By Larry Lee
In 1970, country singer Roy Clark cranked out a little tune, Thank God and Greyhound. When I got the news on Sept. 13, that Alabama’s state school superintendent had resigned, this song came immediately to mind.
And why not?
Since he took office one year and one day from his resignation, the reign of Mike Sentance had been one misadventure after another. It involved two governors, a rogue state school board member, the state Ethics Commission, a legislative committee digging into a smear campaign and questionable contracts and hires.
It was a reality show on steroids, something like, Naked and Afraid Meets Honey Boo Boo.
As much as anything it’s the tale of some grownups acting like children and trying to advance their own political agendas instead of the 730,000 students who go to public schools in Alabama.
This calamity was set in motion a year before Mike Sentance showed up from Massachusetts. That was when former Governor Robert Bentley, who resigned in disgrace early in 2017, appointed a totally unqualified person to a vacancy on the state board. (What else can you call someone who never went to public school a day in his life and had just finished spearheading an effort to defeat a school tax in his home county?)
This person’s vote was crucial when the board selected Sentence to be superintendent in August 2016.
(Alabama is one of only seven states with an elected state school board. Eight members are elected from districts and serve four-year staggered terms. The governor chairs the board by virtue of their office, though they rarely show up. So, five votes win the day and the aforementioned member was one of the five who voted for Sentance. Along with the governor who appointed him.)
State superintendent Tommy Bice unexpectedly stepped down in March 2016. It wasn’t long before the circus began.
The application deadline for the state job was June 7, 2016. There were initially 12 applicants. Three were local school system superintendents in Alabama. Most were not from Alabama.
One was Michael Sentance from Boston. He had no formal training as an educator and had never been a teacher, principal or local superintendent. He served for one year in the mid-90s as Secretary of Education in Massachusetts, a policy slot appointed by the governor.
The Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education is the person in the Bay State with responsibility of actually running K 12 schools. (This person is equivalent to Alabama’s State Superintendent.)
Sentance sought the commissioner job in 1998, but was unsuccessful. He last worked in Massachusetts in 2001. According to his resume’ his only employment from 2009 until coming to Alabama in September 2016 was an eight-month stint with a consulting firm.
Apparently, his primary job during this period was trying to find a job. Records show he applied for jobs in Kentucky, Nebraska, Wyoming, Nevada, Utah, Nashville and Ohio from 2009 to 2016. He even applied in Alabama in 2011, but did not get an interview.
Still, Sentance sent a letter to Alabama State Department of Education General Counsel Julianna Dean on June 27 saying he was withdrawing his application because of family concerns.
But at the urging of state board member Mary Scott Hunter, Dean called Sentance and asked him to re-consider. No other board members knew of this call or the involvement of Hunter. Sentance called Dean on June 28 to tell her he wished to remain a candidate.
Later in the process other board members raised serious concerns about allowing someone to, in essence, reapply weeks after the original deadline.
Another applicant, former West Virginia state superintendent Steve Paine, also withdrew. His resume’ was chockfull of hands-on education experience. No one tried to talk him into reconsidering.
Clearly both Hunter and Dean overstepped their authority. Hunter is one of eight elected board members but did not consult other members before taking action. Dean is the board’s legal counsel and should not have complied with the directions of just one member.
This episode was the first inkling that something was amiss in the search process. Why do you want to make sure an applicant with so few qualifications remains, but one much more qualified is not given the same consideration?
From the outset, Jefferson County superintendent Craig Pouncey was expected to be the leading candidate. He was definitely the clear favorite of many local superintendents. Prior to going to Jefferson County he worked at the state department a number of years and was chief of staff for Bice. Regardless the issue, Pouncey was usually the “go to” guy for superintendents because he went out of his way to help them.
But Pouncey is not a shrinking violet and defends public education with a passion.
However, in Alabama, as in many other places these days, there are people who do not appreciate this quality. They look to Jeb Bush and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) for information about how education should be done and they don’t like road blocks.
One of these is state representative Terri Collins who chairs the Alabama House Education Policy Committee. Whether A-F school report cards, funding for Teach for America, charters, supporting the voucher program of the Alabama Accountability Act or the constant cry of “choice,” Collins is supportive.
She sent an email to state board members during the search process urging they not consider Pouncey, claiming the Speaker of the House had written Bice telling him to not allow Pouncey back in legislative chambers. There was no such letter.
And Pouncey’s sin? He stood up for public schools in a committee meeting when a state rep “went off” on them.
Another player is the Business Council of Alabama. They support vouchers, charters, school choice and say schools should be run like businesses.
BCA is also one of the state’s major political players through a very large political action committee. In 2016, this PAC invested more than $300,000 in state school board races.
Hunter has been a favorite of this group, getting $15,000 from them in 2010 and $75,000 in 2014.
(Hunter is not seeking re-election to her board seat in 2018 and is running for state senate. She earlier said she was running for Lt. Governor. Many feel her quest for higher office drives the majority of her actions and her decisions throughout the Sentance misadventure support this contention.)