Craig Ford - Can't Never Could

July 7, 2017 chris
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One doesn’t need a Ph.D in soothsaying to know that the honeymoon between state superintendent Mike Sentance and some members of the state school board has ended.

Though Sentance has been chastised time after time by board members for not sharing information, he basically ignores them. Which is the reason that board meetings and work sessions now last four to five hours or more. The board is trying to drag information out of Sentance about what he is doing, what the state department is doing and especially how much money is being spent.

Money has been a sore spot since Sentance decided in January to intervene in the Montgomery County school system. Consider that Sentance did a no-bid contract for a Montgomery CFO for $750,000 for three years with no board input. Or that he got a $500,000 contract for a Massachusetts consulting firm he once worked for. Consider the annual salary of $164,913 Sentance gave to Reggie Eggleston to run the Montgomery effort, or the $168,621 he is paying Jermall Wright, a “turnaround” school specialist from Philadelphia. Or the search for a chief of staff for Eggleston paying up to $130,000.

So it is hardly any wonder that board member Stephanie Bell requested a resolution on June 8 to freeze all Montgomery system hires until Sentance gave the board a clear look at the financial situation pertaining to the intervention. This resolution passed unanimously.

Everyone in the room knew the intent of the resolution Bell wanted was to curtail spending on administrative slots–and not to interfere with running schools and hiring teachers.

Here is the resolution: “Resolution to authorize a hiring freeze related to the Montgomery Public Schools intervention. Whereas, the Alabama State Board of Education requests an intervention budget reflecting the proposed appropriation for Montgomery Public Schools for the period commencing when the Alabama State Board of Education assumed oversight of the Montgomery County Board of Education’s operations to this date. Now, therefore, be it resolved, That the Alabama State Board of Education does hereby approve an authorization of a hiring freeze as to the Alabama State Department of Education and the Montgomery County Board of Education until the requested budgetary information has been provided to and reviewed by the Alabama State Board of Education. Done this 8th day of June 2017.”

But there is a problem.

The resolution just says “hiring freeze” without setting any parameters as to what positions are covered and not covered. We are now about six weeks from the start of a new school year. This means that many principals are frantically trying to get teachers in place for a new term.

But when the Montgomery County school board met on June 27 to hire new teachers, the board was told that the state department would not allow it to do so because of the state school board’s resolution.

The Montgomery board met on June 28 with Mike Sentance and chief of staff Dee Fowler. Sentance informed the board that they would have to wait until the July 11 state board meeting to get this matter straightened out. Fowler showed the Montgomery folks the resolution and pointed out exactly what it said.

I have tried without success to get information from the state department to find out who actually drafted the resolution, when it was done, when it was presented to Sentance and Fowler and whether or not the state board has actually seen it or taken action on the resolution itself. One board member I spoke with said she did not recall having seen it.

It is also important to note that the great majority of teachers are hired with dollars allocated on a school-by-school basis from the state foundation program and that the state department of education has no control over such funds.

It is also important to know that the state board held meetings on June 21 and 23 and that the Montgomery situation was never mentioned.

Unfortunately, this is just one more example of the lack of leadership at ALSDE and the resulting confusion. Is the resolution legal and properly executed by the state board? 

Why would the state department try to impose its will over dollars it has no authority over? If there is a problem, why hasn’t ALSDE notified the state school board and planned corrective action? Why would the state superintendent tell one of the largest systems in the state that it would have to wait 13 days for a remedy?

Is Sentance more interested in throwing the state board under the bus than he is about the welfare of 30,000 students?

The fact that grownups can be so cavalier with children is amazing. We deserve much, much better than this.

Author’s note: The Montgomery school system website on June 29 posted announcements for four secretaries, one for the chief of staff at an annual salary of $37,693.

One of the things I learned from my dad when I was young is that you can accomplish the things that may seem impossible; things that other people tell you can’t be done.

More than once, somebody (sometimes even me) would tell my dad that something couldn’t be done. But dad would just smile at them and say, “Can’t never could.”

As a legislator, my dad fought for a lot of projects that some people doubted would ever become a reality. Dad fought for I-759 before it ever existed (years later, they named it the “Joe Ford Highway” in honor of him).

When I was still a boy growing up in East Gadsden, I remember Dad taking me out into the middle of the woods and telling me how there was going to eventually be a four-lane road coming through there to connect East Broad Street to Gadsden State’s campus. I thought he was crazy. But today, none of us think twice about driving down George Wallace Drive.

Even near the end of his life, Dad was still fighting for projects in Etowah County. When he told me that there would be a multi-million dollar building constructed on Gadsden State’s campus that would act as a consortium with Jacksonville State University (making it the only community college in Alabama to have such a facility), I didn’t doubt him. I knew right then and there that that building would become a reality, and sure enough it did!

I guess that never give up attitude is a common trait in my family. They told my Uncle Danny that he would never be able to coach a national championship-winning team at Clemson. But at age 33, Danny Ford became the youngest coach to ever win a national championship in college football.

My dad and my Uncle Danny proved that old saying right. If you believe you can’t get something done, then you won’t. But if you believe that you can, then you can make the impossible become possible.

I have seen this proven in my own life, as well.

When I began fighting for a sports complex in Etowah County, there were those who told me it would never happen and that I should just give up. I didn’t give up, and now we are on the verge of making a major announcement of where the new sports complex will be located. The sports complex will be built, and the project is moving forward despite the doubters.

I was also told that the extension of I-759 to Highway 278 was just a dream that would never happen. But I continued to fight for this project, and now we will see it become a reality! The surveying is almost complete, and the next phase of the project will soon begin.

We must complete the extension of I-759 and the construction of the sports complex, and then we must move on to the other projects that some people say can’t be done.

We need to focus on completing the widening of Highway 411 into a four-lane road. The right-of-way acquisition has already been bought, and the project can be completed for $20 million (for reference, the Dept. of Transportation will be getting more than $487 million in state funding this year).

Etowah and Cherokee Counties are among the few counties in our state that neighbor each other and aren’t connected by a four-lane road. That needs to change, and it needs to change as soon as possible.

Another major project that needs to be taken on is the completion of the Southside Bridge. While Southside is not in my district, finishing the bridge is essential for Etowah County, and I will be introducing a bill in the next legislative session to help make this happen.

In addition to the Southside Bridge, we need to make progress on the Meighan Boulevard Bridge. Right now, we have six lanes of traffic feeding into a four-lane bridge. Widening the bridge to six lanes is not only a matter of economic development; it is a matter of public safety!

Some people will continue to say funding all these projects will never happen. But the lessons I’ve learned from my dad and my Uncle Danny, as well as the lessons I’ve learned from my own experience, have taught me that we can make these projects become a reality if we continue to put our minds to it and never give up the fight.

The first step to accomplishing anything is believing that it can be done. Like the old saying goes, “Can’t never could.” And “can’t” isn’t in my vocabulary.

Craig Ford represents Gadsden and Etowah County in the Alabama House of Representatives. He served as the House Minority Leader from 2010 – 2017.