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Thank God and Greyhound — The Sentance Saga, Part 1

Larry Lee

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By Larry Lee
Education Matters

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?)

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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.

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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.)

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Opinion | Understanding the role of medical marijuana in the opioid crisis

Benjamin McMichael

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Last week, the Alabama Legislature took some of the first steps on SB165—a bill that would ultimately legalize medical cannabis in Alabama. This bill would move Alabama from the minority of states that continue to prohibit the prescribing of medical marijuana to the majority of states that do. While advocates and proponents of this bill have offered a number of arguments for and against the legalization of medical cannabis, a common thread has come to dominate much of the public debate over this bill. And that thread concerns the impact legalization of medical cannabis would have on the opioid crisis.

As the defining public health crisis of this generation, the opioid crisis has rightly been placed at the forefront of the medical cannabis conversation. In 2017, one American died of an opioid overdose every 11 minutes, and some estimates place the cost of the opioid crisis at over $500 billion. Alabama has not been immune from this crisis, and Blue Cross Blue Shield estimates that its Alabama members were more likely than others across the country to be on a long-duration opioid regime. Given the high stakes involved, the question of how medical cannabis legalization will affect the opioid crisis is obviously an important one.

In a study recently published in the Journal of Health Economics, two co-authors and I investigated the impact of medical cannabis access laws on opioid prescriptions across the country. In that study, we found strong and consistent evidence that enacting medical cannabis access laws reduces opioid prescriptions. In general, these laws decrease opioid prescriptions by 4.2 percent. While this may not, by itself, be enough to reverse the opioid crisis, reducing opioid prescriptions is an important step in addressing this crisis.

Our study was not the first to examine the impact of medical cannabis access laws on opioid prescriptions. However, the strength of our study lies not in its novelty, but in the data it analyzes. Instead of examining counts of opioid prescriptions among Medicare or Medicaid beneficiaries, we analyzed a dataset of over 1.5 billion individual opioid prescriptions across the country. This dataset included approximately 90 percent of all opioid prescriptions written in the United States between 2011 and 2018. And our data came from prescriptions paid for by commercial insurance, Medicaid, Medicare, other government assistance, and even cash.

With such rich data available in our study, we were able to obtain a clearer picture of the effect of medical cannabis access laws than has previously been possible. While we found that these laws reduced opioid prescriptions in general by 4.2 percent, they had larger impacts on certain groups. For example, medical cannabis access laws reduced opioid prescriptions to those with commercial insurance by 4.4 percent and to those with Medicaid by 5.2 percent.

These laws may reduce opioid prescriptions in various ways, and our study found suggestive evidence that one important way may be facilitating the substitution of cannabis for opioids in the treatment of pain. In addition to reducing the use of prescription opioids, our study revealed evidence that medical cannabis access laws also reduce NSAID prescriptions. NSAIDS are often found in common, over-the-counter pain medications. This reduction in another type of medication used in the treatment of pain suggests that the reduction in prescription opioids may be driven by a decreased need for pain treatment once individuals can access medical cannabis. And our results are consistent with the conclusion of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine which found “conclusive. . . evidence that cannabis. . . [is] effective. . . [f]or the treatment of chronic pain in adults.”

As the Alabama Legislature completes its task of debating whether to join the majority of states that allow access to medical cannabis, understanding the role of this law in the opioid crisis will be critically important.

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Opinion | Vote “yes” for better education

Jimmy Parnell

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Did you know Alabama’s schools are ranked 52nd in math and 49th in reading? This is unacceptable. Yes on Amendment 1 takes the first step toward improving our schools.

Gov. Kay Ivey has made it abundantly clear. Alabama’s failures in education are not the fault of students or our hardworking teachers, principals and superintendents. The problem is lack of stable, visionary leadership.

Our current system is not working. In Alabama, we’re used to winning. But in education, the state is consistently dead last. We wouldn’t tolerate this kind of performance from our coaches or business leaders, and we must not settle for mediocrity when it comes to our children’s future.

Alabama is one of only six states that still has an elected state school board, and this board has had five superintendents in the last four years.

Amendment 1 gets politicians off the board and replaces them with nine commission members who will bring focus, innovation and accountability to Alabama’s K-12 education system. Our community college system transitioned to this model and has lifted itself out of the mire of scandal by refocusing on student achievement and preparedness.

Commission members will serve no more than two consecutive six-year terms and will be accountable to our elected state senators. They also are required to reflect the diversity of Alabama’s public school students.

Amendment 1 clearly outlines responsibilities for the commission: teacher certification, professional development, student assessment and accountability. In addition, it requires adoption of education standards to replace common core.  

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Amendment 1 does not take control away from local school boards, and it does not diminish the value of our teachers. To the contrary, Amendment 1 will help teachers, students and local schools by bringing strategic, productive leadership to education policy at the state level. 

Gov. Ivey said it best. “For us to prepare today’s students for tomorrow’s opportunities, it is time we get serious: It’s time for creativity. It’s time for accountability. It’s time for stability.

“It’s time to vote YES for Amendment 1 on March 3rd!”

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Opinion | Alabama’s economic boom should be heard and felt across the state

Congressman Robert Aderholt

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When I was growing up in Haleyville, I can remember people in July and August saying, “it’s hotter’n blue blazes outside.”  Well, you could certainly describe America and Alabama’s current economic boom as being “hotter’n blue blazes.”  Alabama’s economy is scorching hot, with the lowest unemployment numbers in our state’s history.  One county economic development director told me that “if you want a job, you can find one right now.”

​I don’t doubt that’s true, but unfortunately it also depends on what part of the state you live in.   If you are willing and able to drive a couple of hours to and from work, then you certainly have many more options.  Our Defense and Space industries are experiencing tremendous growth. Agriculture is booming. Alabama is the nation’s second largest producer of poultry – and that’s a good thing.

But we can do even better. A lot of people can’t commute long distances every day to reach good jobs, so we’ve got bring the jobs to them. I believe we can bring high paying, quality jobs to every corner of the 4th District and Alabama and rural America as a whole.  We need to rebuild our essential manufacturing base – and that’s something that President Trump has focused on.

And to build upon that, we must prioritize building up our infrastructure. We must expand high speed internet to every square mile of the 4th District and North Alabama.  We must protect rural hospitals and clinics to make sure people everywhere have access to high quality healthcare. And we must ensure we have a highly trained work force with the skills employers are looking for.

During a recent visit to a locally owned business in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, I was told they have jobs available, but they can’t find candidates who can pass a drug test.  This is why I worked in Congress to allocate more than a billion dollars to fight the opioid epidemic.  A highly skilled workforce is essential, but we also need a workforce that isn’t dependent on illegal substances to get though the day.  Lack of employment and dependency on drugs is an evil and all-consuming cycle.  We can break that cycle.

We also need to make sure our trade policies are based on common sense.  We want to increase trade by eliminating unfair foreign trade policies.  President Trump did that in the U.S.- Mexico- Canadian (USMCA) trade deal, which opens more markets for American products and helps make America more competitive.  That makes a big difference for our farmers, manufacturers, businesses and for consumers.  We’ll have more opportunities for common-sense trade deals in the coming years.

​It’s also time for us to stop associating social status and class on whether someone has a four-year college degree.  Trust me, I know many people who have bachelors and master’s degrees that aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.  And at the same time, I’ve heard of people who have two-year welding degrees from colleges like Wallace State who are making money we normally associate with a doctor.

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Two-year associate degrees and high school vocational classes are just as valuable to our economic wellbeing than an economics degree from Harvard.  If someone aspires to achieve a four-year degree, that’s great, but they should never be celebrated more than the person who decides to open his own plumbing business.  This is why I’m so supportive of our state’s two-year college system and our vocational schools.

​Alabama has so much economic potential.  I hope you will join me in making sure we see this economic expansion continues in places like Huntsville, but also expands into places like Lamar, DeKalb and Fayette counties.  There’s no reason we shouldn’t all be able to take part in how hot the Alabama economy is right now.   As we also used to say in Haleyville, it’s 100 degrees in the shade!

 

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Opinion | I proudly salute our state leadership, Alabamians, our Air Force and our Space Force leadership

Glenn Henry

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Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett, according to AFNS in an piece titled, “Department of the Air Force to consider military family support measures in future basing decisions,”  recently approved criteria, to assess states’ policies, for accepting professional career licenses, and a community’s public education system, support of military children; as part of its strategic basing process.

The addition of these criteria aims, to ensure locations, under consideration, have sufficient support, for the unique needs, of military families, who relocate frequently.

“The communities where service members, live and work; impact readiness, retention, and the satisfaction of families,” said Secretary Barrett. “Future basing decisions made, will ensure optimal conditions, for service members, and their families.”

The article goes on to explain, some of the issues, that influence the military members decision, to remain on active duty are, local public education aspects, and support for their children; along with their spouses, to sustain careers, move after move.

It also states, the Air Force collaborated with professional, and subject matter experts, to develop two types of analytic frameworks.

The public education framework, will be used to evaluate public school districts’, educational aspects, and ability, to support transferring military children, in Pre-Kindergarten through the 12th grade, near Air Force installations.

The licensure portability framework, will be used to assess state laws, governors’ executive orders, state Supreme Court, or bar association rules, and the ability for an area, to accommodate licenses earned, from other locations.

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The article further states, while mission requirements remain the top priority, for where a mission is based, the Air Force has developed, a process, to include these support of military family considerations.

The methodology, for these criteria, will be used for future basing decisions, as the Air Force continues, to collaborate, with policy professionals, and subject matter experts.

The piece ends, with Madam Secretary Barrett’s comments. “We know improving schools, and changing licensure regulations, take time, but efforts to meet the unique needs, of military families are vital. States that have improved services, for military families, should be commended and emulated.”

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The criteria will be formally incorporated into the basing process in the spring.

Based on our Secretary of the Air Force’s awesome comments, at this point, I want to respectfully ask all of our state leaders, since the Legislature is currently in Session, that our Great State continue, in our efforts, to lead the way, in making Alabama the most military- friendly state in the nation.

For instance, concerning the licensure portability framework, through Legislation, by waiving all transferring military family, professional licensure fees, and by seamlessly, smoothly moving, and accepting, the professional licensures, from other states, through licensure reciprocity.

Think about military families, having to transfer, every one or two years, and filling out tons of documents, that take weeks, to gather the required pertinent documents, and to complete; and submit all documents.  The numerous hours expended, and the fees, and the costs, dollar wise are often exorbitant.  Military families, currently in many states, have to pay the same, or higher fees, as they frequently transfer, over and over again.

Remember, also many military families, may have been in overseas locations, and remote assignments, in which their licensure, may have expired; and their required number of continuing professional education hours; could not be obtained, nor met. Due to these extenuating circumstances, Legislation is also needed, in which waivers may be granted, so our military families, may be allowed, to regain their licensure; vice having to start basically, from the beginning processes, or re-test to regain their eligibility; and to receive needed credentials, and required certifications.

Some military families, may face issues, beyond their control, in which no jobs are available at their next duty stations. Families may have to make the tough decisions, to accept a transfer assignment, such as going from two family members working, to one family member working. Legislation is also needed, to support all military families, and their spouses, who want to work and, or attend colleges and universities to obtain their degrees.

Concerning the education framework portion, Madam Secretary Barrett mentioned; our Great State is currently, leading the way, in helping military families. I would also, like to respectfully ask, our state Leaders, to continue with your Legislative initiatives, to build the DODEA, Military Magnet, Pre-Kindergarten through 12th grade schools on, or near the base at Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base. Along, with your initiatives, to allow the children of military families to attend regional Magnet Schools. Regardless, if families, faculty, professors and instructors live on-base or off-base.

Additionally, add to the Legislation, that families at Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base be allowed to attend out of District schools also in Lee County, including Auburn City Schools. In addition, to counties such as Autauga, Elmore and Pike Road City Schools.

In my view, I believe that our Great State, through the highly outstanding leadership, of Governor Kay Ivey. Lt. Gov Will Ainsworth, House Speaker Rep. Mac McCutcheon, Senate Pro Tempore Sen. Del Marsh, and the Legislature, have earned an A+.

I see no other states, nor its leadership, this highly engaged, and proactive, to ensure that military families, are being taken care of, in such a gracious manner. Alabama is the most-military friendly state in the nation. No other state has higher numbers of military- family related Legislative initiatives, on their schedules, nor presently in the works.

Throughout our Air Force and our Space Force, our top leaders and their spouses are visiting families at their on-base homes and on-base military base schools.  It touches your heart, when leaders, care about others, and their families.

Respectfully, my recommendation, to our Secretary of the Air Force; if there are any military basing locations to be considered. Please place Alabama, in the number one slot, and at the top of the list.  Over the years, I’ve actually had a privileged opportunity, to work with these outstanding problem solvers, and highly distinguished Alabama Leaders. We want more, Air Force and Space Force, military families and neighbors.

I proudly salute our state Leadership, Alabamians, our Air Force and our Space Force Leadership; and all military members, families, civilian employees and the Total Force. You all earned an A+.

Glenn Henry is retired from the U.S. Air Force. He has been a high school teacher and university adjunct professor. He has earned numerous IT Cisco certifications. He is a Certified Professional Ethical Hacker. He lives in Montgomery with his wife Teresa.

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