Still power in the people

By Larry Lee

Embattled state school chief Mike Sentance submitted a letter of resignation to the state school board and Governor Kay Ivey September 13, 2017.
Now that we have turned a page on the long-running saga “Mr. Sentance Goes To Alabama,” it seems fitting to pause and look back at what could be the script for a reality show.

Best suggestion for a question to ask at interview for state superintendent. Before the selection process got under way in the summer of 2016, I asked a number of local superintendents what qualities they thought were important for a new superintendent to have and what questions would they ask an applicant.

Out of all the responses, the one that stuck in my mind was from Shannon Driver, Covington County superintendent. He suggested that all candidates be asked if they had ever shelled purple hulled peas.

I thought this was a great question then and think it should be mandatory from here on out.

Best clue that something is about to happen. Mike Sentance resigned on Sept. 13. But on Monday, Sept. 11, I got word that a principal in Prattville saw him on Saturday, Sept. 9 buying shipping boxes and bubble wrap at Lowe’s in Prattville. (He lived in Prattville.) This seemed a very good sign that something was stirring.

Best person to keep a secret. No contest here. State board vice-president Stephanie Bell wins hands down. I talked to Stephanie a number of times after she was elected vice-president July 11. She was always polite and while we had some frank discussions and a lot of laughs, she never once told me anything that she felt would be too much information. It didn’t take me long to figure this out and for once, I was smart enough not to pry.

When the bullets begin to whiz, some folks are hard to find. Educators from one end of the state to the other never thought Sentance was qualified for the job. And as time wore on and more and more decisions were questioned. they felt this even more strongly. Yet, it seemed to me that for reasons I could not understand, many in the education community were reluctant to draw a line in the sand.

However, I must tip my hat to two groups. Retired educators and those who work with career tech programs. Ann Gilmore runs the Alabama Association for Career Technical Education. When Sentance’s new organization chart appeared to de-emphasize these programs, she and her forces went to work. In fact, AACTE called for the superintendent to be terminated way back in March. And these good folks were not hesitant about letting their voices be heard. Governor Ivey got many, many letters from Alabamians …

Janice Charlesworth and her small crew at the Alabama Education Retirees Association also deserve a special pat on the back. I have had the pleasure of speaking to quite a number of these county chapters. These are people who devoted their lives to our schools and they were not happy to witness what was being done to undo what they invested so much heart and soul into. They too sent lots and lots of emails.

There is still power in the people. If there was ever a grassroots movement in Alabama, the effort to call attention to the plight of our schools and educators under the “leadership” of Mike Sentance and his hand-picked associates was one. There was no coordinated effort fueled by lots of PAC money (or any other kind), it was simply concerned citizens contacting state school board members, the governor and legislators with messages from the heart.

It was one person sharing something on Facebook or Twitter with their colleagues. It was a handful of retirees meeting in a church or school or wherever one day and deciding to DO SOMETHING.
After all, this is the way it is supposed to work. As President Lincoln said, “Of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Larry Lee led the study Lessons Learned from Rural Schools and is a longtime advocate for public education. larrylee133@gmail.com. Read his blog: larryeducation.com