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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 | On the Nov. 3 ballot, vote “no” on proposed Amendment 1

Chris Christie

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On Nov. 3, 2020, all Alabama voters should vote “no” on proposed Amendment 1. Vote no on Amendment 1 because it could allow state law changes to disenfranchise citizens whom the Legislature does not want to vote. Because Amendment 1 has no practical purpose and because it opens the door to mischief, all voters are urged to vote no.

Currently, the Alabama Constitution provides that “Every citizen of the United States…” has the right to vote in the county where the voter resides. Amendment 1 would delete the word “every” before citizen and replace it with “only a” citizen.

In Alabama, the only United States citizens who cannot vote today are most citizens who have been convicted of a felony of moral turpitude. These felonies are specifically identified in Ala. Code 17-3-30.1.

Without Amendment 1, the Alabama Constitution now says who can vote: every citizen. If voters approve Amendment 1, the Alabama Constitution would only identify a group who cannot vote. With Amendment 1, we, the citizens of the United States in Alabama, thus would lose the state constitutional protection of our voting rights.

In Alabama, no individual who is not a United States citizens can vote in a governmental election. So, Amendment 1 has no impact on non-citizens in Alabama.

Perhaps the purpose of Amendment 1 could be to drive voter turnout of those who mistakenly fear non-citizens can vote. The only other purpose for Amendment 1 would be allowing future Alabama state legislation to disenfranchise groups of Alabama citizens whom a majority of the legislature does not want to vote.

In 2020, the ballots in Florida and Colorado have similar amendments on the ballots. As in Alabama, Citizens Voters, Inc., claims it is responsible for putting these amendments on the ballots in those states. While Citizens Voters’ name sounds like it is a good nonprofit, as a 501(c)(4), it has secret political donors. One cannot know who funds Citizen Voters and thus who is behind pushing these amendments with more than $8 million in dark money.

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According to Citizen Voter’s website, the stated reason for Amendment 1 is that some cities in several other states allow non-citizens to vote. My understanding is that such measures are rare and only apply to voting for local school boards.

And why would a local government’s deciding that non-citizens can vote for local school boards be a state constitutional problem? Isn’t the good government practice to allow local control of local issues? And again, this issue does not even exist in Alabama.

The bigger question, which makes Amendment 1’s danger plain to see, is why eliminate the language protectingevery citizen’s right to vote? For example, Amendment 1 could have proposed “Every citizen and only a citizen” instead of deleting “every” when adding “only a” citizen. Why not leave the every citizen language in the Alabama Constitution?

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Amendment 1 could allow Alabama new state legislation to disenfranchise some Alabama citizens. Such a change would probably violate federal law. But Alabama has often had voting laws that violated federal law until a lawsuit forced the state of Alabama not to enforce the illegal state voting law.  

The most recent similar law in Alabama might be 2011’s HB56, the anti-immigrant law. Both HB56 and Amendment 1 are Alabama state laws that out-of-state interests pushed on us. And HB56 has been largely blocked by federal courts after expensive lawsuits.

Alabama’s Nov. 3, 2020, ballot will have six constitutional amendments. On almost all ballots, Amendment 1 will be at the bottom right on the first page (front) of the ballot or will be at the top left on the second page (back) of the ballot.

Let’s keep in our state constitution our protection of every voters’ right to vote.

Based on Amendment 1’s having no practical benefit and its opening many opportunities for mischief, all Alabama voters are strongly urged to vote “no” on Amendment 1.

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Opinion | Amendment 4 is an opportunity to clean up the Alabama Constitution

Gerald Johnson and John Cochran

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The 1901 but current Alabama Constitution has been amended about 950 times, making it by far the world’s longest constitution. The amendments have riddled the Constitution with redundancies while maintaining language and provisions — for example, poll taxes — that reflect the racist intent of those who originally wrote it.

A recompilation will bring order to the amendments and remove obsolete language. While much of this language is no longer valid, the language is still in the document and has been noted and used by other states when competing with Alabama for economic growth opportunities.

The need for recompilation and cleaning of Alabama’s Constitution has been long recognized.

In 2019, the Legislature unanimously adopted legislation, Amendment 4, to provide for its recompilation. Amendment 4 on the Nov. 3 general election ballot will allow the non-partisan Legislative Reference Service to draft a recompiled and cleaned version of the Constitution for submission to the Legislature.

While Amendment 4 prohibits any substantive changes in the Constitution, the LRS will remove duplication, delete no longer legal provisions and racist language, thereby making our Constitution far more easily understood by all Alabama citizens.

Upon approval by the Legislature, the recompiled Constitution will be presented to Alabama voters in November 2022 for ratification.

Amendment 4 authorizes a non-partisan, broadly supported, non-controversial recompilation and much-needed, overdue cleaning up of our Constitution.

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On Nov. 3, 2020, vote “Yes” on Amendment 4 so the work can begin.

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Opinion | Auburn Student Center named for Harold Melton, first Auburn SGA president of color

Elizabeth Huntley and James Pratt

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Auburn University's Student Center (VIA AUBURN UNIVERSITY)

The year 1987 was a quiet one for elections across America but not at Auburn. That was the year Harold Melton, a student in international studies and Spanish, launched and won a campaign to become the first African American president of the Auburn Student Government Association, winning with more than 65 percent of the vote.

This was just the first of many important roles Harold Melton would play at Auburn and in an extraordinarily successful legal career in his home state of Georgia, where his colleagues on the Georgia Supreme Court elected him as chief justice.

Last week, the Auburn Board of Trustees unanimously named the Auburn student center for Justice Melton, the first building on campus that honors a person of color. The decision was reached as part of a larger effort to demonstrate Auburn’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.

In June, Auburn named two task forces to study diversity and inclusion issues. We co-chair the task force for the Auburn Board with our work taking place concurrently with that of a campus-based task force organized by President Jay Gogue. Other members of the Board task force are retired Army general Lloyd Austin, bank president Bob Dumas, former principal and educator Sarah B. Newton and Alabama Power executive Quentin P. Riggins.

These groups are embarking on a process that offers all Auburn stakeholders a voice, seeking input from students, faculty, staff, alumni, elected officials and more. It will include a fact-based review of Auburn’s past and present, and we will provide specific recommendations for the future.

We are committed to making real progress based on solid facts. Unlike other universities in the state, Auburn has a presence in all 67 counties through the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. Our review has included not only our campuses in Auburn and Montgomery but all properties across our state. To date, we have found no monuments or statues recognizing the history that has divided our country. We will continue our fact-finding mission with input from the academic and research community.

Our university and leadership are committed to doing the right thing, for the right reasons, at the right time. We believe now is the right time, and we are already seeing results.

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In addition to naming the student center for the Honorable Harold Melton, we have taken steps to highlight the significant role played by Harold Franklin, the student who integrated Auburn. We are working to enhance the historical marker that pays tribute to Mr. Franklin, and we are raising its visibility in campus tours as we pay homage to his contributions as our first African American student. Last month, we awarded Mr. Franklin, now 86 and with a Ph.D., a long-overdue master’s degree for the studies he completed at Auburn so many years ago.

We likewise endorsed a student-led initiative creating the National Pan-Hellenic Council Legacy Plaza, which will recognize the contributions of Black Greek organizations and African American culture on our campus.

In the coming months, Auburn men and women will work together to promote inclusion to further enhance our student experience and build on our strength through diversity. The results of this work will be seen and felt throughout the institution in how we recruit our students, provide scholarships and other financial support and ensure a culture of inclusion in all walks of university life.

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Our goal is to identify and implement substantive steps that will make a real difference at Auburn, impact our communities and stand the test of time.

Naming the student center for Justice Melton is but one example. In response to this decision, he said, “Auburn University has already given me everything I ever could have hoped for in a university and more. This honor is beyond my furthest imagination.”

Our job as leaders at Auburn is more than honoring the Harold Meltons and Harold Franklins who played a significant role in the history of our university. It is also to create an inclusive environment that serves our student body and to establish a lasting legacy where all members of the Auburn Family reach their fullest potential in their careers and in life.

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Opinion | Alabama lags behind the nation in Census participation with deadline nearing

Paul DeMarco

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The United States Census is starting to wind down around the country with a Sept. 30 deadline for the national population to be completed. However, a United States District Court has recently ruled that the date may be extended another 30 days to allow more time for the census to take place.

Regardless of the deadline, Alabama has work to do when it comes to the census.

To date, the national average for participation around the country has been almost 65 percent for the census.

Unfortunately, Alabama residents are providing data to the census at a lower percentage, around some 61 percent of the state population.

There is already concern among state leaders that if that number does not reach above 70 percent, then the state will lose a seat in Congress, a vote in the electoral college and millions of federal dollars that come to the state every year.

The percentage of participation has varied widely around the state, from a high of 76 percent in Shelby County to a low of 36 percent in neighboring Coosa County.

State leaders are making a final push to request Alabama residents fill out the census in the last month before it is closed.

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We will find out later this fall if Alabama passes the national average of participation in the census compared to other states to retain both its future representation and share of federal dollars.

In the meantime, Alabamians need to fill out their census forms.

The state is depending on it.

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