State school board calls special meeting to talk about $1.3 million in recent contracts

The state board of education will hold a special work session on Wednesday afternoon at 3:30 p.m. "to discuss financial matters" according to a notice posted on the open meetings notice web site. 

State board of education vice president Dr. Yvette Richardson, D-Birmingham, said no action will be taken, and that she called the work session after board members received hundreds of phone calls and emails from constituents concerned about actions State Superintendent Michael Sentance has taken in recent days. 

The agenda indicates multiple discussion items, including the Alabama Reading Initiative and the Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative, which Sentance has discussed reforming. Both are part of a larger strategic plan Sentance has referred to, and that item is also on the agenda.

Also on the agenda are items directly related to Sentance's performance as superintendent, including a "six months' performance feedback" and "communication."

Some board members have said publicly they are frustrated with the lack of communication from Sentance. The evaluation document board members will use to evaluate Sentance's performance as superintendent was unanimously approved in December.

Other agenda items include the contract approval policy and career technical education and workforce plan. Both have been items of contention in recent days.

The board's regular monthly meeting and work session were already scheduled for March 9, Richardson acknowledged, but those agendas are usually worked out far in advance and are likely full.

When asked why she called a special meeting, Richardson said: "I wanted to be responsive to constituents calling with concerns." 

$1.3 million in contracts

Two contracts awarded by the state department, worth nearly $1.3 million in total, were delayed after questions were raised by the state legislature's Contract Review committee. Both contracts are related to the state department's intervention in Montgomery County Schools.

After the board's vote to formally intervene in Montgomery public schools, Sentance told reporters the department had set aside $1 million to spend on the intervention, but didn't give any further details as to how that money would be spent. 

Prior state interventions have been based primarily on financial, not academic reasons, making Montgomery County's intervention unique.

Sentance has said previously Alabama has no infrastructure to support turning around schools and school systems academically. He said he wants to create a division for school turnaround within the department. 

The first contract that raised questions was a $536,000 contract with Class Measures, a company with which Sentance had contact prior to the release of the RFP, according to The Decatur Daily, letting them know the RFP would be forthcoming. 

Class Measures specializes in Ofsted school reviews, which, according to Sentance, is the only international credential recognized as being high quality.

"I want the best that we have in the world to be brought into Alabama and to use that," Sentance said.

The RFP specifically requested vendors who can conduct Ofsted reviews, and that "the entity should be proficient in evaluating the different aspects of the school's organization, instruction, and culture. Using sound methodology, the results should reveal the current performance level of each school, identify areas of need, and provide recommendations to improve the social and academic aspects of the school." 

The second contract, for $762,000, was held up by the committee last week after Rep. John Knight, D-Montgomery, said he was under the impression the contract was for much less than that.

"I want the contract held up until such time as I have a full understanding of what the contract is for, who's being paid under the contract, what the deliverables are, that type of thing," Knight said.

The contract review committee can hold contracts for up to 45 days but cannot cancel them.

Michael Sibley, director of communications for the Department of Education, said the contract would cover a broad range of services and objectives in overseeing the business and support operations of Montgomery schools during the intervention.

Northbay Strategy Solutions, LLC, was awarded the contract to provide support services for its intervention in Montgomery schools. Huntsville City Schools Chief Financial School Officer, Jason Taylor, formed the company in late January. Taylor submitted his resignation in Huntsville effective April 15, the date the new contract becomes effective.

Taylor will be paid $236,000 in salary and benefits annually for three years, according to Sentance.

Sibley provided this statement regarding Taylor's contract: "The costs of these services is commensurate with market value expectations for someone with Mr. Taylor's professional experience and capabilities. MPS is in need of strong fiscal management. We believe Mr. Taylor can provide the oversight necessary to help MPS meet its full potential." 

Sentance said Taylor will effectively be managing two school districts in Montgomery. Those are the low-achieving schools the state department is intervening in and those not in need of intervention.

Sentance said this has never been done before and requires someone with Taylor's understanding. "When we're talking about trying to move from where we are to where we need to be, I think he's going to be a very able partner in that conversation," Sentance said. 

Sentance told Al.com on Friday that turning around schools is hard work, sometimes with personal repercussions, and finding talented people to do that work can be difficult. 

The oft-cited turnaround of George Hall Elementary in Mobile County in the early 2000s was successful, but was not without pain.

According to this report from 2012, the principal during the turnaround said there were threats, "including a knife stuck in the ground on school property." And, the principal said, "We were egged, they took dead fish and rubbed it all over the bricks, and shrimp -- oh it was awful."

George Hall Elementary's turnaround remains Alabama's best success story.

Critics of the cost of the Montgomery intervention say that the state department has worked with retired educators and superintendents at far less cost.

Going outside of the department for the intervention was unavoidable because, Sentance said, in Montgomery everybody is related to or knows someone who works in the schools, so an independent view is necessary.

Sentance said the Montgomery intervention is helping to develop a process that can be used in schools not only in Montgomery but in other chronically underperforming schools across the state. 

Reorganization 

Sentance told Al.com on Friday that he planned to discuss with the board a plan to reorganize the state department during Thursday's work session. Plans to move career tech and workforce development into the office of academic affairs caused an uproar on Friday when those plans were leaked ahead of a meeting Sentance planned with senior staff.

Again, state board members said they were concerned they were not made aware of the reorganization plans before the news was leaked. 

Update: This article was updated at 12:00 p.m. to include agenda items published by the state board of education at 11:00 a.m.  

Alabama State Board of Education Special-Called Work Session for March 8, 2017 by Trisha Powell Crain on Scribd

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