality, there are no victories. Not for the people of this country. Not for the mainstream media. And certainly not for the buffoons who have again discounted science and doctors to adopt and espouse a viewpoint built around political advantage and personal ignorance.
In the coming months, as the reality of this unprecedented disaster unfolds, it should not be lost that so much of it could have been avoided if the American president had relied on facts and science and if many in the American public hadn’t been so quick to choose political preference over hard news.
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Growth of Alabama COVID-19 cases looks a lot like Louisiana. That should worry us
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Education2 days ago
State Superintendent Mackey addresses concerns about plans for public schools
Governor17 hours ago
Gov. Kay Ivey orders Alabama to stay at home as cases near 1,500
National3 days ago
As cases surpass 1,100 in Alabama, still no “stay-at-home” order