While the news of the sudden departure of former Birmingham Superintendent Kelley Castlin-Gacutan may have come as a shock to some, those close to the situation believe a rift has been evident between her administration and members of the board for some time now, due in part to a pattern of “financial discrepancies” cited by those who voted her out.
The dissenting members of the board, however, have questioned whether there is evidence to justify her removal from office and why it has not been made public.
“Being an elected official doesn’t make you a leader. That was failed leadership, what we did last night,” said board member Randall Woodfin, speaking the day after the firing. “Leaders speak out when something is wrong. It was morally wrong what we did last night. Period.” Woodfin was one of the three board members who voted against Gacutan’s termination along with Brian Giattina and Lyord Watson.
“If she had done something wrong, she wouldn’t have been fired without cause. We can’t have it both ways,” Woodfin said. “Let’s not take the subject off bad board governance, which is what this is. This is a leadership crisis. Dr. G. is no longer our superintendent. This conversation is no longer about her. If we’re going to talk about her, let’s not mischaracterize or defame her character and say she misused or misallocated anything because that’s not true.”
BCS attorney Afrika Parchman also said that Gacutan was fired without cause and will be paid a severance totaling more than $400,000 over the course of the next two years.
Woodfin believes that superintendents hit a political brick wall when one (or all) of the following things happen: “A superintendent makes personnel recommendations and board members disagree with and can’t control it, a superintendent makes brick and mortar recommendations that board members can’t control, a superintendent gets into a space where board members can’t see past their districts and don’t see the system as a whole. The worst is when we — as a board — think we are the superintendent’s boss — the ‘superintendent needs to do what we say’ mentality.”
A look at the board’s recent voting history, as it pertains to personnel actions recommended by Gacutan, reflects a fissure between the former superintendent and those who voted her out of office.
On May 10, 2016, Gacutan brought a personnel recommendation before the board to replace Mario Lumzy as the principal of Inglenook Elementary, an action that falls under the contractual responsibilities of the superintendent as prescribed by the board statute.
The action failed with votes against it coming from Sandra Brown, Sherman Collins, April Williams and Daayge Hendricks (who represents the district which includes Inglenook) and one abstention from Cheri Gardner. All of those who voted to keep the current Inglenook principal, plus Gardner, would later vote to terminate Gacutan’s contract.
The issue involving Inglenook persisted for another month. During a special called board meeting on May 24, a number of community members showed up to voice support for Lumzy. A motion was made by Gardner to suspend the rules in order to allow members of the community to speak. The motion did not carry and Hendricks abruptly left and went outside with her constituents. There was no vote for principal recommendations during that meeting.
On June 14 the principal recommendation was brought up again, this time with Brown, Collins, Gardner and Hendricks all voting against the personnel action a second time. By the next meeting Gacutan had stopped pressing the issue and the board unanimously approved the motion to keep Lumzy as principal.
Hendricks said that opposition for that personnel action began and ended with members of her community that elected her to represent them and that she was in not motivated by “pettiness.” She claimed the decision was made to “protect the school district as a whole” and the 24,000 children who are a part of it.
“I did not in any way try and influence that at all,” Hendricks said of her decision to vote against the principal recommendation. “I listened to their suggestions. [Inglenook] was a choice school and has been for five years. So when you have 18 failing schools in the district I couldn’t understand why this was a priority when the other schools are failing. I did not in any way fuel that. I allowed Dr. G to make her decision and I disagreed. It wasn’t the first time we disagreed. We all moved on. As far as prioritization she had not been here that long so I assumed that decision she was making was possibly because she hadn’t been around long enough to know the successes in that school.”
While Hendricks cited repeated instances of fiscal irresponsibility as the reason for Gacutan’s termination, Woodfin said that the board has not launched an investigation into a misappropriation of funds.
“If [Gacutan] breached something, where is the record that says ‘let’s fire her with cause?’” Woodfin said. “I’m very, very tired of people saying this is about the children. I wish people would stop saying that. Because it’s not true. That’s offensive. If it’s about the children and school just started last month, we wouldn’t have done what we did last night.”
Hendricks said that one big issue with Gacutan as head of the school system related to $2.5 million the board approved for a reading initiative that had been recommended by the superintendent.
“There were million-dollar decisions that were made that we usually voted in agreement,” Hendricks said. “I would venture to say 85 to 95 percent of the things presented to us we approved as a board, collectively. So to be coined as someone who made a hasty decision or didn’t care, that’s just not true.” Hendricks added that students still do not have the books for the new reading initiative.
When asked specifically why no evidence of money being misused — as Hendricks and other members of the board have cited as the reason for the ousting — was presented to the board as a whole or the public, she replied, “I received an article just the other day that someone had sent out and they provided actual links to some of the line items that were done without our approval and the dollar amounts associated. The board wants to maintain a good image for our children and a mature professional image in front of our staff… Every effort was made to do that. We didn’t want to be a ‘gotcha’ board and mislead the employees. We didn’t want the community to be aware of those problems either because we were trying to work together.”
Hendricks said that not providing any evidence of Gacutan illegally misusing funds to the public was due to an “effort to be fair and equitable to our leadership.” Hendricks said she could see how members of the public might perceive a discrepancy between allegations that Gacutan misused funds and the fact that she was fired without cause. “I understand. I do. Listen, this was not an easy decision. It was a sad day. It was something that I personally had to pray about and I took a lot of time before I made that decision.
“You have choices in life. You lose millions of dollars and continue to do so by making bad decisions or you make hard decisions that are in the best interests,” Hendricks said, adding that she wished the media had covered the board’s actions more before last week’s vote. “Unfortunately we only have these conversations once things are looking in a bad light,” Hendricks said. “This didn’t come up over night.”
An earlier meeting
Hendricks did not specify the origin of the article that linked to line items in which Gacutan allegedly usurped the board’s authority. But Ronald Jackson, executive director for Citizens for Better Schools, and a perennial presence at the school board meetings, sent out an email to members of the media on September 20, outlining instances that he saw as “violations of Alabama Education Code.”
“During last evening’s Birmingham Board of Education Regular Board Meeting and FY2017 Budget Hearing school superintendent K. Guycutan [sic] admitted to spending City school funds for capital construction projects without prior Board of Education due authorization. Such spending by Superintendent Guycutan [sic] on capital projects without prior school board isolation has occurred previously, aggregate totals of $175,000 dollars,” the email reads.
During the meeting Jackson alluded to, the line items in question were two change orders for the new BCS operations center in the Wells Fargo building, a purchase the board had approved in 2012, three years before Gacutan’s administration.
Also, during that meeting, several board members took issue with a $73,000 expense for professional services that had not been approved by the board beforehand. By law, any expense recommended by the superintendent over $50,000 must be approved first.
Speaking at that meeting about that expenditure, which went toward professional development, Hendricks said “Again, we have not voted on this as a board. If we had voted on this before we got started – it’s not that I’m against any of our professional development per se — but too often we have things that are presented to us after we’ve already committed ourselves financially. It’s unfair that you put us in this position. It says right here the work was completed in July.”
Board President Wardine Alexander also took issue with the same line item: “Please respect the board when it comes to these instances,” she said. “We’ve been very consistent in our requests. We’re bringing items that in a business setting, if you operated your home, you would not expect to spend money before it’s approved or before it’s in your pocket… So please, with all due diligence, try and minimize this.”
As for the more expensive brick and mortar issue, Sharon Roberts, chief financial officer for BCS, said the change orders had been approved by individuals no longer with the school system. “It was done months ago. It just came to my attention when we just started to see invoices,” Roberts said.
“I heard when we were doing the budget presentation about other projects that weren’t complete but I didn’t hear anything about this operations center,” Williams responded. “It has definitely been a money pit, for lack of a better word. I still don’t know where we are or what else needs to be done to complete it, what percentage complete it is. We are never really given an option. The administration just keeps pouring dollars into this building without board approval.”
Gacutan said that she brought the change order expenditures — one was $83,709 for work that had already been completed at the future BCS operations center and another $87,772 for a requirement mandated by fire department prior to occupancy that had not been completed and was tabled for later discussion — to the attention of the board as soon as she was made aware of it.
“I need to make this very, very clear,” Gacutan said. “This is not the administration pouring money into it. It’s my understanding that these items here were done some time ago…which is why this was discussed in the finance committee as soon as this was brought to our attention. We brought this matter forward so it could be addressed. But I couldn’t agree more. We definitely need to make sure that items such as this not happen, going back to what was stated earlier by Ms. Hendricks. As soon as we were notified that these change orders were made, we brought this to the attention of the finance committee and then brought it to the attention of the full board.”
In response to these alleged financial discrepancies, Jackson said in an email that he has filed a formal request with the Alabama State Board of Education for an investigation into, “The Birmingham School Superintendent Guycutin [sic] (now former superintendent), Birmingham Chief School Finance Officer, and Former School Board President Randall Woodfin, and current School Board President Wardell [sic] Alexander.”
Jackson’s request for the state investigation could not be independently verified before this story went to press and efforts to reach Gacutan, Alexander and Williams were unsuccessful.
A visibly frustrated Woodfin said that the revolving door of superintendents does not inspire confidence in the community or with qualified candidates who could potentially fill the position. “People should express their outrage and hold us accountable,” Woodfin said. “The question comes down to this: if we are going to get a superintendent to come to Birmingham city school and stay, maybe it’s not [the] superintendent people need to look at. Maybe it’s the people who appoint the superintendent.”