The months-long controversy over the future of the Birmingham City Schools took its strangest turn yet earlier this week, when Edward Maddox resigned his position as president of the Birmingham Board of Education. The resignation came as part of a plea agreement reached less than 24 hours after Maddox was arrested on charges of using his office for personal gain.
With Maddox gone, the board has 30 days from October 23— the date of a specially called meeting and work session — to name a replacement to serve the remaining 10 months of his term in the elected position. The board announced Thursday that it has begun accepting letters of interest from people interested in filling the remaining 10 months of Maddox’s term in the elected position, and will do so until October 31.
The extensive social media buzz generated by Maddox’s sudden departure has centered less on the possible identity of his replacement than on potential changes in the dynamics of the relationship between the school board and the Alabama Department of Education, which assumed control of the Birmingham schools last June. The board majority of which Maddox was a part has consistently questioned the motives of the state’s takeover and the accompanying investigation of the system’s finances and management.
Public speculation has been weighted toward the idea that the vote to replace Maddox will break down along the same lines as every other key vote of the past several months, meaning that in his absence there would be a 4-4 deadlock on the replacement. Should that happen – meaning the board fails to agree on a replacement within 30 days — the decision would fall to the Birmingham City Council. The council then would have 30 days of its own to make an appointment before ceding that authority to state Superintendent Tommy Bice.
But the man in charge of the state’s investigation of the school system, former state Superintendent Ed Richardson, tells Weld that he expects a 5-3 vote. One of the four remaining board members who has sided with Maddox has “started to see the problems the majority has caused,” Richardson says, and will provide the decisive margin in naming a replacement who will “help the board begin to work with the state to move the system forward.”
“It’s up to the board,” says Richardson. “This is one item I have no authority on. But I believe that a clear majority will be on the right side of that question and they’ll get to an agreement.”
Prior to his arrest and resignation, Maddox had been part of a 5-4 majority on the school board that last spring attempted to fire Superintendent Craig Witherspoon and refused to adopt a state-mandated financial plan for the system. That system is operating at a deficit brought on in part by years of declining enrollment which has cost Birmingham roughly $6 million a year in state funding. The split on the board had become increasingly bitter over the effort to fire Witherspoon— the ailing system’s seventh superintendent in 15 years. That dispute, in addition to the majority’s rejection of the financial plan, prompted Bice to order the state’s takeover of the city schools.
In conjunction with the takeover, Bice launched the investigation of the system and appointed Richardson to lead the probe. As the current academic year began in August, the ongoing acrimony put the system’s accreditation status under close scrutiny. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), the agency responsible for accrediting the city schools, told the board on July 31 that it had until October 1 to prepare and submit a report detailing its progress in addressing issues related to its management of the school system. At its September 25 meeting, the board passed — on an 8-1 vote — a resolution approving a report authored by Richardson as its response to SACS.
Now, among other things, Maddox’s resignation has stoked hopes among at least some board members that tensions may begin to ease. Brian Giattina, who represents District 3 on the school board and has been in the four-person minority supporting Witherspoon and welcoming the state’s intercession, says he’s hopeful that the opportunity to make a new appointment will lead to increased cohesion on the board and greater cooperation with the state.
“I’m hopeful that Dr. Richardson is correct,” Giattina says of Richardson’s prediction on the vote for a new board member. “It is critical that we get the right person. By doing that, we can send a strong message to both the state and the community, especially the parents and children our system serves. As a body, this board has done nothing to benefit kids, and now we have a chance to do what’s right.”
The fight over “right”
As has been the case all along, however, there is a question of agreement between board members over what constitutes “right.” Emanuel Ford, the District 5 representative on the board, sounds the same general notes as Giattina as it relates to the process of naming a replacement — “I can’t speak for other people, but I would hope it goes smoothly,” Ford says, adding that “a lot depends on who the candidates are” — while still voicing the opinion that Maddox was “railroaded.” Regardless, Ford insists, the real issues before the school system run much deeper than “getting the right person” on the dais.
“This is nothing but a coup,” Ford declares of the state’s presence. “I believe that Dr. Richardson came here with an agenda, looking to carry out a vendetta against the school system and the city of Birmingham. It’s racism and classism at its worst, and I’m not going to deal with that without a fight.”
Thus far, in addition to Ford’s public statements, that fight has included a raft of correspondence. In a letter to Richardson dated September 17, he stated that the school board “has stood silent as we have been falsely accused of fiscal mismanagement, while we have been denigrated, while we have been individually singled out as trouble makers, and while we have been accused of being incompetent,” and evoked Birmingham’s Civil Rights history and those who “put their jobs and their lives on the line so that their children, and their children’s children, could reap the fruits of equity and fairness” in requesting that Richardson provide him with administrative records that, according to Ford, would provide “documented proof that we have done nothing wrong.
Ford was the lone dissenting vote in the board’s September 25 approval of the report Richardson prepared to meet the SACS deadline. In a memorandum distributed to his fellow board members prior to the vote, he wrote that the investigations by the state and AdvancED — the umbrella organization under which SACS operates — “have been played out in the news media without any regard to the strict scrutiny of facts,” and listed six reasons for his opposition to the resolution supporting Richardson’s report.
Those reasons were reiterated in a subsequent memo on October 9, in which Ford requested that board members respond publicly to what he termed a “flawed” report by Richardson. In brief, Ford’s memos hold that AdvancED failed to provide proper documentation of its reasons for initiating its own investigation or a list of specific issues to which the board was expected to respond — and that by “responding to unknown complaints we would be effectively agreeing to a list of unknowns.”
Ford also wrote of his concern that “we were treating AdvancED’s separate investigation as if it was the State’s investigation,” and that he wants to maintain the equal protection and due process rights of the board and the community by “creating a complete and accurate Administrative Record that could be fairly reviewed either by the U.S. Department of Education and/or upon any subsequent judicial review.” The October 9 memo also outlines several alleged violations of board policy by Richardson and questions the integrity of the state’s investigation.
“I am setting the tone,” Ford declares. “Dr. Richardson is a closet Bull Connor, and you can quote me on that. He needs to talk to people, not at them. I am going to fight him all the way to the United States Supreme Court if necessary. It’s proved to be impossible to sit at the table and come up with something everyone can live with, so the only relief I can see is federal relief.”
Ford’s most recent correspondence was a fax sent to Bice October 17, asking that a discussion of Richardson’s report be added to the agenda for the special meeting next Tuesday. Asked whether that request would be honored, Bice said through a spokesperson that he had not yet replied to Ford.
Asked about Ford’s memos to the board, Giattina says they are “factually incorrect” and that Ford’s citation of several sections of AdvancED’s policies and procedures are “out of context.” According to him, the memos demonstrate that Ford does not understand the role and responsibilities of an accrediting agency. As for the allegations against Richardson, particularly the charge of racism, Giattina rejects them categorically.
“It is comical to say that the state is here because of some racial conspiracy,” says Giattina. “The state did not want to be here, and all that had to happen to keep them from being here was for the board to approve the financial plan the state submitted. There’s nothing in that charge, or in any of those memos, that has any meat to it.”
Dealing with the inevitable
Regardless of the relative smoothness or rockiness of getting a new board member seated, considerable obstacles remain to stabilizing the system financially and operationally. Perhaps the most daunting of those is one that all parties acknowledge as inevitable: The closing of additional schools, and the decision of exactly which schools to close. Weld reported in August onRichardson’s speech to the Birmingham Rotary Club in which he stated that eight to 10 more schools would have to be closed — which he said would result in annual savings of $4 million to $5 million.
Revisiting that statement when interviewed for this story, Richardson says the closings will include “a minimum of six and a maximum of 10” schools. The board has retained a demographer to study student populations and help make recommendations for which schools to target. Richardson expects to have that information by the third week of November, and to make a final decision on the closings by mid-January. He says that he will be open to community response to the initial recommendations.
“We may have to finesse it,” Richardson says. “We’ll put it out there, and if somebody doesn’t like one of our recommendations and says, ‘Hey, have you thought about this,’ and makes a good case for it, we’ll certainly be willing to look at that. But people also need to understand that we have to capture $9-12 million more to get the reserve fund back in order. And if you don’t close schools, then you’re going to have to get into personnel. I don’t think that’s where you want to go at this point, since we already had some major cuts there earlier this year.”
While acknowledging the “drawbacks” of being forced to consolidate schools, board member Giattina also points to some potential benefits. Some of the savings from closures can be devoted to adding new programs, he says.
“Right now, we can’t financially provide programs that we want to provide,” Giattina says. “Now, we’ll have data on which to base decisions, and dollars that were going to principals, assistant principals, maintenance and things like that can now help us add art directors, band and other extracurricular programs.”
Ford stops short of disputing the necessity of closing schools, but cautions that the process of deciding which schools will be closed is going to be “interesting.”
“I will be interested to see how the citizens of this city react to that,” he says. “Schools have an impact on neighborhoods, on property values, on the city’s tax base. The citizens are the ones who fund public education, and if they don’t have a proper say in what happens, I’m not sure if anything is going to be solved.”
“It’s time to move forward”
Meanwhile, the state investigation continues. Some social media commenters have suggested that the arrest of Maddox is only the tip of the iceberg — that if there is malfeasance, it almost certainly goes beyond a single board member. Without saying as much, Richardson acknowledges that such may be the case.
“There are other investigations not pertaining to board members,” says Richardson, acknowledging that administrative employees also are being investigated. He adds that the state “will be present here for some time to come,” dealing with the investigation as well as the financial and accreditation issues the system faces.
Giattina sees that presence as necessary to reestablishing the integrity and credibility of the Birmingham school system. Laughing that, “I’ve been burned before on this,” he offers the opinion that, particularly with the opportunity to replace Maddox, the majority on the board might be shifting.
“I think there’s a growing sense on the board that it’s time to move forward,” Giattina says. “We have a chance to change the momentum, to give Dr. Witherspoon the support he needs to fix the system. We need to go ahead and get all the pain on the table and get through this. We need to be able to give the parents and kids in Birmingham the school system they deserve.”