3 years 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

4 hours ago

Jones: ‘Whole lot of blame to go around’ for COVID deaths — Points to Trump administration, China, WHO

U.S. Senator Doug Jones (D-AL) on Thursday hosted a live-streamed availability with Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris regarding the coronavirus.

Jones and Harris each made opening remarks, including updates on Alabama’s COVID-19 data as well as ongoing efforts to combat the pandemic.

The two officials then answered questions from members of the media that were submitted ahead of time.

For example, Jones was asked, “What would you tell people now that the number of deaths from coronavirus in the U.S. has surpassed 100,000? Many commentators are blaming the White House response. And are the current reopening strategies of Alabama and other states premature?”


“Well, you know, look, I’ve seen the commentators — and I don’t think we’re at a point where we should be pointing a whole lot of blame,” Jones answered, before appearing to do just that.

“There’s a whole lot of blame to go around,” he continued. “I think we have to point to China for some of the issues that they raised. I was disappointed at some of the early response from the [World Health Organization], even though we could have done a better job with testing in this country.”

Jones then placed some “blame” at the feet of President Donald J. Trump and his administration.

“I’ve been disappointed in the administration and their early responses,” the junior senator advised. “You talk about ‘cavalier attitudes,’ I think the president had one early on. All of that has, perhaps, affected where we are in this country.”

“But I think the key right now is where we are today and what we’re planning on doing going forward,” Jones added.

He subsequently questioned the notion that reopening strategies for Alabama and other states in general are “premature.”

Jones outlined that reopening can be done safely if people continue to listen to health experts like Harris and follow social distancing/sanitation guidelines.  Jones urged Alabamians to wear masks in public.

“I don’t think that reopening is inconsistent with trying to stop this spread by [doing] the same things that people have been saying since this virus came to this country,” he said. “And that is to social distance, that is to make sure you wear the masks… to protect you and others. If we continue to do that, if we could just get used to that — I think that’s been the biggest issue right now. Some people just don’t want to be told to do it, and I get that. But the fact is if people could just get used to doing this, we could stop the spread.”

Earlier in the live stream, he was complimentary of recent state-level efforts led by Harris and Governor Kay Ivey related to the pandemic.

“Alabama is still seeing a significant number of cases. We have begun to open up, and we’ve begun to open up — I think — carefully and wisely, following the science,” Jones commented. “And I think the governor has done a very good job of trying to get two messages out. Yes, we want to open up, we want to get the economy rolling again. But at the same time, we’ve got to do it safely. And it’s that latter message that I’m not sure folks are hearing as much. You only have to see the pictures from the beaches and other places in Alabama and around the country to see that folks are not quite getting the message that this virus is still out there, it is still dangerous, it is still deadly. And we want to open up, but opening up is not inconsistent with what we should be doing to protect ourselves and our families and our communities.”

Jones further remarked that Harris “has done a great job” helping lead Alabama’s response to the pandemic.

Other topics covered during the live stream included Jones’ hope that live sports can return with fans in attendance this fall, as well as Harris explaining that while increased testing could explain a portion of Alabama’s rising number of positive COVID-19 cases, community spread is occurring in multiple hotspots.

You can watch the entire live stream below:

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

5 hours ago

Huntsville doctor using hydroxychloroquine for some COVID-19 patients

An infectious disease doctor at Huntsville Hospital says he continues to use the drug hydroxychloroquine to treat some patients with the coronavirus.

The drug, often championed by President Donald Trump, has been the subject of intense nationwide discussion during the pandemic.

A recent retrospective study published in the scientific journal The Lancet showed evidence that hydroxychlorquine had no positive results for hospitalized patients.

WAFF asked Dr. Ali Hassoun of Huntsville Hospital about the article published in The Lancet. He said the type of study and characteristics of the subjects meant that it was not good enough evidence to stop using hydroxychloroquine.


Hassoun says he continues to treat patients with the drug as long as they are not at risk for the side effects.

A top infectious disease expert at UAB Hospital recently told Yellowhammer News that he and his team do not recommend hydroxychloroquine for hospitalized patients.

Most of the published evidence used to fuel media articles on hydroxychloroquine’s ineffectiveness have used studies done on hospitalized subjects.

Another member of the team at UAB, Dr. Turner Overton, is currently helping conduct a trial studying hydroxychloroquine’s ability to treat the coronavirus in its earliest stages.

Hassoun did not reveal in his interviews the condition of the patients to whom he is giving hydroxychloroquine.

Another drug, remdesivir, has shown in studies to be effective at treating hospitalized COVID-19 patients, but the supply is low.

Hassoun told WAFF he is prescribing remdesivir as well.

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95

5 hours ago

Twitter should back down, and Trump should back off

American politics are about to enter a precarious place where the messages put out by politicians, or maybe only one politician, are going to be filtered by nameless and faceless tech employees that work for Twitter.

As we all know, Twitter is the tool used by President Donald Trump to get around the gate-keeping and absurd bias of the mainstream media.

Until this week, he had an unfiltered avenue to speak directly to the American people, and they had an avenue to hear him.


Of course, afterward, anyone and everyone with a TV, newspaper byline or Twitter account could respond and call him a liar, fraud, treasonous monster or whatever they wanted.

But Twitter decided to step in and decide that they would start behaving differently, just for Trump, and editorialize on his content.

While they could have chosen to do so on his claims that MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough needed to be looked at as a potential murderer, but they didn’t.

SIDENOTE: There is a tape where he jokes about having an affair and killing her.

Instead, Twitter decided they needed to go after the president on the issue of voter fraud.

Twitter editorialized this tweet by adding: “Get the facts about mail-in ballots” with links to content accusing the president of getting the facts wrong.

The reality is Democrats are pushing for all vote-by-mail elections.

Some states are automatically mailing ballots to all registered voters, while some are just mailing applications.

But this is far worse than this particular case. It’s the precedent being set.

Why Trump?

When Trump gets some of the info wrong, let the media and his political enemies call him out.

Why not all the elected officials who continued to allege Russian collusion for years, and still do to this day on Twitter?

What about media figures who spread dangerous misinformation about the motives of their fellow citizens and use Twitter to delimitate their attacks?

Why not Ayatollah Khomeini, who openly threatens Isreal?

Why not the official Chinese government Twitter accounts that accuse the United States of spreading the coronavirus?

The last two don’t even allow their citizens to use Twitter, but Twitter will bow down to them?

What about the people claiming former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions didn’t have to recuse himself? He did.

What about those who think U.S. Senator Doug Jones (D-AL) has a chance at reelection? He doesn’t.

What about the anonymous guy who accuses me of numerous crimes and misdeeds on Twitter daily?

Does that guy now get a note depicting that his comments are untrue or unfounded?

What about essentially every column written by the bitter losers at Alabama Media Group? They had to dump their comment section because their commenters were crushing their souls. Will Twitter’s CEO or site integrity police call out their misinformation?

We could do this all day.

That’s the point. Moderation of this kind and on this scale is impossible.

It can’t be done effectively. That’s the purpose of the rule Trump wants reinterpreted.

More importantly, it should not be done — and it especially should not be done to one individual.

It shouldn’t matter how many times Joe Scarborough or any of CNN’s interchangeable talking heads declare, “This should be taken down,” Twitter should just stay out of moderating political debates because they will inevitably get it wrong and if they don’t editorialize, they now accept it.

What if Trump tweets “LOOK at all the lies Joe Biden has told, from the lies about his wife’s death to the lies about his son’s business dealings!”

If Twitter lets them stand, they are now confirmed? (SIDENOTE: They are confirmed)

Facebook actually got this as close to right as you could expect. They have attempted to discredit things linked to their site with a bit of a mixed bag approach that has angered liberals and conservatives alike.

But Twitter has now awakened the president, and he has the ability to raise questions about their status as a forum and not a publisher.

If Twitter is smart, they will follow the lead of Facebook’s CEO of stop trying to act as the arbiter of truth. Zuckerberg believes Twitter went too far, saying, “I think in general private companies probably shouldn’t be – especially these platform companies – shouldn’t be in the position of doing that.”

Truthfully, Zuckerberg knows that Twitter is dragging him (and Google) into this, and he wants no part of it, nor should he.

Trump’s potential executive order makes his position clear, “This practice is fundamentally un-American and anti-democratic. When large, powerful social media companies censor opinions with which they disagree, they exercise a dangerous power.”

He wants to strip them of immunity, meaning if they want to editorialize, then they are responsible for anything that they allow.

This will either force Twitter to back down on moderation or die as it currently exists and take down most social media sites with it.

As with any executive order, the next president can change the rules (except for DACA, apparently).

It’s pretty clear that Twitter has over-stepped here, and they only have two options if the president’s order becomes a reality and survives a court challenge: back down on moderation of political speech or be crushed by lawsuits and government oversight.

The correct move by Twitter would be to stop this nonsense right now, acknowledge that they will stop moderating political speech, and move on knowing they messed up.

Dale Jackson is a contributing writer to Yellowhammer News and hosts a talk show from 7-11 AM weekdays on WVNN.

5 hours ago

Wind Creek facilities in Alabama reopening June 8

Wind Creek Hospitality has announced that it is reopening all three of its resort-style gaming properties in Alabama over the next two weeks.

A release detailed that a soft opening to small groups of invited guests will begin Thursday, June 4, followed by a public opening for the “new” full operation on Monday, June 8.

The Wind Creek properties affected are in Atmore, Wetumpka and Montgomery, resepctively.

The company is instituting new policies to ensure that guests can enjoy themselves as safely as possible. This will include temperature checks for all guests and employees, and masks or face coverings will be required for everyone.


Guests are asked to bring their own mask, however players who do not have their own mask will be able to acquire one on property for a small donation supporting local first responders, health care providers and COVID-19 patient relief funds.

Smoking will only be allowed in designated spots separate from the gaming floor, restaurants and other public areas.

To accommodate social distancing, all of the properties will be limiting the number of guests on the casino floor; this new maximum capacity will be roughly one-third of normal operations. All locations are employing increased distances between tables in dining venues and clearly marking appropriate distances near hotel check-in, player services and other areas where lines historically formed.

Upon reopening, the casino floor will be open to the public for four sessions each day and deep cleaning will be conducted between sessions. These deep-cleaning efforts will come in addition to the cleaning of each machine before and after every guest.

Once Wind Creek properties open for general admission on June 8, special waiting areas will be available for guests at each property if a property is at capacity.

For those who want to plan ahead, Wind Creek is introducing a new reservation system that lets guests make a reservation for a particular session up to 14 days in advance.

According to Jay Dorris, CEO and president of Wind Creek, “Just like your favorite restaurant on a Friday night, a reservation isn’t required. But if you absolutely want to join us on a given day and time, reservations are available.”

With limited capacity, demand is sure to be high. By encouraging guests to reserve a visit, Wind Creek is hoping to eliminate any lines that make it difficult to maintain a six-foot distance.

The reservation system will be open to guests by June 3 online here. Reservations can also be made by calling (866) WIND-360 [866.946.3360] or a casino host.

It has not yet been announced when the Wind Creek-owned Mobile Greyhound Park will reopen. All of Wind Creek’s properties across the globe voluntarily closed in early March due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

6 hours ago

Sessions says DoJ regulations requiring recusal ‘basically had the impact of law’; Questions Tuberville’s commitment to Trump’s China, trade policies

What happened regarding the 2017 decision by then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from involvement in any investigation into allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election will have a lasting impact on presidential appointments for the foreseeable future.

Future presidents and presidents-elect will be reluctant to appoint anyone politically active to the U.S. Attorney General post in the future given the interpretation of the Department of Justice regulations on investigations into campaigns.

During an interview that aired on Auburn radio’s WQSI, Sessions, candidate for U.S. Senate in Alabama, explained the regulation he was following and how it was “basically” the law. He also called his decision fundamental in that a law enforcement official could not investigate himself.


“The code of federal regulations is where it is,” Sessions said. “It’s not just guidance, letter or a policy point from the attorney general or something. It is a notice. It is published nationwide. People can hear it, make complaints to it, and then it becomes adopted. For the people at the Department [of Justice], it basically has the impact of law. The attorney general can’t change it, number one. Number two, it’s just basic. The district attorney in Lee County can’t investigate if he worked at a bank the bank he worked at, where he would be a witness to the investigation, in which they may have suggested he was involved in wrongdoing at the bank. You can’t investigate yourself. This is a fundamental principle. But the regulation says if you participate in a political organization in a substantial role, you’re not able to investigate yourself.”

Sessions noted former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), U.S. Attorney General William Barr, and former U.S. Attorneys General Ed Meese and Mike Mukasey agreed with his decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation.

When asked if he would accept the appointment now knowing what he knows, Sessions offered his mindset on the 2016 offer from then-President-elect Trump.

“Look, I believe that I was ready to lead that department,” he said. “I spent 14 years in that department. I had supervisory oversight for 20 years. I knew what the problems were, and we did some tremendous things.”

When asked for a yes or no answer regarding what he might do had he known about the obstacles that were to lie ahead for him when offered the post, Sessions declined.

“You can’t go back on those kinds of things, Jeff,” he replied. “That’s just a silly thought, frankly. I don’t mean to be dismissive, but we’re not going there. I took the job. I did my best duty. I serve at the pleasure of the president. The question is right now — we talked about my situation over and over and over again. Let’s talk about Tommy Tuberville.”

Sessions went on to raise his July 14 GOP primary opponent Tommy Tuberville’s comments about U.S. policy regarding China, trade.

“Who is going to help the president carry out his agenda?” Sessions added.

@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University and the University of South Alabama, the editor of Breitbart TV, a columnist for Mobile’s Lagniappe Weekly and host of Huntsville’s “The Jeff Poor Show” from 2-5 p.m. on WVNN.