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State Superintendent of Education Michael Sentance during the State Board of Education meeting on Thursday morning February 9, 2017 in Montgomery, Ala.
Mickey Welsh / Advertiser

Alabama State School Superintendent Michael Sentance’s future isn’t clear, but the Alabama State Board of Education’s divisions over it are plain.

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State Superintendent of Education Michael Sentance during the State Board of Education meeting on Thursday morning February 9, 2017 in Montgomery, Ala.  (Photo: Mickey Welsh / Advertiser)

The board on Tuesday will take up an agenda that will include an evaluation of Sentance’s time as the state’s public school leader, and could serve as a crossroads in a job he has held for less than a year. 

But board members on Monday expressed clashing views of the process, with two questioning the need for it.  

“I’m not doing it because it confers legitimacy upon a review that hasn’t been discussed, isn’t well-timed and is early,” said Mary Scott Hunter, a Republican member of the board representing north Alabama. “And I have questions about fairness.”

Both Hunter and Republican Betty Peters, who said Monday she filled out Sentance’s evaluation “under protest,” suggested the evaluation amounted to an effort to oust Sentance, who has drawn criticism for his handling of the Montgomery Public Schools intervention and what some consider poor communication with the board.

But on Monday, vice-chair Stephanie Bell, a Republican whose district includes Montgomery, strongly denied any motivation other than filling out the terms of Sentance’s contract. 

The contract calls for an annual evaluation of the superintendent’s performance, though it says the board can conduct the evaluation at any time up until Dec. 31. Bell, however, said that it would appropriate to start the process near the anniversary of Sentance’s hiring. 

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State School Board member Stephanie Bell during the meeting of the State Board of Education in Montgomery, Ala., on Thursday January 12, 2016. (Photo: Mickey Welsh / Advertiser)

“If we wait until December and start the process, we’ll not only run into being late, but then it’s way past due by that time,” she said.

An email seeking comment from Sentance was sent to the Alabama State Department of Education on Monday afternoon. 

A former Massachusetts Secretary of Education, Sentance won the job as superintendent last August following a controversial selection process. 

Supporters of Sentance cited the strong performance of the Bay State’s public schools and said they believed Sentance could raise Alabama’s bottom-of-the-barrel test scores. The superintendent assembled panels on subjects like math education to come up with ways to improve classroom instruction. 

But no decision was bigger than announcing the state would take over Montgomery Public Schools in January to address academic and financial shortcomings in the school district. Both the state board and Montgomery Board of Education officials at first welcomed the intervention, which involves 27 local public schools, though Sentance had stressed he was taking a districtwide approach to the issue.

Stephanie Bell and Ella Bell, a Democrat whose district also includes Montgomery, supported Sentance’s efforts. But both criticized Sentance after the department approved 10 percent raises for principals in the intervention schools. The Bells said the raises incentivized failure. Sentance said he was trying to bring Montgomery’s pay in line with comparable school systems and said he hoped it encouraged experienced principals to work through MPS’ problems. 

The superintendent has acknowledged problems communicating with board members. In March, board members complained that Sentance had not informed them of plans to revamp academic programs or reorganize the department’s Career and Technical Education and Workforce Development section.

Ella Bell said Sentance “has not done the communications piece as I would like it” and said he has not done the outreach needed for the MPS takeover.

“I’m not seeing community involvement,” she said. “I’m not seeing the diverse community involvement required for a program like this.”

Hunter said communications were “not the best” of Sentance’s skills, but said those were balanced by others he brought to the table. Hunter also expressed concern about the possibility of turnover in the position.

“Uncertainty is bad for education,” she said. “Educators need certainty. They need to know what they’re dealing with. Educators are wary of change. I don’t blame them.”

Peters said she feared what board action might mean for its future, noting the board had lost its oversight of the community college system.

“I don’t t feel good about the State Board having a future as an elected body,” she said. “A lot of people in the Legislature and (former Gov. Robert) Bentley were perfectly happy to remove us from the two- year colleges.”

Stephanie Bell said the evaluation, where board members rank Sentance’s performance on a 1 (needs improvement) to 3 (Exceptional) scale, was a required part of the contract. She called it a way for the board to voice their opinions of Sentance’s time on the job. 

“I cannot guess what the board will do,” she said. “Any prediction is premature. Any speculation, any kind of conspiracy theory, or who they plan to hire – there is no plan to hire a specific person.”

Under Sentance’s contract, an unsatisfactory evaluation would require the board to notify Sentance and give him “a reasonable time” up to a year to address their concerns. But the contract also allows a majority of the board to vote to fire Sentence, effective 60 days after the vote. In that situation, Sentance would get the rest of his salary for the calendar year. Sentance can also quit by giving the board 60 days’ notice of his intention to do so. 

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