As the search for a new head of Birmingham City Schools continues a controversial course through protests, board dissension, and one candidate dropping out, court records obtained through a public records request shed light on why Dr. Larry Contri, the current interim superintendent, isn’t on the shortlist for the job.
On August 17, 2016, the Birmingham Board of Education settled a $75,000 lawsuit filed by Contri, court documents show. One of the terms of the settlement was that Contri would irrevocably tender his notice of retirement and his resignation from employment effective June 30, 2017. The settlement agreement was signed by Contri and former superintendent Dr. Kelley Castlin-Gacutan a month before her sudden ouster on September 22, 2016.
According to the settlement 60 percent of the aforementioned pay would be deemed back pay; 40 percent would be considered compensatory damages.
Despite being named in the suit, board member Cheri Gardner, who also serves on the search committee tasked with finding a superintendent to replace Castlin-Gacutan, requested that Contri be considered for the permanent position during the board meeting on April 11. That meeting, where the finalists were revealed to both the BBOE and members of the public, sparked public protests over the selection of candidates — some of it due to Contri’s name not being included.
The search process — which was largely outsourced to the Alabama Association of School Boards to select the final five candidates from a pool of 47 completed applications — has shed a light on what one board member called “a flawed process” to find a superintendent.
Contri’s lawsuit sought reimbursement for compensation that he contended was placed on a “grandfathered salary schedule” during his time in various positions with the school system. That compensation level was established on August 10, 2004, while Contri served as the coordinator of special projects. “On May 28, 2012, the Birmingham Board of Education voted on a Reduction in Force (RIF) plan,” the complaint reads. The RIF would have negated the standing of Contri’s scheduled salary of $143,295 annually, reducing it to $95,658. The vote was split and former State Superintendent Dr. Ed Richardson, who was tasked with overseeing the school system’s finances after the state takeover in 2012, signed the RIF measure without approval of the board, according to the complaint.
Contri’s salary was subsequently reduced on July 30, 2013. The lawsuit was filed on by Contri and his attorneys on April 22, 2014. “The plaintiff is owed back pay for the time from July 30, 2013 until the Board begins to pay him his Grandfathered level again,” the complaint reads. It is unclear when exactly the board reestablished Contri’s “grandfathered” salary, if at all, beyond the fact he was compensated $75,000 at the time his resignation was agreed upon in August 2016.
As it stands, the BBOE must have a superintendent in place by July 1 (a date requested by the board and approved by the state) — the day after Contri is set to retire.
Since the announcement of the candidates, protesters have taken issue not only with the final slate of candidates, but also the lack of transparency in the selection process. Over the weekend, one of the candidates up for consideration, Dr. Timothy Gadson III, withdrew his name from the search. In an email published by AL.com, Gadson cites the board infighting and politicized nature of the search process as the main reason for his withdrawal.
“While I feel I could do an outstanding job to help make Birmingham a world-class education system, I don’t want to join an organization where some have a deficit mindset and/or discriminate against any candidate simply because he/she is not a native of Birmingham or the great state of Alabama,” Gadson wrote to Dr. James Wright of the Alabama Association of School Boards.
Gadson’s email doesn’t mention the fact that he had previously been involved with allegations of academic misconduct during his time with the Atlanta Public School system. Those allegations involved a principal at Carver School of Technology, who under Gadson’s supervision, ordered a teacher to change grades of 65 students. Gadson’s email didn’t mention it, but those allegations troubled vocal opponents of the list of candidates.
The four remaining candidates are expected to begin the BBOE interview process April 19.
On Monday morning, a faction of the BBOE that is requesting a new slate of candidates — which would include “local talent” — held a town hall meeting. The move exhibited the divergence of opinions even among board members over the method of the superintendent search. Gardner cited instances which she said showed that School Board President Wardine Alexander and April Williams, the board member who serves as chair of the search committee, were making unilateral decisions. One such decision involved flying candidates to Birmingham as opposed to “conducting interviews via Skype,” which was originally agreed upon by the committee, Gardner said.
“There has not been any discussion among the board about flying the candidates in, nor was there a discussion among the search committee to fly the candidates in,” Gardner said. If members of the search committee are not aware of these changes being made, who is making the decisions? Gardner said she “imagines it’s the chair of the search committee or the president [of the board].”
Gardner said requests for additional candidates have been “denied” by Williams and Alexander, who have insisted the process will move forward, she said.
Williams could not be reached for comment after multiple attempts — her phone went to straight to voicemail and the mailbox was full. Alexander did not return calls for clarification on the decision making process of the search committee or if additional candidates would be considered.
“This is not a situation where we are trying to get our way,” board member Daayge Hendricks said at Monday’s town hall meeting. “We have a responsibility to get this right,” she said, adding that it is not too late for the board to consider other candidates. She also said the board is not obligated to select only one of the four candidates that remain. “We do want the community to know there is disagreement and we have tried at every turn to right that but we were told we are moving forward.”
Gardner said the board was informed “by a particular colleague” that “the reason we are here and having this meeting is because we are listening to the people,” she said, noting that fact was brought up in a negative context. “My question is: Shouldn’t we be listening to the people? The people put us here. If we can’t listen to the people then we are not doing our job very well,” Gardner said. She would not identify the person who made those comments.
Gardner also said she is not aware of the criteria that was used to select the finalists despite being on the search committee.
At one point, attorney Gayle Gear, who represented Contri during the legal settlement, stood up and berated the three board members who were present for not fulfilling their fiduciary duties. “What you’re telling us is there is no known criteria that was used to sift through the 40-something candidates to arrive at five,” Gear said. “That in and of itself shows lack of transparency… Can you tell me why we can’t accomplish this as a cooperative board? Where are the citizens asking, ‘Is there a criteria that says no inside people allowed?’”
Birmingham Mayor William Bell has also voiced concern over the lack of local candidates. During a press conference on Thursday, Bell said, “I think some consideration should be made to include in the process of their deliberation that someone from the state of Alabama should be included in that process. At this time, I am not prepared to say who that someone should be.”
While much remains uncertain, it is now clear that despite calls from protesters and concerned advocates, Contri is expected to retire on June 30. Who will take his place the following day is still in the hands of the BBOE, which remains publicly split over the process and the candidates who are set to be interviewed on Wednesday.