By Larry Lee
Things really got funky at the state board meeting on July 12.
Each board member got an envelope with an unsigned “complaint” to the state Ethics Commission alleging that Pouncey plagiarized his 2009 doctoral dissertation for Samford University, as well as getting excessive help from department employees.
The Ethics Commission will not investigate unsigned complaints, so the info became a moot point. In fact, six of the eight board members testified that they paid no attention to this letter and discarded it.
But Hunter saw things differently.
She gave the info to interim state superintendent, Phillip Cleveland, directed him to give it to Dean and then called the executive director of the Ethics Commission to tell him about it.
Hunter, who is an attorney, was asked at a legislative hearing if she knew that the Ethics Commission does not investigate unsigned complaints. She said she did not, even though the board had recently had a retreat about ethics.
Not long after the letter surfaced on July 12, Hunter attended a statewide Business Council of Alabama event where she told several legislators that Pouncey would not be considered for state superintendent because of the ethics complaint.
This statement was untrue since there never was a legitimate complaint.
After Hunter’s call to the head of the Ethics Commission – she did not disclose that the complaint was unsigned – he asked his legal counsel to get a copy of the bogus info. This was hand-delivered to the Ethics Commission by the department’s general counsel.
The Ethics Commission lawyer sent a letter back to the education lawyer saying that they had received the info concerning Pouncey, who was identified in the letter.
Not long afterwards, a copy of this letter was leaked to media. Suddenly, news sources across the state were reporting Pouncey was under investigation. All of this took place prior to the state board selecting the next superintendent on August 11.
Each board member could nominate up to five applicants to be interviewed. Seven were nominated. One was the choice of only two people and was eliminated. Sentence and another tied with three, so both were interviewed.
Seven members selected Pouncey. Only the governor and Hunter did not have him in their top five.
Six candidates were interviewed in early August.
Looking back, one has to wonder how well each was vetted by the department’s legal counsel. The requirements advertised stated that applicants should have “experience in successfully managing a large organization” and “experience in administering large budgets.” Alabama Code Section 16-4-1 requires that the state superintendent be “knowledgeable in school administration.” Two of the six interviewed did not meet these qualifications.
A former legal counsel for the state department said these two applications should have been tossed by general counsel and never even given to the board.
Sentance was an applicant for the Alabama job in 2011 and did not generate enough interest to get an interview. Five of the board members who made the 2016 selection were also on the board in 2011. However, they were never told that Sentence had previously applied. Nor were they told about the numerous job rejections he had in the last several years.
The board voted on August 11. But even the process used that day was contested. The governor wanted to use paper ballots. However, one board member pointed out that such a vote must be done publicly. So, the paper ballots were discarded.
Someone would nominate a candidate, then a show of hands recorded. Sentance was nominated on the second ballot by Matt Brown, the governor’s 2015 appointee to the board, and by this time, a lame duck board member having been soundly defeated in the Republican primary earlier in the year.
Sentance got four votes.
Then Pouncey was nominated. He, too, got four votes. No other candidate got more than three.
Since no one received a five-vote majority through the first “round,” Hunter nominated Sentance for the second time. The governor clearly counted votes before raising his hand to be the fifth and deciding vote.
There were 25-30 local superintendents in the audience that day. They began to file out, each looking as if they had seen a ghost. And why not? Not a single superintendent had encouraged any board member to pick Sentence.
The education community throughout the state was dumbfounded. How do you pick a state superintendent who had no formal training in education, and had never been a teacher, principal or local superintendent?
It was a huge slap in the face. It was acknowledgement that five members of the state board felt those who work in schools and administrative positions are not professionals, and training and experience mean little.
Those who voted for Sentance scrambled to explain why they did so. Governor Bentley hung his hat on the fact that 4th grade NAEP math scores in Massachusetts were the highest in the country and tried to rationalize that hiring someone from there would magically advance Alabama performance to the same level.
But he never mentioned that Sentance had not worked in Massachusetts in 15 years, nor that they spend $6,000 more per pupil than Alabama does.
Hunter said the longer she looked at Sentance’s resume’, the more it grew on her. Yet, she did not say that since he had not worked since he applied for the Alabama position in 2011, his resume’ was the same in 2016 as in 2011. And it obviously did not grow on her back then when she was in her first term on the board.
Alabama educators woke up the morning of Aug. 12, 2016, with a brand-new state superintendent selected with a process that was definitely tainted.
Enough so that Pouncey later filed a legal action against Hunter, the department general counsel, two of her associates and the interim superintendent. He charged that they had acted in concert to discredit his name. This suit is awaiting a judge’s decision concerning dismissal.
Also, an internal investigation by a state department attorney – selected by Sentance – concluded that there had been collusion among these five individuals. And though he called for this investigation, Sentence did not agree with its findings. This report has been given to the Ethics Commission and the attorney general.