Education Activists Seek to Rescind Hire of Ala. Superintendent

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About three dozen people organized by education advocate Larry Lee have signed on to be plaintiffs in looming legal action intended to rescind the hiring of Alabama Superintendent Michael Sentance. The group alleges Sentance is unqualified according to state law and that his hiring after he formally withdrew as a candidate violates case law. Attempts to reach Sentence were unsuccessful as of this writing.

Attorney Susan Copeland of Fuller & Copeland says she’ll file the complaint against the state school board and the superintendent in Montgomery Circuit Court within three weeks.

The complaint – and other possible future legal actions – will be funded by the Alabama Public School Defense Fund, which Lee says is “just a name, a bank account, and a post office, for now.” The APSDF will get its money at least in part via crowdfunding through a GoFundMe page.

Alabama State Schools Superintendent Michael Sentance
Alabama State Schools Superintendent Michael Sentance

Lee describes the effort as “drawing a line in the sand … The educators’ voices are totally ignored. Michael Sentance was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Sentance, an education consultant from Massachusetts, was hired in August by the state school board over candidates that had more experience in classrooms and running school systems. Sentance has none and has a law degree, not an education degree, but has been a high-level education advisor to leaders around the country.

Rank and file educators favored other candidates, including Jefferson County Schools Superintendent Craig Pouncey, who had his ethics questioned just before the vote that resulted in Sentance’s hiring. Some state board members and other education leaders think the timing and the anonymity of the ethics complaint merits an investigation.

“Some real questions surround [the board’s] decision to hire Sentance,” says attorney Copeland. “An anonymous ethics complaint? Right before the selection? It just doesn’t pass the smell test.”

Copeland adds that legally, once a candidate withdraws and the deadline passes, it’s as if the candidate never applied. Sentence had applied and then withdrew on June 27 due to “a series of personal issues,” but then rescinded his withdrawal the next day. The deadline was June 7.

The list of potential plaintiffs includes mainly retired educators, a retired journalist, a Marine, and former U.S. Congressman Parker Griffith.

“We didn’t ask current educators, current employees, for obvious reasons,” says Lee.

He sees APSDF as a counterweight to lobbyists and politicians who “don’t put the state’s 743,000 public school students first.” He blames the controversial Alabama Accountability Act (which diverts tax revenue to private schools), the upcoming A-through-F school-grading system (which will grade on a mandated mathematical curve), and perpetual underfunding of the state’s public schools on that imbalance of power.

On a related note, state senator Gerald Dial (R-Chambers County) has prefiled Senate Bill 6, which, if passed next spring and signed into law, would effectively raise the standards for state superintendent up to the level of what’s required to be a county superintendent in Alabama. Some of those requirements for county schools chiefs that aren’t requirement for the state schools chief include an Alabama certificate in administration and supervision, at least five years of public school work experience, and proof that he or she is knowledgeable in school administration.

On Wednesday, October 12, the state board of education will hold a special called meeting to discuss how the state superintendent will be evaluated.

This story will be updated.