Superintendent Sentance deserves better from our state board of education

Some say don’t change horses in midstream. Others say if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging

One of those idioms will likely describe the conclusion reached by our state board of education during today’s controversial meeting to evaluate superintendent Michael Sentance.

The only question is, which will it be?

Mere months after accepting his own form of mission impossible – trying to improve Alabama’s government-run schools – our superintendent found himself on the hot seat. And it hasn’t gotten any cooler.

Sentance sat through a difficult board meeting last March and received a scolding from members for not keeping them informed about changes he was considering. He had created committees to consider restructuring math, science, and reading standards and instruction, taken over Montgomery’s government-run schools, and proposed restructuring the state’s reading, math, and science initiatives.

Rumors of proposed changes began leaking from the education department and constituents began asking board members questions they couldn’t answer.

“You don’t let your board members be blindsided,” said board member Jeff Newman, R-Millport, and Stephanie Bell, R-Montgomery, agreed. “There is an extreme lack of communication,” she said.

And it went on and on.

Sentance promised to do better and control the leaks. In fact, he’s managed a few major victories.

After the board unanimously voted to ditch the ACT Aspire test, it was Sentance who personally convinced bureaucrats at the U.S. Department of Education to grant a waiver for Alabama to use a temporary test while long-term solutions were sought.

Without his successful intervention, Alabama would have either lost federal dollars or been forced to use a test that wasn’t right for our students. Moreover, successfully dropping the ACT Aspire helps pave the way for Alabama to move away from Common Core – a very popular issue among our state’s conservative voters.

Even so, a few days ago Bell suddenly sent her fellow members an evaluation document to complete for Sentance’s annual review, causing some to suspect she and others aim to fire him during the meeting.

The evaluation covers six wide areas of responsibility from board communications to financial management to community relations. That’s all fine, but at this point, most voters are only interested in one area: urgent reform, not business as usual.

If the board is reasonable, it will either tell Sentance to continue his reforms or provide him with detailed evidence that clearly demonstrates their concerns.

If his missteps have been so egregious as to warrant termination after less than a year on the job, then they should be simple for the board to explain and easy for everyone to understand. If there has been any lack of urgency on his part or failure to bring change to our education system, then Sentance should go.

We don’t have time for that, and our children deserve better.

However, if the board is unreasonable, then a majority will issue overly broad complaints about lack of communication and fail to give Sentance or the voters a clear sense of exactly what this fuss is all about.

If his missteps have been relatively trivial, having more to do with turf battles and political egos than his actual mission, then such complaints will fall flat on the floor where they belong.

We really don’t have time for that, and our children certainly deserve better. So does Sentance.

Having a board micromanage a chief executive or a CEO keeping the board in the dark isn’t new. It happens all the time in the corporate world … and those dysfunctional relationships usually sink companies and destroy careers. But in this case, we’re talking about something more important than stock value. We’re talking about our children, and thus, our future. It’s time for the board and the superintendent to settle this.

During that March meeting, Bell reminded Sentance of their relationship.

“This board appointed you state school superintendent,” she said. “You work for this board.”

That may be true, but the board works for the people, and it owes us, and Sentance, a little better than all this drama.

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