State board of education vents concerns with superintendent

State board of education members put the brakes on superintendent Michael Sentance during a marathon work session on Wednesday, saying they need more information about the changes he has been floating in recent months.

Those proposed changes have stirred concerns among educators and lawmakers, and board members have been hearing from their constituents on a regular basis, asking questions board members can't answer, they said.

"You don't let your board members be blindsided," said board member Jeff Newman, a Republican who represents areas of northwest Alabama.

Long-time board member Stephanie Bell, a Republican representing areas of central Alabama, stressed the need for Sentance to communicate better with the board about not only the changes he is considering but his rationale for doing so. "There is an extreme lack of communication," Bell said.

Throughout most of the meeting, Sentance sat quietly listening to criticism and concerns from board members about everything from who he should tell first about his plans to whether he should be meeting with lawmakers without letting board members know ahead of time.

"This board appointed you state school superintendent," Stephanie Bell said. "You work for this board." Bell told Sentance he should provide more information in writing to board members to allow them to share that information with constituents.

The agenda, set the day before, spanned a gamut of issues that have raised the ire of educators in recent weeks, culminating in board members being inundated with phone calls and emails last Friday after a proposed reorganization of the state department was leaked to educators and misinformation spread like wildfire.

Trisha Powell Crain | tcrain@al.com 

"I profoundly regret the Friday problem," Sentance said, adding, "I was blindsided as well."

Sentance apologized and said he will work to improve communication with the board. "The tension here is at what point do I come before the board to develop a new idea or proposal," he said.

Board member Dr. Cynthia McCarty, a Republican who represents areas of central and north Alabama, said, "Communication is critical with us. Sometimes there's a fear that comes when tidbits of information are let out."

State board of education members Jackie Zeigler, R-Mobile, and Dr. Cynthia McCarty, R-Jacksonville.Trisha Crain / tcrain@al.com 

After board member Mary Scott Hunter said the department is "sort of leaky," Sentance responded, "We do have a leaky ship here. We make the Titanic look sea-worthy."

Board member Ella Bell, a Democrat who represents areas of central Alabama, said she didn't believe Sentance could be held responsible for the leak of information on Friday. "The only thing you can do is make sure your trusted staff doesn't send it out until it's supposed to get out," she said.

Board members suggested meeting more frequently for the time being, given the number of changes Sentance is considering.

Sentance, a Massachusetts native, has been candid about changes he believes are necessary to improve education in Alabama. Nothing has been off limits.

In recent months, Sentance has convened committees to consider restructuring math, science, and reading standards and instruction, proposed changing the annual test used in schools for accountability, taken over Montgomery's struggling public schools, and proposed massive restructuring of the state's popular reading, math, and science initiatives.

Slow down, board members told Sentance. Take the time to get buy-in from those working in education, Jackie Zeigler, the newest board member, a Republican representing parts of south Alabama, said.

The meeting room was full, and overflow rooms were made available.

One by one, board members made it clear that they expect Sentance to keep popular instructional programs in place. Those programs include the Alabama Reading Initiative, the Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative, and the Alabama Science in Motion program.

Sentance has faced heavy resistance since he first proposed phasing those programs out over the next three years in favor of center-based professional development models.

Board members said it makes better sense to improve and strengthen those programs rather than doing away with them altogether.

"We're not saying 'don't change anything.' What we're saying is these programs have value and they can be optimized. They can be improved," board member Mary Scott Hunter said. Hunter, a Republican, represents areas of northeast Alabama.

State board members Mary Scott Hunter, R-Huntsville, and Jeff Newman, R-Millport at March 8, 2017, work session.Trisha Crain / tcrain@al.com 

"My goal is to make math and science a strength, not a weakness in this state," Sentance replied.

Sentance said he has seen AMSTI in action and sees how excited students are and how passionate teachers are. "All of those things are terrific," he said. "My issue is how do I take that excitement and build it into achievement. Because the achievement issue is static. It hasn't moved."

Stephanie Bell agreed that improvements are needed in those programs, but Bell stressed it is important not to send a message to lawmakers that they're "getting rid of them."  

Hunter acknowledged the evaluations of ARI showed improvements were needed and encouraged Sentance to continue to bring those types of reports to the board. "We know you're going to find problems."

The room was filled with career technical educators wearing badges saying "NO changes to career tech." At one point, Ella Bell said, "The board is behind career tech. The board won't approve a change to career tech unless it's going to improve career tech." The crowd applauded.

Richardson said some board members asked for a list of department employees making more than $75,000 and what their job descriptions are. Sentance reminded board members those salaries are online at open.alabama.gov but agreed to provide to them a list.

A look at open.alabama.gov showed the department employed 259 people earning more than $75,000 during FY2016. Of those, 48 earned more than $100,000.

The board expressed interest in contracts awarded by the department. Stephanie Bell said she has requested five years' worth of contracts but has not yet received that information. Sentance said they are working to pull it together.

McCarty said she wants the board to have more information about money spent within the department. The board is responsible for approving the department's budget, she said, but they don't have enough information to do so. She wants the board to see monthly reports showing budgeted versus actual amounts spent. Other board members agreed.

The board then reviewed the superintendent evaluation they approved last December. Stephanie Bell said they wanted to bring this up to allow all to understand what Sentance is expected to do. Richardson said this is not a formal review, but Sentance has been superintendent for six months and thought it would be helpful to review the items he will be held accountable for.

Among other issues raised were whether students would still take the ACT Aspire after questions were raised about its alignment to Alabama's course of study.

Sentance said state officials are considering moving to another test, and said he is interested in Alabama creating its own test. "When you control your standards and your assessments, you control your destiny," he said.

Alabama superintendent Michael Sentance at state board of education work session, March 8, 2017.Trisha Crain / tcrain@al.com 

Though board members generally seemed pleased their concerns were aired, board Vice President Dr. Yvette Richardson, a Democrat who represents areas of central Alabama, said after the meeting there are a few items on the agenda that need further discussion.

After the meeting, Sentance said, "I realize I was moving very fast. I was working very fast because I come to work with the urgency knowing that kids only have one year in the third grade. They need the best third grade, and I'm trying to do something about that. That's a moral issue for me.

"I know I'm trying to make a lot of changes on a lot of different levels, some small, some large. I won't tell you that I'm terribly adept as a politician, I am not. But I need to do a better job at communicating with people about what is going on. 

"I've heard what they told me, and now I have to go back and rethink how I can attack these issues and try to address them in other ways," he said.

The board meets again Thursday morning in a regular meeting at 10 a.m., with another work session immediately following.

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