Knowing space was very limited for the special work session today, I stayed home and tuned in on my computer while the eight elected state school board members addressed superintendent Mike Sentance about a lengthy list of concerns.

Honest, it was painful to watch.  While no one lost their temper and kept discussion civil,  it was obvious some board members were not happy at all with recent decisions by Sentance, who kept his responses to a minimum and certainly did not appear comfortable.  But who can blame him?

Barely six months on the job and your board wants to have a “come to Jesus” with you is not a sign that all is well.

But truth is, the board has to take some responsiblity for the mess we’re in.  And I don’t mean because they hired him.  Instead, because they obviously gave him little guidance to begin with.  Or maybe they just expected way too much.  Maybe they thought he would try to figure out what the challenges are in our public schools before he started making sweeping and drastic changes.  Maybe they thought he would spend time learning our history, culture and nuisances instead of constantly comparing Alabama to Massachusetts, which makes as much sense as comparing your local high school football team to the one Nick Saban coaches in Tuscaloosa.

However, as we too well know now, none of that happened and here we are with scant chance of improvement so long as he is at the helm of the state education department.

Here are my takeaways:

  •  Sentnace said that children of poverty need to take pencil and paper tests because they can not handle digital tests well.  (Earlier on March 8th he attended the annual Council for Leaders in Alabama Schools (CLAS) annual Banner School Celebration.  Ten schools from Bayor La Batre to Huntsville were recognized for their outstanding work.  Many of them high poverty schools.  Had he bothered to stick around for the school presentations he might have learned differently.)
  • Board members continually brought up the fact that Sentance is not communicating with them and consequently they are being blindsided by questions from legislators and educators they can not answer.  This was especially a sticking point with members Stephanie Bell and Cynthia McCarty.
  • Sentance seems especially critical of the Alabama Reading Initiative, which has been highly acclaimed-acclaimed in the past.  He says new teachers come out of college not knowing how to teach reading.  Says that principals have no confidence in their teachers.  (However, he never mentions that Massachusetts felt so strongly about what Alabama was doing that they copied our program.)  But member Jeff Newman pointed out that his wife was a reading coach and when funding for the Education Trust Fund was cut after the 2008 recession, many reading coaches were repurposed as instructional coaches which hurt ARI.
  • At one point Sentance spoke about working with the legislature and Stephanie Bell reminded him quite plainly that he was hired by the board of education and he works for the board of education–not the governor, nor the legislature.  She also told him that in the past the board has weighed in as to whether proposed legislation is good or bad, but they have not had that opportunity to do so lately.
  • Mary Scott Hunter made a statement about board members and “professionalism.”  This drew raised eyebrows from several board members in light of the fact that Hunter is now being sued for the lack of professionalism she showed during the search process last summer.
  • When news got out late last week that Sentance’s proposed reorganization plan (which he paid consultants nearly $27,000 to develop), moves Career Tech Education from a stand alone department to having to answer to another level of bureaucracy, the career tech community came undone.  And this is a very extensive network.  Board members were instantly swamped with phone calls and emails. Newman said he had at least 200 calls.  Sentance said he sent an email to board members about 9 a.m. Friday morning trying to clarify the situation.  Newman  told him, “I was already getting phone calls by then.”  The board was adamant to the superintendent that they would not approve his plan to reshuffle career tech.  When Ella Bell said, “This board will not change career tech,” the audience burst into applause.
  • Her comments were echoed by Jeff Newman, who worked in career tech for 18 years.  He stated simply, “We don’t need to mess with what is working now.”

Other topics covered were what does Sentance plan to do to help failing schools.  He said he was creating an Office of School Improvement and would tell the board at their next meeting about who he planned to hire to run this.  To which Stephanie Bell asked, “Why don’t we know about this already?”

Cynthia McCarty pointed out that the last failing school list included a number of high schools that were judged failing simply on one test (ACT Aspire) taken by 10th graders.  She thought this was very unfair.  Sentance responded that these scores should not have counted because schools were taking them for the first time.  (But he failed to mention that he had received a letter from the U.S. Department of Education on Jan. 7th questioning if ACT Aspire is properly aligned with Alabama standards.  Then the failing school list came out the following week and Sentance never said a word about the predicament these high schools were in.  Never did he issue a statement that the list was probably badly flawed.  Instead, he just left them and their systems dangling in the wind while the media had a feeding frenzy about low-performing schools.)

It was pointed out that Sentance is supposed to give the board a monthly report and has yet to do so.  There was discussion about two recent contracts Sentance asked for that total more than $1.2 million that the board knew nothing about.

New member Jackie Zeigler may have made the most salient point of the two and one-half hour session.  “We are diminishing teacher morale when we talk about cutting funding for many of their best programs such as the Alabama Math Science and Technology Initiative and Science in Motion.”.

To me, this is a critical part of being the state leader of a school system with 730,000 students.  Words have consequences.  You can not continue to demean teachers, colleges, and even students as Sentance did with his comments about poverty kids, and expect anyone to want to follow you.  How do you encourage young people to enter the teaching profession if all they hear is what is wrong–not what is right?

If you have been married for just six months and are already seeing a counselor, chances are things will not end well.  That is the situation we face in Alabama.  Sooner or later we will end up in divorce count.  For the sake of 730,000 students, let’s hope it comes soon.