Of all the problems interim state school chief Ed Richardson inherited from Mike Sentance, the most difficult to make sense out of is probably the state intervention in the Montgomery County school system.

Since Sentance had never been involved in such an effort, a few missteps were to be expected.  But in this case, it was an ongoing series of decisions that made little sense and cost a lot of money.  There was the decision to only take over 27 of the system’s schools, something that experienced educators could not wrap their heads around.  (Interim superintendent Richardson said this “made no sense.”) The decision to give a 10 percent raise to each principal of these schools–but not those of top-performing schools.

The decision to do a no-bid, three-year contract for a CFO for $750,000.  The decision to hire a Massachusetts consulting firm for $536,000 to evaluate schools.  The decision to hire someone from the Mobile system with extremely limited experience in working with “turnaround” efforts.

Richardson told the state board of education that figuring out what is going on in Montgomery is “more complex than anticipated.”

The interim superintendent recently spoke to the Montgomery County school board in an open meeting.  As is his nature, he pulled no punches.  And he made it plain that any time there is need for intervention in a local school system it is because the school board has not performed well.

My primary concern,” he told the board, “is the education of students.  I am not as concerned about the grownups.”

Richardson pointed out that during his career he has probably been involved in at least 15 school system interventions.  All of them have common factors.

One being actions of the local school board.

“For some reason, as soon as board members are seated, they immediately become educational experts,” said Richardson.  “This is a fatal flaw.”  He went on to explain that this attitude often impacts the selection of a highly competent superintendent.  “Too often superintendents are selected because they will follow the board’s lead, not because they are highly competent or have proven leadership ability.”

“Immediately, principals and teachers see this and recognize the superintendent is not in charge and they are therefore reluctant to follow this person.  The result is gridlock.”

Richardson also pointed out that too often school boards view themselves as an employment agency for friends and acquaintances without regard to a level of competence.  “The board is only responsible for hiring the superintendent, attorney and chief financial officer,” he said.  “Other hires are the responsiblity of the superintendent.  When this is not the case, the superintendent is undermined.”

These are strong words.  But much-needed ones.  And they apply to every school board in the state–including the state board of education.

There are 67 county systems in the state and 71 city systems.  All county boards are elected and 22 of the 71 city boards are.  Ed Richardson’s words point out why we should take school board elections very seriously.