By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter
Out with the new, in with the old at the Alabama State Department of Education.
State school board members on Thursday accepted the resignation of Michael Sentance, ending a tumultuous one-year tenure, and selected former superintendent Ed Richardson to take over on an interim basis.
“I’m very excited that Dr. Richardson is going to be returning,” said Gov. Kay Ivey, who presided over the meeting. Ivey, by virtue of her office, is the Board of Education president.
Ivey began Thursday’s meeting by reading a prepared statement. In it she said that public education in Alabama is “at a crossroads.” She also encouraged state board members to “remain focused on the tasks at hand” when she is absent from state board meetings.
In order to take over as the interim superintendent, Richardson, who has worked in public education in Alabama for more than 40 years, was forced to resign as the chairman of the Alabama Charter School Commission.
The meeting on Thursday was a swift and smooth ending to a rocky few months under Sentance. In about an hour, the board read through and accepted his resignation and a separation agreement, and had selected and approved Richardson as the interim superintendent.
The separation agreement was relatively straightforward, paying Sentance his salary through the end of the year ($58,000) – as his contract stipulates – and allowing him some $20,000 in health benefits. There was also language preventing the two sides from speaking poorly of each other.
The acceptance of Sentance’s resignation as “the right thing to do,” as Ivey deemed it, was an about-face for the governor. Just two weeks ago, Ivey wrote a letter to the board pushing them to give Sentance more time.
On Thursday, asked what changed her mind, Ivey at first ducked – calling the situation “the past” – and then went vague – saying she had received “additional information” about Sentance from other sources, including board members. But she refused to reveal that information.
School board vice-president Stephanie Bell said she has held conversations about Sentence with Ivey over the past couple of weeks, but she wouldn’t reveal the content, saying that it was something that the governor should provide.
As for Richardson’s appointment, Bell called him a “bull in a china shop” at times, but said she was very excited to have him back and trusts that he has the ability to right the ALSDE ship.
Richardson was appointed on an 8-1 vote with Betty Peters casting the lone no vote. Peters has stood by Sentance and made known her displeasure with how he was treated in the media.
One area of particular concern is the Montgomery intervention. It has been a constant problem for the school board and became a bigger one on Wednesday, when the Alabama Education Association filed a lawsuit against the state superintendent.
Privately, a number of attorneys and lawmakers have worried that the manner in which the intervention was undertaken – taking over a portion of MPS schools – violates Alabama law. If that’s the case, the AEA lawsuit could be successful and bring an end to the intervention.
“That’s something that Dr. Richardson will have on his plate when he gets here,” Bell said. “I’m confident that he has the knowledge and experience necessary.”
Bell noted that the Montgomery intervention would require someone who understands the unique issues within MPS, and she said she believes Richardson, who served as a principal in the MPS several years ago, has that institutional knowledge.
He’ll need it, and then some. Because Richardson will inherit an ALSDE in chaos. Immediately, he’ll have a number of issues to address, including a $3 million to $8 million budget shortfall, staffing questions – both within ALSDE and within MPS – and general turmoil between the department and county systems.
“When I spoke to Dr. Richardson yesterday, he was playing his last game of tennis for awhile,” Bell joked. “We all know this is not going to be an easy job he has in front of him. We’re confident he can do it.”