Birmingham School Superintendent Craig Witherspoon resigned Tuesday evening as his administration wrestled with allegations of misused federal funds, the resignations of high-ranking staff members and suggestions of a state investigation.
Sources close to the board indicated early in the day that Witherspoon could be facing disciplinary action. However, that did not come about. The superintendent resigned in the wake of various issues coming to light under his watch. According to Brandon Wilson — president of Wilbron Institute, which handles the board’s public relations — the effective date of Witherspoon’s resignation is Dec. 31.
This all comes after Witherspoon recently touted that his administration has started the new fiscal year with the state required operating budget of $17.5 million. Even that, however, was under the shadow of the revelation that a recent audit found money had been misspent.
The Birmingham Board of Education’s fiscal year ended Sept. 30 with the revelation of an in-house audit showing an unauthorized $64,105.00 transaction, and leaving those allegedly responsible — two former members of the curriculum department — holding the smoking gun.
In a prepared statement released Sept. 30, just before the special called board meeting, Superintendent Craig Witherspoon disclosed the unauthorized transaction.
“The Birmingham City School System has recently conducted an audit of its finances. The audit revealed an unauthorized transaction in the amount of $64,105.00 made in association with the copying of instructional materials. This expenditure was not done in accordance with Alabama Bid Law, nor in accordance with established Birmingham City Schools’ policies, financial procedures, and business practices,” Witherspoon’s statement reads.
He added that his office was taking steps to “ensure that this type of unauthorized expenditure does not occur again.”
After the meeting, Witherspoon told reporters he knew which department was responsible for the transaction and that the parties involved are no longer employed with the school system.
However, Witherspoon denied that the Sept. 16 resignations of Chief Academic Officer Tisha Nguyen and former Supervisor of Curriculum Instruction Vanessa Peterson had anything to do with the expenditures. “No. We have concluded with the fiscal year and are just continuing to move forward,” Witherspoon said. “Occasionally we do go back as this is the end of the year and kind of look at how things have occurred, and this was indeed found, and we wanted to bring it to light and make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
The superintendent continued, “Our curriculum department was responsible. We’ve had some changes in that department and those individuals are no longer here.” He added that the amount of the transaction was discovered after the board had already accepted the resignation of those Witherspoon deems responsible.
Asked specifically if the responsible parties were Nguyen and Peterson, Witherspoon responded, “Well, what I am saying is when we discovered it, they had already resigned. And left. We found out after the resignation in terms of the dollar amount and because the process was not followed.”
Pressed again on whether he considered Nguyen and Peterson responsible, Witherspoon said, “With that dollar amount? Yes, it was indeed in that department. Yes.”
The expenditure, Witherspoon explained, was related to services rendered for professional development projects. “What had happened there was the printing services that were done in anticipation of professional development activity, and those expenditures did not go through the proper procedures for approval, and that indeed was a mistake and should not have happened.”
The superintendent repeated several times after the meeting that the proper steps have been taken to “ensure this doesn’t happen again” and that the BBOE is now sure their finances comply with the requirements of the Alabama State Department of Education.
Lack of certification
Although Nguyen and Peterson are gone, new information has recently surfaced about their lack of certification to work for the BBOE. The allegations that they were not properly certified first came to public light at the time of the resignations.
Witherspoon has previously stated that the resignations resulted from the fact that both Peterson and Nguyen were from out of state and had been required to apply for what is known as an emergency certification.
“The employee did in fact obtain an emergency certification for this state and began the process for obtaining her permanent certification,” he said. “However, while the process for obtaining the permanent certification was still pending, her emergency certification expired, thereby leaving her without an Alabama certification.”
However, records with the Alabama State Department of Education indicate that Nguyen, who was hired in December 2013, did not apply for her emergency certification until May 27, 2014. Witherspoon did not respond to requests for clarification on his previous comments.
As for Peterson, who was also hired in December 2013, a search on the ALSDE database showed that she did not apply for certification until Sept. 16, 2014, the same day as her resignation from the BBOE.
While Witherspoon himself did not respond to questions regarding Nguyen waiting to apply for certification until late May — six months after she was hired — a BBOE staff member did. Adrienne Mitchell, BBOE’s coordinator for strategic partnerships and community engagement, explained that the certification process goes through the Alabama State Department of Education, not through the BBOE.
“The process for obtaining an emergency, as well as a permanent certification in Alabama, is facilitated through the state department of education,” Mitchell said. “I would not be able to provide specific details on when an employee submitted an application and/or when said application was actually processed.”
Another question — who vetted Peterson and Nguyen’s certifications — remains unanswered despite multiple efforts to reach representatives with the BBOE.
At the Sept. 30 meeting, the board voted to approve two donations made by the Birmingham Education Foundation to fund a Kaplan Inc. ACT preparatory course and Pearson SchoolNet systems for students at non-Title 1 schools. The donations, which were approved on the last day of the fiscal year, were to pay retroactively for programs already administered.
The two donations totaled $87,929.60, with $42,542.61 going toward funding the Kaplan ACT prep services for non-Title 1 students and $45,386.99 going toward funding the Pearson SchoolNet program for non-Title 1 schools.
Here are the two agenda items as they were presented at the meeting:
AGENDA ITEM: Donations to Birmingham City Schools
RECOMMENDATION: That approval is granted to accept the donations from the Birmingham Education Foundation
School: Birmingham City Schools
Source: Birmingham Education Foundation
Purpose: To fund ACT Prep services (Kaplan) for students at Non-Title 1 schools
School: Birmingham City Schools
Source: Birmingham Education Foundation
Purpose: To fund student data warehousing (Pearson SchoolNet) that allows the district to also measure the achievement of students at Non-Title 1 schools
J.W. Carpenter, executive director for the Birmingham Education Foundation (ED), said his organization was contacted earlier in the year about the donations for Kaplan and Pearson, but that the BBOE did not make a formal request for the donations until Sept. 18, 12 days before the close of the fiscal year.
While ED may have been informally contacted as early as February, Carpenter said, “They didn’t send us the written request until late September, although we’ve been discussing it since they first approached us. But they didn’t send us a written request until Sept. 18. We had been talking about this since February but we didn’t receive a written request until then.”
Carpenter also noted that State Superintendent Tommy Bice told him the donations would be in line with state law. “I spoke with Dr. Bice and he assured me that our donation was appropriate and that Birmingham City Schools was acting appropriately, and I believe him,” Carpenter said.
Why did the board wait so late to make the formal request, and so late to approve the donations? Witherspoon responded that “This was the timeframe. Donations come to the school system at various times.”
“A request for funding from Birmingham Education Foundation to assist in supporting the delivery of ACT prep materials to students was made as early as February 2014. To assist in moving this request forward, the Birmingham Education Foundation requested research and data to validate a need for such funding. After meeting their threshold for justification and documentation we were pleased to receive their financial support,” Brandon Wilson explained in an email.
“Birmingham Education Foundation is a valuable partner to Birmingham City Schools. Their commitment to support programs and resources for our students is an important part of why we are seeing academic gains, and improvements to our student graduation rates,” Wilson wrote.
During the Sept. 30 meeting, after going into executive session for more than an hour, the BBOE voted unanimously to accept the donations. After the donations were accepted, the board voted to change the funding source for the Kaplan and Pearson items from federal Title 1 money, to the donated funds.
Three board members — Sherman Collins Jr., Daagye Hendricks and April Williams — voted against changing the funding source.
While Wilson and Witherspoon maintain that the timing of the funding change was part of a careful plan, Carpenter said the timeframe had not been discussed with the Birmingham Education Foundation.
“No. Their decision-making process on this is their decision-making process. And we act accordingly in response to that. The Birmingham Education Foundation does not play a role in their timeline. The truth is I don’t have much to say to elucidate why they chose the timeline they chose,” Carpenter said.
“Whenever someone wants to partner with us, what I need is access to information so I can evaluate the program. So they’ve agreed to give me access to data so I can properly evaluate the program so I can know if the investment was a smart investment and it’s an investment we want to make in the future.”
He did say that the letter that requested the money in September had been preceded by ED’s requests for data. “They sent the data a couple of different times but primarily what they are doing is they have agreed to provide me access to the data to evaluate the program.”
Was it worth the money?
In an effort to boost test results for the ACT college entrance exam, the BBOE contracted Kaplan, which offers higher education preparation programs, to administer mock exams for the district’s juniors and seniors. The program was offered to students at both Title 1 schools — those entitled to certain federal funds — and students at schools not entitled to Title 1 funds.
According to the board’s records, Kaplan was to be paid $316,800 under the contract. The donations from the Birmingham Education Foundation, which totaled $87,929.60, were retroactively added as a funding source to cover the non-Title 1 students who participated in the testing.
The minimum score to be accepted into universities varies. For example, Auburn University requires an ACT score of 23 or above. For the University of Alabama, the typical requirement is a 21 if a student has a 3.0 GPA.
After the Kaplan program, results provided by the BBOE, show students throughout the system tested low. Districtwide, 32 percent of the students who participated scored between 7 and 13, while 51 percent scored between 14 and 19. Only five percent of the students scored above 20.
Russell Schaffer, Kaplan’s senior communications manager, explained that there are no particular baseline results expected from the ACT prep services they provided to the Birmingham City Schools.
“Kaplan doesn’t focus on specific point gains, but on personalized test goals,” Schaffer said. “Among any student group you’ll see variation in multiple factors, including baseline scores, understanding of content, amount of effort put into preparation. So citing an average score increase would be akin to a weight loss clinic citing average pounds lost,” Schaffer explained.
Financial recovery plan
“Well, again, it’s a great day for Birmingham City Schools with getting our financial house in order so to speak,” Witherspoon told reporters as the fiscal year ended. “We exceeded our one month’s fund balance, which means we’ve been good stewards of the dollars. We just finished, if you will, a multi-year financial recovery plan. That allowed us to get to this point so we can focus on specific programs that can keep us moving forward as a school system.”
The multi-year financial recovery plan that Witherspoon referenced was adopted June 14, 2012 after the ALSDE found that the Birmingham school system had “failed to meet its fiscal responsibility as established through the Education Accountability laws and has allowed an unsound financial condition to be created and perpetuated in said system,” according to the minutes of the Alabama State Department of Education.
The minutes outlined the adoption of the financial recovery plan:
WHEREAS, the Alabama State Board of Education finds and determines that immediate implementation of the adopted plan is necessary, both to the restoration of fiscal stability to the Board and to prepare for the beginning of the 2012-2013 school year, and that continuous assistance by a person or persons appointed by the State Superintendent is essential to that end; and
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, That the Alabama State Board of Education does authorize the State Superintendent of Education to appoint a person or persons to provide on-site oversight of the day-to-day operations of the Birmingham City Board of Education, specifically to advise and assist with the Birmingham City Board of Education’s implementation of the approved Financial Recovery Plan, with all direct and indirect personnel actions associated with the Plan to be presented for state review no later than Friday, June 22, 2012, and to be approved by the Birmingham City Board of Education at its regularly scheduled meeting on Tuesday, June 26, 2012.
Former State Superintendent Dr. Ed Richardson was tasked with overseeing the BBOE’s financial recovery plan. According to Richardson the state intervention virtually ended with the financial recovery plan on Sept. 30. He said the next step will be reviewing the BBOE proposed budget for the next fiscal year.
“They have to submit their budget and the state department will review it, and if they have a one-month operating balance of $17 million then they will be informed. And the board will have to meet and the superintendent will recommend that they appeal to the state board that they be released from financial intervention,” Richardson said.
As far as a timeline for when this may happen, Richardson said, “Well, the state will move pretty quickly, so I would think that by the end of the month they’ll know and the [BBOE] will be able to make their appeal.”
As for his role in the review process, Richardson has previously said that he has not been involved in the day-to-day operations with the BBOE since December 2013, around the same time Nguyen and Peterson were hired.
It was during the period since Richardson’s departure from daily oversight of BBOE finances that the instances came to light involving federal Title 1 money funding Kaplan and Pearson programs at non-Title 1 schools.
Witherspoon previously said that “outside donations” were being used to fund the programs at the non-Title 1 schools. But he said that before Sept. 30, when the “outside donations” from Birmingham Education Foundation were approved.
As for the state’s financial intervention, Erica Pippins, public information specialist with the ALSDE, said last week that “The Birmingham City School System is still officially under state intervention. Dr. Bice is working with system leaders to determine the next steps in the process, including when the district might be released from state intervention and what could be required going forward after the intervention is lifted,” she said.
Although the “outside donations” have now been approved, there is no indication that there has been any adjustment in the state’s records regarding the Title 1 expenditures previously made toward districtwide Kaplan and Pearson programs. “At this point,” Pippens said, “the ALSDE has not received documentation reflecting a revision for the $300,000 expenditure. We have no additional comment at this time.”