By Rep. Craig Ford
On Thursday, the State Board of Education will meet to discuss terminating State Superintendent Michael Sentance’s contract.
Politics has surrounded Sentance’s time in Alabama, starting even before he was hired. And if the Board decides to fire him, his supporters will claim that politics was the driving factor.
Sentance was the preferred choice of those who support charter schools and diverting tax dollars away from public schools to fund scholarships for private schools. And with his job on the line, most – if not all – of those who have publicly supported him have been those who support charter schools and the Accountability Act scholarship program.
If Sentance is fired, his supporters will blame the “education establishment” for opposing anyone who wants change. In fact, they’ve already had some editorials published in local papers.
But politics and opinions about education policy shouldn’t have anything to do with whether Sentance gets to keep his job. The time for that debate was before he was hired. Now he is a state employee, and he should be judged solely by how he has conducted himself as an employee.
So let’s look at this case based solely on the merits.
The first charge against Sentance comes from his attempt to get rid of the Office of Career Technical Education and Workforce Development, and place it under the Office of Academic Affairs. That move would have also meant eliminating the deputy superintendent position that is in charge of Career Tech Education.
Sentance made these plans without the consent of the Board, or even taking the time to tell the Board members what he was doing. When his plans became public, the Board members were caught by surprise when their offices started getting calls from the press and concerned educators demanding answers that Board members didn’t have because they had been left in the dark.
A second charge against Sentance comes from when the Department of Education posted incorrect graduation numbers on their website, once again catching Board members and school administrators off guard when they began getting calls from parents and the press. Sentance failed to take responsibility, and instead he blamed his staff.
While a staff member may have been responsible for the error, when you are the person in charge, the buck stops with you. Sentance never really took responsibility for the error, and that is unacceptable.
The third charge against Sentance comes from his handling of the state takeover of the Montgomery Public School system. When Board members began to get questions and phone calls about the takeover, they requested a list of names, titles, dates of hire and current salaries and sources of salary funding connected to the Montgomery school intervention.
This request was reasonable, but Sentance’s response was not. His exact words were, “…you have sought to interject yourself again into the operations of the district, it is time to stop.”
In other words, he told the Board members to mind their own business and get out of his way.
I own an insurance agency. If I had an office manager who began making drastic changes to how my office worked without telling me, then found out that office manager had allowed my customers to be given false information and blamed other employees instead of taking responsibility, and then, when I confronted that office manager, they told me to stop questioning them and get out of their way, that office manager would be fired immediately.
But there’s a fourth charge against Sentance: mismanaging public funds.
Recently, the news broke that the Department of Education is going to be over budget by at least $3 million, and that $3 million happens to coincide with a $2.9 million spike in salary expenses for the coming year. Most of that salary spike comes from consultants and administrators he hired as a part of the Montgomery school system takeover, as well as other high-level hires he made at the state Department of Education.
So, Sentance has failed to communicate adequately with his employer, been disrespectful and insubordinate to his employer, failed to take responsibility for his office’s actions and mismanaged public funds.
Whatever your thoughts are about education reform and charter schools, there is no denying that Sentance deserves to be fired based solely on these failures as an employee.
I do not sit on the Board of Education, so I do not have a say in this decision. But by any reasonable definition, there is more than enough justification for the Board of Education to terminate Sentance’s contract.
Rep. Craig Ford represents Gadsden and Etowah County in the Alabama House of Representatives. He served as the House Minority Leader from 2010-2016.