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The Alabama State Board of Education’s Dubious Review of Michael Sentance

SBOE Member Stephanie Bell and State Superintendent Michael Sentance

As we predicted Saturday, yesterday’s meeting of the Alabama State Board of Education turned into a platform that may well have set the stage to oust Michael Sentance as State Superintendent of Education.

With a lopsided 6-2 vote, the SBOE accepted Sentence’s job evaluation forms that Board Member Stephanie Bell unilaterally requested last week. Only Mary Scott Hunter and Betty Peters, both Republicans, voted against accepting the evaluations, citing the lack of transparency and fairness.

On the lack of transparency front, the list is long, but a good starting point is with public comments. Virtually all Board of Education meetings provide for public comment on the agenda. This agenda did not.

Hunter, a practicing attorney, also engaged Bell about the fact that Bell demanded the evaluation without consulting other members and without a vote. The Alabama Administrative Code (Section 290-10-10) states that State Board actions have to be voted on, but no vote was taken on whether or not to conduct Sentance’s evaluation. Peters echoed those concerns, adding that in her long history on the Board, performance reviews have always been handled openly.

Another issue arose over Bell requesting the evaluations on email, rather than in a public forum. Board members were told to submit their evaluations to the board’s outside legal counsel, who compiled the results. When Peters and Hunter responded to Bell’s email with questions, they were told their questions would be answered at yesterday’s meeting. However, many of those questions remained unanswered, and when Hunter persisted, Bell gaveled her down on multiple occasions.

At some point in the meeting, Bell apparently grew weary of the scrutiny and called for an executive session so the public could no longer hear the discussions.

Hunter refused to participate telling Yellowhammer, “We owe it to the people of Alabama to be transparent in how we handle this matter. Unfortunately, nothing about this process has been transparent, and that’s the reason I refused to participate.”

Another issue was the method used to calculate the Superintendent’s evaluation score. Bell arbitrarily decided that because Hunter refused to submit a form, her evaluation of Sentance would be counted as a zero—on a scale of 1-3 scale—with “1” meaning “needs improvement,” a “2” meaning “proficient” and “3” meaning “exceptional.” Governor Ivey also declined to participate, but hers was not counted as a zero—it apparently wasn’t counted at all.

Hunter and Peters asked what divisor was used to tally individual scores. Attorneys for the Board answered that the number 8 was used for every score, even though there are nine members of the board, including Ivey. Since two of those members didn’t participate (Ivey and Hunter), the logical divisor would be 7.

After the meeting concluded, Bell apparently realized the questionable appearance the calculation method created and decided to adjust the divisor to 7, and to factor in unanswered questions by Board Member Cynthia McCarty. These moves slightly improved Sentance’s score, which ranged between a 1.28 to 2.07 on the 1 to 3 scale. The SBOE published the composite score last night—however, the scores of individual board members have not been published.

One of the most curious aspects is that Stephanie Bell, a Republican, has always purported to be opposed to Common Core, as is Sentance. Nevertheless, it appears that Bell, who’s been on the SBOE for over 20 years, has caucused with the Democrats and the education establishment to call Sentance’s performance into question.

Mary Scott Hunter spoke to Yellowhammer and said,

“Sadly this episode overshadows the great work that’s going on in our schools. Today’s news should have been about the draft strategic plan we discussed.  Sentence and his team did a ton of work to get input from across the state and prepare that plan.  We need educators and parents and others weighing in now on the proposals like school choice in Montgomery and monitoring chronic absenteeism of elementary school students.  These are reforms that should get attention because they affect kids, teachers, and communities, and people want us working for that, not wasting time and money like what happened today.”

Should Mike Sentance eventually be terminated, or even if he chooses to leave, the SBOE will likely have a difficult time convincing anyone else from another state to take the job in the foreseeable future. Perhaps that’s exactly the plan—to keep the establishment established. As we reported Saturday if that happens Alabama’s children will get the short end of the stick.

(News Analysis)


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