Dr. Craig Pouncey does not easily take “no” for an answer.
The superintendent of the Jefferson County Schools has again applied for the vacant position of state superintendent, barely a year and a half after narrowly losing an election to the job by the Alabama State Board of Education. During that process, he become the subject of a smear campaign he contends involved a board member and a lawyer on the department’s staff.
Pouncey told his district board members Monday and school principals on Wednesday that he was applying for the job. He also was named as an applicant by education blogger Larry Lee. Pouncey confirmed the application to BirminghamWatch after Thursday’s regular meeting of the JefCoEd board.
Pouncey came to JefCoEd from the State Department of Education, where he had served as a director of finance, a deputy superintendent and finally chief of staff.
“All of those lower positions were focused on financial management and administrative accountability for all school districts,” he said. “I’m probably the worst math student that ever graduated from high school. But I understand the scheme, and I understand how you have to create balance to maximize efficiencies.”
In 2014 Pouncey left ALSDE, partly out of frustration with the political process in Montgomery. In an interview with The North Jefferson News that year, he criticized the Alabama Education Association for becoming too closely allied with the Democratic Party. He also took Republican legislators to task, saying they exacted political revenge on the AEA after taking control of the Legislature in 2010 and were damaging Alabama education as a whole in the process. Pouncey said the political landscape has changed a bit since then.
“I think there are a number of legislators who are no longer there, as a result of certain indictments,” he said. There’s also a huge opportunity to build new relationships, with the idea that 30 some-odd House members are going to be new this year, and you’ve got a number of senators who have chosen not to run for re-election. I think the attitudes that permeated back in 2010 and 2011 have become much more tolerant of the needs of the people of the state of Alabama, not just, ‘Come hell or high water, we’re going to do it our way.’”
Pouncey faced two major battles when he took over at JefCoEd. The district was spending $10 million a year more than it was receiving in tax proceeds for four straight years, and Gardendale leaders were trying to break away and form their own school system, and in the process take control of a brand-new Gardendale High campus. His proposal to cut back more than 200 jobs systemwide brought pushback from teachers’ and employees’ associations, finally resulting in an ad hoc outside committee negotiating a solution. The fight with Gardendale ended earlier this year when a federal appeals court shut down the breakaway effort.
Last October, Pouncey was named 2018 Superintendent of the Year by the School Superintendents of Alabama.
The First Time Around
When the state’s top education job came open in 2016 after the departure of Dr. Tommy Bice, Pouncey applied for the post and was considered the front-runner. Instead, the position went to Dr. Michael Sentance, who was selected by a 5-4 vote. Pouncey claimed later that a letter was circulated among board members that accused him of plagiarizing his doctoral dissertation and of being the target of an investigation by the state’s Ethics Commission.
Pouncey filed a lawsuit in a Montgomery court, accusing members of the board and lawyers on the ALSDE staff of concocting the smear campaign and conspiring to sway board members away from voting for him. That suit is still active, though a judge last month reduced the number of defendants to two: board member Mary Scott Hunter, who still serves while she campaigns for a state Senate seat; and ALSDE general counsel James Ward.
“I have never alleged that the state board did anything wrong. I have worked to try to protect the state board, as well as the State Department of Education,” Pouncey said. “I currently have a suit against an individual. I can’t help it that this individual also serves on the state board.”
Hunter is named in the lawsuit as an individual, and not in her capacity as a board member.
Since that time, Sentence resigned after struggling through a conflict-filled year-long tenure. That departure opened up the vacancy that Pouncey again seeks to fill.
So after that contentious experience, why would Pouncey want to apply for the job yet again?
“That’s a good question,” he said. “I’ve always been a mission-driven individual, and because I’ve been fortunate enough to have a number of varied experiences in my career, I know I’m the most qualified and the most experienced person to assume an organization that really needs to be reformed. Currently, they’re incapable of supporting the school districts throughout this state. They lack the organization and the capacity to serve as a lifeline, particularly for many of our poorer school districts. I know better than anyone else how to turn that ship around.”
The deadline for state superintendent applications is March 23. A search firm has been hired by the state board to winnow the field of applicants down to a handful. Those remaining candidates will then be interviewed by the state board in open session.