It’s tempting to call the latest search for a new superintendent for Birmingham City Schools a mess. But that would be an insult to messes everywhere.
This is nothing new, of course. The next superintendent hired by the Birmingham Board of Education will be the system’s ninth in 21 years — a rate of turnover that begs the question of why any rational individual — let alone any qualified one — would want the job.
But someone does want it. That someone is Dr. Larry Contri, who has served as interim superintendent since last fall, when the nine-member school board voted 6-3 to fire Superintendent Kelley Castlin-Gacutan, who was 14 months into a three-year contract with the school system.
Contri has been with the Birmingham schools for nearly 50 years. As Weld and other local media outlets have reported, he is scheduled to retire on June 30 of this year, under the terms of the settlement last year of a lawsuit he filed against the school system in 2014, in a dispute over salary. In the settlement, Contri received $75,000 in back pay and compensatory damages, in return for his agreement to retire.
Despite that agreement, Contri sought the vacant superintendent’s post. He was one of 47 applicants in a search process that the board largely outsourced to the Alabama Association of School Boards, a membership-based organization that represents 134 public school systems — comprising roughly 1,500 schools and about 745,000 students — across the state. Contri, who had also sought the position on three prior occasions, was not on the list of five finalists the AASB submitted to the board last week.
The public release of the list of finalists has fueled an uproar that is approaching epic proportions, from people claiming to be outraged that no local candidate — by which, unanimously, and whether or not they say it openly, they clearly mean Contri — was among the five submitted by the AASB. The roster of those fanning the flames of controversy includes three members of the school board, members of the local chapter of the Alabama Federation of Teachers (of which Contri is also a member), numerous self-styled community activists — and, to be sure, some number of concerned parents and other local citizens whose primary interest is in how well the school system serves the 24,000 students in its charge.
It also includes Birmingham Mayor William Bell. Despite — or, perhaps, because of — a history of active interest in the city schools that has been sporadic at best, and has mostly involved efforts to get or keep various of his relatives, friends, and political associates employed by the school system, the mayor weighed into the controversy last week. In a press conference last Thursday, he opined that, “some consideration should be made to include in the process of their deliberation…someone from the state of Alabama.”
“At this time, I am not prepared to say who that someone should be,” Bell added.
Perhaps the mayor was being truthful in implying that he had no particular candidate in mind. It seems unlikely, though, since the day before making the statements at his press conference, he met with Contri at the BOE offices, across Linn Park from City Hall.
Here, the unfortunate fact that the controversy over the superintendent search is taking place in an election year bears noting. It’s just four months until Birmingham voters will go to the polls to select a mayor, a city council, and a school board to serve them for the next four years, and notwithstanding some legitimate questions about the selection process and the five finalists for the superintendent’s post (one of whom has since withdrawn from consideration), the willful injection of election-year politics into the process is painfully apparent to anyone who’s paying attention.
Of course, blaming a politician for being political makes about as much sense as blaming a tiger for having stripes. Still, the fact of the matter is that Bell has some substantial competition in his bid for re-election. Some of his more stalwart supporters will dispute this claim, but as one who speaks to people all over the city on a regular basis, I can tell you anecdotally that I find no great enthusiasm for Mayor Bell’s re-election anywhere.
Non-anecdotally, I can tell you that I have seen data from two separate public opinion polls in which the mayor’s negatives are alarmingly high for a supposedly popular incumbent — meaning, at the very least, that the door is wide open for one or more challengers to muster strong support. In that regard, Bell’s effort to surf the wave of discord that has arisen — or, perhaps more correctly, that is being generated — over the superintendent search makes some sense politically, though whether it constitutes good leadership is wide open to question, as is the assertion that it has anything at all to do with what is good for Birmingham’s schoolchildren.
Nor does the political angling stop with our mayor. Two of the loudest voices in the sudden clamor over a process now being described in some quarters as “flawed” and even “corrupt” belong to people who are running for seats on the school board — Terri Rector Michal, who is a candidate for the District 2 seat now held by Lyord Watson, who is not seeking re-election, and Bishop A. Bernard Womack, who’s running against incumbent April Williams for the District 8 seat (Womack also ran against Williams in 2013, and under the name “Antwon Womack” has been a perennial office seeker since 2009).
As with the mayor, I have nothing (at least in theory) against candidates seizing on issues and events in order to gain name recognition and/or advance their campaigns. But neither do I shy from the responsibility of pointing this out when it happens.
Then there are the three school board members — Sherman Collins, Cheri Gardner, and Daagye Hendricks — who have spoken up since the list of superintendent finalists was released. In their public statements, the three have complained about the way AASB went about the search, and indicated that they did not “sign off” on the process, as well as expressing disappointment that no local candidates were among the finalists — this despite the fact that AASB met individually with all nine board members prior to beginning the search process, and apparently heard nothing from any of them about the importance of including local candidates on the final list.
Here, too, there are political implications, as both Gardner and Hendricks presumably are seeking re-election to their respective board seats. Meanwhile, I have heard from several sources that Collins is running for the District 1 city council seat against incumbent Lashunda Scales — reportedly at the behest and with the support of Mayor Bell, with whom Scales has clashed repeatedly.
But, again, it’s hard to blame a politician for acting like a politician. And, regardless of the individual motivations of any or all of those looking to make political hay out of what has become yet another example of Birmingham’s infuriating inability to get out of its own way — particularly when it comes to the challenge of trying to provide quality educational experiences and attendant opportunities to a student body in which two out of every three children live in poverty — no one can deny the legitimacy of certain of the concerns being expressed, including those over the possibility of charter schools.
More disturbing than the open politicking over the search is the behind-the-scenes maneuvering to hand the job to Contri. It has been going on for weeks, including one ongoing effort premised on letting him serve for two years to “get things under control,” and then step down to make way for a superintendent who, presumably, would then be able to begin the long rebuilding process in earnest.
What does that mean? I spoke to one person with long experience in the system who says “getting things under control” means handing out jobs and pay raises to longtime allies.
“The ‘hook-up culture’ in the school system has been the single biggest obstacle to making real changes that benefit students and parents,” this person told me. “Larry is a product of that culture, and all he would do as superintendent is perpetuate it. None of this is about kids. It’s about adults.”
To be sure, Contri has his supporters as well. Another person I talked to on Monday, while acknowledging his “drawbacks,” also said Contri “has the knowledge and experience” to be a good superintendent.
“Personally, I was surprised that he was not one of the five [finalists],” that person said. “That’s not to say that there might not be better candidates, but in my experience, there’s no doubt that he’s qualified for the job.”
Still, I don’t mind opining here that I have a bad taste about Contri. One big reason for that is an email that was shared with me on Monday night. The email contained a link to an online petition that is circulating under the heading, “We want a local Superintendent.”
Let me be quick to say that it’s not the petition that bothers me. It’s the fact that the email that was shared with me — the original recipients were 15 individuals who are, shall we say, well-connected and influential in both educational and political circles — came from Contri, with a one-line message: Please circulate and encourage others to sign.
“At best, that’s unethical,” said one of the people I spoke with. “At worst, it should disqualify him from any consideration. Trying to influence the process like that is just wrong.”
Of course, the process might not matter any longer, at least as it relates to the current list of candidates.
“It’s become entirely political,” said another source in the school system. “There is absolutely no ‘win’ in this situation for the school board. All they can do now is start over, because this pass is DOA.”
In the end, where does that leave Birmingham’s beleaguered public school system? For one thing, with more questions than answers, not least among them why so many people are more concerned about having “a local candidate” — most particularly, one specific local candidate — than about finding the superintendent who will best serve the children and families of the Birmingham City Schools.
Which leads back to the question with which I started this column: Why would anyone want this job?
“Maybe that’s our problem,” said still another of the numerous folks with whom I’ve spoken over the past few days, this one a parent with two children in the Birmingham system. “It could well be that we just can’t attract good candidates, whether they’re local or not. Maybe things are just that far gone.
“If that’s the case, how are we ever going to get anybody good?”