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11 months ago

Is Alabama’s Education Reformer in the Cross Hairs of the Education Establishment?

Alabama Education State Superintendent, Michael Sentance, JD, LLM

Michael Sentance has been Alabama State Superintendent of Education for just under a year. He’s a known education reformer who isn’t beholden to the teacher’s unions or the education establishment, but he greatly values the teachers themselves and the children they serve. In his short time on the job, his achievements are noteworthy.

  • * He generally disfavors Common Core and he’s effectively laid the groundwork to replace it with standards that better serve Alabama’s students
  • * He’s secured permission from the federal government to free Alabama from the sub-par ACT-Aspire standardized tests, which were based on Common Core
  • * He’s made great progress in reforming Montgomery’s 27 failing public schools and restored the district’s fiscal stability in a short time—a monumental task
  • * He’s finalizing a smart strategic plan called Alabama Ascending that will serve our children well
  • * He’s put the stars of the profession—the teachers—at the center of his reform efforts

Nevertheless, reports abound that Montgomery insiders who were apparently put off by his hiring want Sentance gone.

When I asked Mr. Sentance if he believes there’s an effort to get rid of him, he said, “Yes, it is true that some people are working very hard to try to remove me from the position.”

When I asked why he said, “Much of their concern is misplaced. There’s a great team of people around me here that understand the depth of the challenge we face, and together we’re working as thoughtfully and creatively as possible to meet those challenges. However, it’s a long process because Alabama’s issues are as profound and deep as any in the country.”

They are indeed. According to U.S. News, Alabama ranks 47th out of the 50 states in education. Interestingly, the state Mr. Sentance came from, Massachusetts, ranks 1st.

At the center of the Mike Sentance controversy is the fact that his employment contract says he must have an annual job evaluation before the end of this year, and every year thereafter. However, State Board of Education (SBOE) members recently received evaluation forms that will be discussed this Tuesday at what’s called a “Special Meeting” of the SBOE. The call for Sentance’s evaluation raises two critical issues:

  1. Who initiated the evaluation and why was it scheduled now instead of in December?
  2. Is the evaluation an excuse to fire Michael Sentance?

First, who initiated the evaluation and why was it scheduled now instead of in December?

Some reports indicate that the SBOE’s Vice President, Stephanie Bell initiated the meeting now. When I asked Ms. Bell why it was scheduled now instead of in December, she replied, “The evaluation is due on the anniversary of the date of his hiring, which is August 11. It is not due in December. I served on the committee appointed to write the contract which was approved by the board and signed by Mr. Sentance. We included Mr. Sentance in the process. The board can actually fire the superintendent for cause without an evaluation, according to the contract he signed.”

I also asked the following question of Mrs. Bell, who’s served on the SBOE for some 23 years: “Did you call next week’s meeting?” She replied, “The Special-Called meeting was called by the board and Mr. Sentance. We will discuss the annual evaluation board composite results, the board’s committee policy recommendations for working with our outside legal counsel, and Mr. Sentance’s proposed ESSA Plan. The public announcement was posted last week.”

From that outside looking in, that seems to be only partially true.

When I asked Sentence about the meeting, he said “I did not call the Special Meeting. I scheduled a work session to present and review our state ESSA plan, the Federal education law. Everything else was Stephanie’s work. I have no idea why the review is being done months before it was scheduled. I wasn’t provided any notice.”

Sentance’s response raises two important distinctions:

  1. He called for a work session, not a Special Meeting. This matters because the Board cannot vote at a work session, but it can hold a vote at a Special Meeting—like a vote to fire Sentance, for example.
  2. Whatever type of meeting it is, it was not originally called for the purpose of Sentance’s evaluation.

To the latter point, SBOE member Mary Scott Hunter said, “The meeting was for the purpose of discussing the ESSA plan. Mrs. Bell unilaterally added the review of Mike Sentance.”

SBOE member Betty Peters holds the same view: “Stephanie Bell sent out the evaluation forms out unilaterally. I find the rush to complete the evaluation a little strange. Since the board voted last year that we must complete Mr. Sentance’s evaluation no later than Dec. 31, 2017. I believe a more appropriate time for his evaluation is in December, giving him a reasonable opportunity to accomplish the goals he and the board agreed to in his contract.”

An excerpt of Michael Sentance’s employment contract, provided by SBOE Board Member Stephanie Bell

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From the comments above, one could reasonably conclude that Bell changed the event from a work session to a Special Meeting, and that raises the second critical issue: Was the evaluation at this meeting called for the sole purpose of firing Sentance?

To that end, I asked Stephanie Bell the following question: “Do you plan to call for the termination of Mr. Sentance?”

“There’s nothing to substantiate the false rumor that any board member plans to call for his termination, although the board has the option to terminate for cause. The evaluation is the best and most appropriate. I continue to stand by providing fairness to Mr. Sentance. Board members appropriately shared our concerns publicly in a work session with Mr. Sentance in March. We will discuss the results of the evaluation which he agreed to in meetings with the board last year. I will hear the results of the board’s evaluation for the first time when we meet as a board with our attorney. I have asked board members to send their evaluations directly to our board attorney.  There is no agenda other than what Mr. Sentance agreed to in his contract after he was hired on August 11, 2016.”

In an attempt to gain clarity, I emailed her the following question: “Do you support Mr. Sentence—yes or no?” She kindly replied:

“My concerns have been expressed, along with every other board member, directly to Mr. Sentance in a public board work session at Mr. Sentance’s mid-year evaluation in March. The video of the work session is posted on the state department’s website.  My responsibility is to ensure that the process is followed according to the contract. There will be a composite. My concerns will be included in the evaluation along with every other board member who decided to participate in the process they approved, along with other boards, last year.”

I asked other SBOE members if they’d heard the rumors that Tuesday’s evaluation session is a precursor for Sentance’s termination.

Mary Scott Hunter said,

“For some reason, Stephanie Bell wants Mr. Sentance out of there, and she’s running the show right now. I’ve heard the same rumors, but I do not know whether they’re true.”

I asked Betty Peters the same question.

“It’s absolutely an attempt to fire Mr. Sentance. Also, Stephanie basically said that if we didn’t submit an evaluation, it would be the equivalent of giving Mr. Sentance a zero. I’ve always held Stephanie Bell in high esteem but she’s taken away my voice and the voice of the people of District 2, and this is more than I can stand.”

Hunter said she’s not participating in the evaluation, regardless. “Honestly, I don’t want to confer legitimacy on a process that’s designed to do nothing more than to push Mike Sentance out the door before he’s been given a chance to do his job.”

Governor Kay Ivey serves as President of the SBOE. Her spokesman, Daniel Sparkman, said the Governor has also declined to participate in the evaluation or attend the meeting, stating:

“Governor Ivey already had a full day planned in Auburn prior to the special Board meeting being called, and therefore she will be unable to attend. She also did not participate in the evaluation because she hasn’t had the opportunity to work with Mr. Sentance enough to form an opinion of his work.”

Mary Scott Hunter went on to say,

“Normally the Governor’s office conducts the evaluation since the Governor is the standing President of the Board.  The demand for an early evaluation was evidently not even coordinated with Governor Ivey who is not scheduled to attend our meeting this Tuesday, as far as I know.”

Whatever the case, the meeting is happening Tuesday and at least some SBOE members will be participating to evaluate Sentence’s performance.

Concerning that, I asked Ms. Hunter about Sentance’s progress on the lingering issue of Common Core, and she said,

“Remarkably, Michael Sentance has the support of the Tea Party and the business community. His quest for high standards which reflect Alabama’s values garners a diverse coalition of support, and this is what we need to get this issue resolved.”

What will be interesting on Tuesday, is to see how SBOE members like Jackie Zeigler and Cynthia Sanders McCarty respond to any motions that may arise regarding Sentance’s termination.

Another very interesting question is how the state legislature will view these actions. If the Board moves to terminate Sentance this soon, given all he’s accomplished in such a short time, most state leaders understand how deeply this will damage Alabama’s credibility.

For this reason, it’s not far-fetched to think the legislature may eventually conclude that it has no choice but to intervene. If the Board gets too far over its skis on this (politically), the legislature probably has the statutory authority to step in. Other states have used such creative solutions as a hybrid board—one composed of both elected and appointed members. Other successful states have fully appointed boards. There are compelling policy arguments for hybrid boards and if the SBOE ends up placing personality disputes and political vendettas above the welfare of Alabama’s students and teachers, don’t be surprised to see the legislature move in that direction.

Such a move would likely dilute an ineffective and entrenched board, ending its domination by the education establishment.

The SBOE is a constitutional body in Alabama, but the legislature has options. For example, in addition to an appointed or hybrid board, they could make Sentance’s job a cabinet-level position, just like the head of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency. That effectively makes the Superintendent an employee of the Governor, and largely defunds the SBOE down to a skeleton crew that simply manages federal grants and such.

Whatever way the legislature might choose to skin the cat, President Pro Tem of the Alabama Senate, Del Marsh, made it to clear to Yellowhammer that the issue is on the table, especially if the SBOE fires Mike Sentance before he’s been given a fair chance.

“There’s no doubt the Board is way too political. That’s why I’ve advocated for and support an appointed school board. If you look at the states that are successful in educating their children, most of them have appointed school boards. It works because it takes the politics out of the equation. I’m open to hybrid boards as well. The bottom line is, Mr. Sentance hasn’t been there long enough to get established, and this whole thing is just a way to push him out. If they move forward and push Sentance out, in my opinion, they’ve spiraled completely out of control.”

Come Tuesday, the SBOE will have the opportunity to prove that the talk of firing Sentance is just a rumor, as Stephanie Bell said. In the interim, we can only hope the Board will find the wisdom to subordinate its political quarrels to the good of the state.

If they don’t, Alabama’s children will be the losers. And what the rest of the country will conclude is that the importance of what those students learn, know, and achieve has again been lost in the vindictive swamp of Alabama’s insider politics. In the swamp,  getting even always trumps getting better.

For the sake of our children and teachers, we can only hope that the New Alabama will rise up and that will not be the case this Tuesday.

 

News Analysis by Larry Huff, Yellowhammer’s Executive Editor. You can follow him on Twitter at @LHYellowhammer

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11 hours ago

Regions latest to withdraw from BCA

Regions Financial Corp. became the latest company to withdraw its membership from the Business Council of Alabama. According to a story in the Montgomery Advertiser, the company formally notified BCA leadership of their intentions today.

This decision from one of the state’s largest employers comes on the heels of Alabama Power’s withdrawal from the business organization on Monday.

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Both companies had privately expressed concerns about the BCA’s leadership and direction. Their decisions to end long-standing relationships with the BCA mark a turning point in their collective effort to strengthen the business community’s approach to economic development and job growth.

BCA Chairman Perry Hand acknowledged for the first time on Monday that Billy Canary was, in fact, now the outgoing President of the group. In a letter made public by Hand, he detailed that Canary’s tenure would end sometime prior to the start of next year. The departing companies identified the uncertainty surrounding that transition as a significant contributing factor to their leaving.

In addition to BCA’s failure to settle on a timely and decisive transition plan, the companies also expressed concern over the group’s effectiveness and financial health. The Yellowhammer Multimedia Executive Board has itself explored some of these same issues facing BCA.

Regions Financial Corp. is a multi-state bank based out of Birmingham. According to its website, it is the only Fortune 500 company headquartered in Alabama and has $123 billion in assets.

Allison Ross is the owner and publisher of Yellowhammernews.com.

12 hours ago

Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox says he’s pro-life, but his language is chock-full of pro-choice phraseology

Earlier this month the Democrat Party’s nominee for governor, Walt Maddox, responded to a questionnaire about his views on many issues facing Alabamians, but his answers about abortion proved to be the most revealing, although probably unintentionally.

The Tuscaloosa mayor began by writing that he was “personally opposed to abortion,” a slippery term if there ever was one, before proceeding to use similar phrases that we normally hear from the pro-choice crowd.

It’s as if Maddox was sampling lines from an abortion apologist’s Greatest Hits album.

Why this matters: Alabama already has one pro-choice politician in high office with Sen. Doug “20 Weeks” Jones, who infamously voted against banning aborting unborn children when they’re 20-weeks old and capable of feeling pain. We cannot afford to have another one.

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The questionnaire was formulated by the editors of Yellowhammer News and our partners over at the Alabama Policy Institute. Here’s the rather straight-forward question on abortion:

“Alabama has four abortion clinics operating across the state, and Planned Parenthood has announced plans to build a new clinic in downtown Birmingham. How do you feel about these clinics and what would you do as governor about any taxpayer funds they receive?”

And here was the mayor’s answer, which as you can read isn’t really an answer at all:

“I’m a pro-life Democrat who is concerned that many Republicans are more pro-birth than pro-life,” Maddox wrote. “Perhaps Sister Joan Chittister best summed up my feelings when she said “I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.”

He continued. “Although I am personally opposed to abortion, under the law of the land a woman has a right to choose up until the point of fetal viability,” he wrote. “The federal Hyde Amendment prohibits use of federal funds to pay for abortions except those that endanger the life of the woman, or that result from rape or incest, and Alabama law does not provide any state funds for abortions. The courts will ultimately decide which of Alabama’s several laws regulating abortion are constitutional, including any restrictions on new abortion clinics. As a governor sworn to uphold the federal and state constitutions and the laws of Alabama, I will faithfully execute Alabama’s laws within the constitutional limits defined by the Supreme Court.”

Here’s a breakdown of Maddox’s pro-choice phraseology:

— “Republicans are more pro-birth than pro-life.” 

I’ve seen this same line in dozens of emails from pro-choice activists after every pro-life column I publish. 

It’s like clockwork. They can’t cope with keeping the focus on abortion because the act is indefensible, so they attempt to change the subject entirely with what they hope is a witty turn of phrase. 

But it’s not witty. It’s hollow, and betrays the hollowness of both their argument and the moral framework it’s built upon. 

The two issues — abortion and welfare — are two entirely different subjects. But in their world, it must be OK to end someone’s life if the state isn’t willing to provide for it financially (which we do for the truly needy, by the way).

— “Although I am personally opposed to abortion, under the law of the land a woman has a right to choose up until the point of fetal viability.”

Maddox is trying to have it both ways here, but this isn’t that sort of issue. If he believes an unborn child is a person, which I suppose forms the basis for his personal opposition to abortion, then any measure of morality would compel him to oppose it completely. 

The unborn child is either a living person or not, and if so, it’s life must be defended as anyone else’s life would be defended.

To believe that, personally, yet do nothing to stop it from happening means one is either a coward or creature of such unscrupulous ambition as to be wholly undeserving of public office.

— “The courts will ultimately decide.”

No, the people will, at least in the end.

But to the point: here Maddox evades the core question by falling back on courts, as if the governor has no role. As if nobody has a role but five of nine lawyers on the Supreme Court. But we’re not living in a judicial tyranny, at least not yet. 

There are many things the governor can do — sign pro-life bills into law, make executive decisions about funding certain abortion providers, and use the bully pulpit to encourage greater action.

It seems as if Maddox might not be willing to do any of those things, preferring to toss the hot potato over to the courts.

Fundamentally, this is weakness. I’m sure one could have heard an argument similar to Maddox’s in the 1850s: “Although I am personally opposed to slavery, under the law of the land a white man has a right to own a black man. So …”

Then he quotes Sister Joan Chittister, a Catholic nun, in what he may think is some sort of clever nod to faith. 

But conservative Catholics would see straight through this, too, because Sister Joan disagrees with Catholic teaching on abortion. She’s effectively pro-choice because she has said that she opposes it as a primary form of birth control but leaves room for abortion in many other situations, which makes her opinion on the matter decidedly not Catholic at all. 

The fact that of all the people he could quote, Maddox quotes a nun who disagrees with the Catholic teaching on abortion is very revealing.

Perhaps one of his staffers wrote the response, allowing their pro-choice phraseology to seep into the answers. Maybe he would have said more if given more space and time.

If it’s sincerely held, Maddox should stand strong on his personal opposition to abortion. We need more people who share his beliefs to step forward, to convince others, and to help put an end to the awful practice. 

Yellowhammer News would happily publish a guest post by Maddox should he wish to further explain his beliefs about abortion, and we’d hope such an explanation would dispense with wordy obfuscation and answer our inquiry more directly — since he is opposed to abortion, what would he do to stop abortions from happening in Alabama?

Until such an explanation is offered, Alabamians should remain very skeptical of Maddox’s views on abortion, and certainly his ability to represent a state whose citizens are overwhelmingly pro-life.

@jpepperbryarsis the editor of Yellowhammer News and the author of American Warfighter

13 hours ago

Far out: Univ. of Alabama astronomer helps discover a new type of black hole

Astronomy news is always old news because of, you know, light years and such.

About 750 million years ago, in a galaxy far, far away (queue the Star Wars intro), a black hole consumed a nearby star in an event that has revealed to astronomers the existence of something new: a mid-sized black hole.

Dr. Jimmy Irwin, an associate professor of astronomy at the University of Alabama who is part of the team that discovered this new type of black hole, explained the revelation in an interview with Yellowhammer News.

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Astronomers have established with good evidence the existence of “low-mass” black holes, which are judged to be between 3 and 30 times more massive than the sun, as well as “super-massive” black holes, one of which has been discovered in our own galaxy to be 4 million times more massive than the sun.

“We know that low-mass black holes form and we know that high-mass black holes form,” Dr. Irwin explained, “but between these two book ends, it’s not clear whether there’s a mechanism in nature that allows black holes to be formed with, say, a mass above one hundred times the mass of our sun and below one million times the mass of our sun.”

There’s pretty good evidence now, though, that such medium-sized black holes do exist.

As Dr. Irwin explained, when a black hole rips up and consumes a star, its debris becomes very hot and emits x-ray radiation, creating data that becomes observable over time.

“There’s already a built-in time lag, based upon the distance of the object,” Irwin said.

The observations that led to this discovery were made through what Dr. Irwin described as a detective-like process.

The astronomer who began the project, Dr. Dacheng Lin, was actually a post-doctoral researcher under Irwin in years past. Dr. Lin began looking back at data recorded by a variety of telescopes in Europe and the United States between 2003 and 2006 and discovered an observable change at a particular spot in this far-away universe.

“There was a bright x-ray source in one observation and it was dimmer in the next one,” Irwin explained.

“Piecing together the history he was able to discover that this probably happened, or at least this radiation reached the earth’s telescopes, probably sometime in 2003,” he said.

Irwin stressed that we’ve known about black holes for a long time, but not of this type.

“This idea of stars being torn apart isn’t a new idea,” he said. “What’s new is that we’re seeing stars ripped apart by one of these mid-sized black holes.”

@jeremywbeaman is a contributing writer for Yellowhammer News

13 hours ago

Rep. Roby: Combatting the opioid crisis at home and across the country

There are countless important issues currently facing our state and nation. From our ongoing conversations with North Korea to the continuing need for enhanced security at the southern border, there’s no shortage of priorities that warrant discussion. Unfortunately, there is one very serious issue that continues to make headlines: the horrific opioid epidemic that is gripping our state and the entire country.

I’m sure most of us know someone whose life has been affected by opioid abuse. Whether it’s prescription pain relievers or synthetic opioids like fentanyl, the crisis has only gotten worse. 64,070 people died from overdoses in our country in 2016, and 756 of those individuals were Alabamians. Now, in 2018, the problem has not improved. Did you know that 115 people in the United States die after overdosing on opioid drugs every single day? Just this year alone, it is estimated that more than 2 million Americans will suffer from opioid addiction.

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I’m pleased that last October, President Trump declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency. This epidemic has been wreaking havoc on communities and families across our country for far too long. While the statistics are certainly shocking, this is about so much more than numbers. Hundreds of thousands of real American people with lives, careers, and families have lost the battle with opioid drug abuse. That’s why the House has made combating this crisis a top priority over the last several years.

You may remember that back in 2016, Congress passed the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act and the 21st Century Cures Act. Earlier this year, we provided $4 billion in government funding specifically to address the opioid crisis. Building upon this work, the House recently passed dozens of meaningful bills to further combat the opioid epidemic, and I’d like to share the four ways we are using this legislation to help fight this serious issue.

First, with the recently passed legislation, the House is focusing on treatment and recovery. Our bills improve and expand access to treatment and recovery services, provide incentives for enhanced care, and establish comprehensive opioid recovery centers. Hundreds of thousands of Americans from all walks of life are currently trapped by addiction, and it is imperative that we provide the resources to treat their addiction and help them recover.

Second, we’re aiming for prevention. Opioids are an important part of modern day medical care for pain treatment, but they are prescribed entirely too often – and at alarming rates. Our legislation addresses these high prescribing rates while enhancing prescription drug monitoring programs. We have the technology, and it’s past time we used it to more effectively address this crisis. Our legislation also encourages non-addictive opioid alternatives, when practical, to treat pain, and improves the data that allows us to identify and help at-risk patients before the problem becomes dangerously serious.

Third, we’re making efforts to better protect communities of all sizes throughout the country by giving law enforcement the tools necessary to remove dangerous drugs. Our bills also enable us to better intercept illicit opioids at international mail facilities and improve access to federal resources for local communities.

Last but certainly not least, we’re fighting fentanyl. The legislation we passed in the House allows us to better tackle these ever-changing synthetic drugs, crack down on foreign shipments of illicit drugs, and provide grants for communities to combat fentanyl that is destroying lives as we speak.

I am proud of the efforts we’ve made in the House recently to press forward in our fight against this horrible crisis gripping our state and nation, but our work is far from complete. We owe it to the more than 40,000 Americans who die every year – and their families – to push on until strong progress is made. You can read more about our work to combat the opioid epidemic by visiting www.opioidcrisis.gop.

U.S. Rep. Martha Roby is a Republican from Montgomery.

14 hours ago

‘Moderate’ Doug Jones continues to prove he is just another liberal on immigration

Senator Doug Jones’ views on immigration seem to line up more with California Senator Kamala Harris than they do with Alabama voters. He has endorsed Harris’ long-shot attempt to end “child separation” at the border as a standalone bill.

He has also taken to Twitter to publicly blame President Trump for the entire problem:

These aren’t really new positions by Senator Jones.

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In an American Immigration Council article by Melissa Cruz, she points out his views, which are very clear over his career:

“Jones opposes construction of the Trump administration’s U.S.-Mexico border wall

“Jones did not support the termination of the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative”

“Jones favors upgrading the immigration system. Specifically, he has proposed reassessing the current quota system, as well as looking at potential overhauls to the administrative procedures for immigration.”

“If we can make a more streamlined process of allowing immigrants into this country legally…” Jones said, “we would have far less undocumented immigrants.”

“Jones publicly spoke out against HB 56—then considered the harshest anti-immigrant law in the country—and reiterated that position throughout his campaign.”

Why this matters:

No one believes Senator Jones would be in D.C. if it was not for the fact that the Republicans nominated a completely destroyed dumpster fire named Roy Moore.

The selling point by Alabama’s political press was that “Jones isn’t even that liberal”, a tactic they are using with Walt Maddox as well.

The problem for Jones is that eventually votes will have to be cast and positions will have to be taken.

The reality is Jones is wildly out of step with most Alabamians and every passing day will expose that.

TheDaleJackson is a contributing writer to Yellowhammer News and hosts a conservative talk show from 7-11 am weekdays on WVNN