BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The Alabama State Department of Education’s intervention team is now monitoring Birmingham City Schools from afar, a year and a half after it first took control of the city school system. The district had been facing major challenges, including a board so dysfunctional it made national news. But that’s only part of the picture. In this first of a three-part series, our Alabama reporter Dan Carsen delves into the complex and often painful situation leading to state intervention:
At heated Birmingham school board meetings last spring, conspicuously calm superintendent Craig Witherspoon used a trick a mentor taught him:
“You pick a spot on that back wall, and that’s what you look at. Never let them see you sweat.”
He laughs, but keeping cool wasn’t always easy. Five of nine board members wanted him gone and even plotted a failed ouster. There’d been physical altercations between members. Verbal confrontations were par for the course, as you might guess from the way then-board-president Edward Maddox started meetings with pleas, basically begging everyone within earshot for civility. But those pleas rarely worked. It didn’t help that Maddox and other board members themselves weren’t well versed in their own board’s procedures.
Maddox, who wouldn’t comment for this report, eventually resigned in a plea deal to avoid trial on charges of using his position for financial gain. But long before that, state officials saw board dysfunction as the root of many problems, including failure to keep a legally required one-month’s operating expenses in reserve. According to Alabama State Department of Education chief of staff Craig Pouncey, “We knew that actions had to be taken in order to improve the financial position of the school board.”
Some dispute that. There’ve been several legal battles over the takeover, which so far the state’s won, but there may be more. And right now, two former school board members, an Alabama Education Association representative, and two other residents are suing in federal court. They say the intervention disenfranchised black voters who elected the board. State lawyers say the issue isn’t voting but the state education department’s right to act if one of its extensions — a local school board — breaks the law.
New Birmingham school board president Randall Woodfin — an African-American attorney — knows where he stands on that legal issue. “Those 25,000 students trump the voter in this case,” he says.
A judge could decide on whether to dismiss the suit in spring. But the inescapable context of race and poverty won’t be addressed that quickly or cleanly. The 94-percent-black, 87-percent-low-income system is a poster-child for white flight, and more recently, non-white flight: though the drop in student population seems to be slowing, overall, enrollment has been dropping for decades, which has meant less money coming in.
Now add to this challenging picture the stain and the pain of a takeover. The state’s Craig Pouncey doesn’t mince words:
“Those [who] were not willing to go along are former employees.”
After state officials overruled board votes, hundreds of staff were let go or demoted, and schools were closed or consolidated in moves that still anger many.
And in case all this isn’t rocky enough, the accreditation agency AdvancEd has Birmingham schools on probation for what it calls micromanagement by the old board. That’ll be true at least into early spring when a team assesses whether board-member training, a clarified chain-of-command, and a new board have improved the situation.
Randall Woodfin sees some good coming out of the intrusions. “Last year, the state did some extreme heavy lifting,” he says. “I would call it ‘horse pills.’ They made us, made our school system take horse pills — extremely unpopular decisions. Now that that heavy lifting’s been done, we can pivot. And the conversation really should only be about curriculum, teaching, and learning.”
A focus on “curriculum, teaching, and learning.” To people who experienced the chaotic board meetings and the court battles, those might seem like odd, quaint afterthoughts. But even when the very public controversy was at its worst, teachers and other staff were quietly putting their heads down and delivering them. Their voices often get drowned out, but we’ll hear from them in Part Two.