MONTGOMERY, Ala. — A divided Alabama Board of Education on Thursday approved a contract for the state’s new school superintendent who has drawn criticism for his lack of experience at the school level and in the classroom.
In a 7-2 vote, the board approved the contract for education consultant and former Massachusetts education secretary Michael Sentance. He will take over as superintendent on Sept. 12.
“My goal here is to raise the achievement of students in Alabama so whatever people think about Alabama, they know that their schools are good and improving, Sentence said after the vote.
Sentance spent most of his career as an education adviser and reformer. He has worked as an education consultant, the New England regional representative for the U.S. Department of Education secretary and the senior education adviser to the Massachusetts governor. Sentance has an American studies degree from Georgetown University, a law degree from Duquesne University of Law and a master’s degree in law from the Boston University School of Law.
The board narrowly named Sentance as their pick last month, choosing him over candidates with extensive experience in Alabama schools. His outsider status has drawn a mixture of criticism and praise throughout the selection process, with some saying he would bring fresh ideas and others charging he is unqualified because of his lack of school-level experience.
“He has no terminal degree in education. He has no classroom experience. He has no experience as a principal,” board member Ella Bell said before the vote.
Richard Franklin, a teacher and president of the local chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said Sentance would not meet the qualifications required to lead a local school system, and therefore should not be lead the state system. “Qualifications should and do matter,” Franklin said during a public hearing before the vote.
Gov. Robert Bentley urged people to give Sentance a chance, saying that public school scores must improve.
“I am not excited that we are 40th in fourth-grade reading. And I am not excited that we are 46th in eighth-grade reading and 50th in eighth-grade math … That is unacceptable to me and it should be unacceptable to every taxpayer and every parent in the state,” Bentley said.
Sentance said after the meeting that he understands the skepticism, but he hopes people will see that he knows what he’s talking about and understands the challenges in public education.
“I’m excited about the challenge. I think that there are things that I can actually do to try to raise the achievement in Alabama. It’s going to take a lot of work. It’s going to take the trust and faith of educators to work with me. So that is something I have to earn. I understand that,” Sentance told reporters after the vote.
The two-year contract will pay Sentance $198,000-per year and give him a $1,750-per-month housing alliance. The contract expires Dec. 31, 2018, and can be renewed.
The meeting grew contentious at times as some board members said Sentance perhaps shouldn’t be considered because he had withdrawn his name from the running, but was added back after the deadline after receiving encouragement from an unnamed board member.
Sentance said he sent an email to withdraw because of a family issue. He said the board’s legal counsel then told him that there was interest from a board member or two that he remain in the running.
Board member Yvette Richardson called for an investigation into who leaked internal department emails that were part of an anonymous complaint against the other leading candidate for the job.
The complaint accused Jefferson County Superintendent Craig Pouncey, a former state deputy superintendent and chief of staff within the department, of getting department staff to help him with his dissertation in 2009. Pouncey said the accusation was untrue
Richardson said she believed the internal material was unethically, and perhaps illegally, distributed.
This story has been corrected to show that the new superintendent’s contract is for two years, not four.