Thursday night the Birmingham Board of Education voted 6-3 to fire Superintendent Kelley Castlin-Gacutan, as allegations of mishandling of funds swirled into public view.
While it was not clear exactly why the board fired “Dr. G,” as she has been known during her 16 month tenure as head administrator of the Birmingham City Schools, the vote cast light on a rift between board members. That rift resulted in testy commentary being made by board members on either side of questions about whether the board was acting in haste, for political reasons or with just cause to terminate the superintendent.
What is known immediately in the aftermath of the meeting is that the school system is on the hook for paying out Gacutan’s contract — $400,000 was the number board members referred to repeatedly during the meeting — and that Dr. Larry Contri has been appointed interim superintendent effective immediately. Contri is the BCS’s longest serving employee; his tenure dates back to 1967.
Board members Randall Woodfin, Brian Giattina, and Lyord Watson voted against the measure to fire Gaucutan, which was made by April Williams and approved by the other board members, Wardine Alexander, Sherman Collins, Jr., Cheri Gardner, Daagye Hendricks, and Sandra Brown.
The decision to fire Gacutan, who became the eighth superintendent in the Birmingham City Schools in 20 years when she was appointed in May 2015, was meet with approval from some spectators, and shock by others. That difference was played out later on social media.
On the BCS Facebook page, for instance, a parent identified as “Vee Boh” wrote: “How can you fire someone that has tried to help Birmingham City School. And you wonder why parents like myself did everything in my power to make sure my child DID NOT attend any Birmingham City School. Cities like Mountain Brook, Hoover, Homewood does not have the issue that Birmingham does. If it’s not the city council is the board of education. This is an embarrassment that this city can’t get anything right.”
Another, Lamurah Howard, wrote, “What’s going on with the Birmingham City Schools System, are we going to have another takeover by the state because the board wants to micromanage the superintendent. I am glad that my son has graduated from school, but he has a daughter in the system. This is embarrassing to the city and the board.”
On the other hand, those in favor of the firing were more terse on the Facebook page. “Thank God,” wrote Cora Williams.
Nowhere was the split over the board’s decision more plain than in the meeting room itself.
Points of contention
Alexander, the school board president, opened the meeting, which seemed to have basically one topic: governance and leadership.
“Madame President,” Williams said, “I’d like to make a motion to go in a different direction with the leadership of Birmingham City Schools. Specifically, I move that we terminate the contract of Superintendent Kelley Castlin-Gacutan, pursuant to section 15 of her employment contract, hereby providing a 60 days notice and placing her on paid administrative leave effectively today, throughout the duration of the 60-day period.”
Woodfin was first to voice the minority view and the most vocal of those opposing Gacutan’s termination. “You know, I never thought that the day would come when I would be embarrassed to be a member of this body,” he began, to murmurs among the crowd. “This evening’s action is both unwarranted and reckless. It shows a complete disregard for the students of the city and to Dr. G. as a professional.”
Woodfin added, “Should my colleagues decide to take this action, I would not in good conscience be able to ask anyone to consider taking this position in the future. No one in their right mind would want to walk into a situation where you have one year to improve a system that has struggled for many decades.
“This discussion goes well beyond poor policy and is just reflective of personal animosity,” he said. “I can’t be a part of that….
“[The] superintendent’s been here one year. We just gave her an evaluation last month where we said she met expectations. We just approved her strategic plan — our strategic plan — that she led us on, last week. So we agreed to her vision, we agreed to the direction she wants to take us in and said she meets expectations. This school year just started. And we’re going to terminate her without cause…
“It’s inappropriate. It’s wrong and it highlights the following things,” he continued. “One: school boards tend to have a problem when they can’t control a superintendent with personnel recommendations. Two: school boards tend to have a problem when they can’t control a superintendent with brick and mortar issues. Three: we get into a situation when we have school board members elected by district and unfortunately they can’t look past their district and look at the system as a whole.
“And here’s four,” Woodfin said, directing his comments to school employees. “You need to know that some people on this board feel the following. We’re her boss. Quote: We are her boss… That’s a bad mindset to have as a board member.” Woodfin said that board members should not be making recommendations to the superintendent, but the other way around. “Our behavior is out of hand and out of control,” he said.
Those in favor…
Hendricks, speaking for the majority opinion, took exception to just about everything Woodfin said. “I am a parent who has a child that is within this Birmingham City School,” she said, suggesting that it was disingenuous to suggest that the board was not acting on behalf of the students in the school system.
Hendricks also noted that as she spoke she was looking into the faces of staff members and that “I have not received a letter that is in any way not supporting the decision that I’m making today, if I choose to make it. … The impression has been given — and I want to clear that up now — that we as a board can’t work together, that we as a board are separated.”
She took aim at Woodfin’s contention that a 5-4 vote represented only a majority, not the will of the whole body. “It was a 5-4 vote that brought Dr. G here to begin with,” she said, to hoots of approval from the audience.
“I want to go on record and say that I believe that collectively this board has afforded this superintendent every single opportunity to succeed. I can tell you the millions of dollars of decisions that we have made to support the decisions that were recommended by the superintendent. I as one board member spent very little time in Dr. G’s office, but some of our colleagues spent a considerable amount of time coaching, developing and influencing current leadership,” Hendricks said.
“So to say that this board collectively is trying to work on brick and mortar, is absolutely not the case. To say that this board is upset because we cannot control the superintendent, when we are voting on the recommendations that are presented by the superintendent, is absolutely not the truth.
“This board is professional. We have worked diligently to get our accreditation back as a group. We worked diligently to provide millions of dollars of books to our school system, that have been left behind for years. And the books are not in the classrooms, colleagues and we all know that,” she said.
Hendricks said the board’s “millions of dollars of decisions” based on Gacutan’s recommendations had not led to any return on their investment. She also disputed suggestions by the minority that the corporate partners of the city would not take kindly to the board’s decision.
“We have made difficult decisions in the four years almost that we’ve served, and we will do it again. Because I believe in Birmingham, I believe in our corporate partners and I believe in our children. So anyone that is sitting on this board that believes that we can’t move past this, find leadership to support our children, maybe should not serve my child and the children that are in this system.”
That last comment elicited applause. Hendricks said there were “myriad” decisions that were made — presumably by Gacutan — which she would not bring up. “But believe that this is not a hasty decision and it is definitely not based on personal beliefs.”
Without specificity, Hendricks suggested that “legal liability and fiscal irresponsibility” were “looming.” She said, “We have a $293 million budget. And if we are misappropriating funds and not spending money on behalf of our students, or the money that we spend for our students is not reaching the classroom, we are out of order. That is not what any of us were elected to do.”
Earlier in the day, Citizens For Better Schools Executive Director Ronald E. Jackson, long an outspoken watchdog over the school system, announced that he was filing a complaint against Gacutan, Alexander and Woodfin, who he accused of “Violation Of Alabama Education Accountability act an Violation of AdvancedED Accreditation Standards…Violation of Alabama State Fiscal Accountability Act mandatory reporting and BOE Notification of Code of Alabama Section 16-13A-5 [sic].”
Jackson also accused Alexander, Woodfin and Gacutan, along with “Chief School Financial Officer [Sharon] Roberts” of “suppression of material financial information.”
The BCS did released an official statement concerning Jackson’s allegations by press time.
One parent who was at the meeting expressed concern over Gacutan’s firing, but also said she wished she had more information on which to base an opinion.
Juliet Easlick, who has a daughter in Avondale Elementary, saw both positive and negatives in Gacutan’s tenure as superintendent, but she didn’t know, she said, exactly what to think about her termination.
“I don’t know all of what’s gone on behind closed doors,” she said. “I have noticed that, attending the board meetings and watching the videotaping of board meetings that there has been a rift in the board of education, between the members. I know that financial concerns have been very difficult for them to talk about and it’s been hard for me to really understand where those are really originating from, …not being privy to what’s been talked about, not in public.”
Easlick said she was aware of rumors, as well as what has been disclosed in meetings. “I guess my concern, and the reason I have been so vocal is, without any proof or details given to the public, there’s no way for me to know whether this is politically motivated or whether there is substantial evidence to warrant termination.”
Easlick added, “I would support the termination if I knew that something illegal had occurred. But I don’t know of that occurrence. It hasn’t been shown, so it’s hard for me to say that this isn’t political. And given the past history of the board of education, it seems like the same pattern that I’ve seen in the past.”
Gacutan could not be reached for comment Thursday night.