Dr. Lisa Herring’s interview for the Birmingham superintendent position was interrupted by a phoned-in bomb threat that caused the entire Board of Education building to be evacuated just before 11 a.m. on Wednesday.
The sudden evacuation was not the only attempt to halt the Wednesday morning interviews. Before the meeting, Interim Superintendent Dr. Larry Contri filed a request for a temporary restraining order against the board in Jefferson County Circuit Court, attempting to have the court intervene. The request was denied and the interviews proceeded as planned until the bomb threat.
According to court documents obtained by Weld through a public records request, “The information presently available to the Plaintiffs indicates that the process is not being done according to law,” the suit reads. “Plaintiffs seek a temporary restraining order — to restrain the Defendants from seeking a new Superintendent pending further orders from the Court — and ultimately seek equitable relief, including injunctive and declaratory relief, to require that the process be carried out according to law.”
All individual members of the BBOE were named as defendants in the suit. The filing comes a day after reports showed that Contri had settled a $75,000 lawsuit against the board in August (before there was a superintendent vacancy); one of the conditions of the settlement was that Contri would “irrevocably” retire from the school system on June 30, 2017. That did not stop Contri from applying for the job, according to his attorney.
Contri, who was outside the BOE building after the evacuation, said he had “no comment” on the filing in which he argued the board had failed in the process of lawfully selecting a new superintendent. By law the board had 180 days to fill the vacancy left by Dr. Kelley Castlin-Gacutan on September 22, 2017. That would put the original deadline on March 22, 2017 and Contri argued in the complaint that the extension that was granted by the state was never voted upon by the board:
“In a public meeting on 26 January 2017, Defendant [April] Williams as a member of the search committee was seeking an extension of the 180 day period… the search committee was ‘hoping’ to extend the application deadline… the Board also never voted to adopt a timeline or process that would depart from the original provisions.”
According to court documents, Contri urged the court to allow him to be interviewed for the position: “Additionally, the Plaintiff asks the Court to force the Board to interview him, even though, an independent body (AASB) did not select him as a finalist,” Circuit Judge Donald Blankenship wrote in his decision to deny the request for a temporary restraining order.
One board member, who spoke under the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing interview process, said the filing was undermining the authority of the board to properly conduct interviews with the remaining candidates. “I think [Contri] should step down at once. He disqualified himself from this job today,” the board member said.
The bomb scare is the latest is what has been a tumultuous search to fill the permanent superintendent post that was vacated by Castlin-Gacutan in September. What was supposed to be a five-candidate interview process has been reduced to three after two candidates withdrew their names from consideration before the interview: Dr. Ronnie Dotson and Dr. Timothy Gadson III.
Dotson’s Wednesday departure was announced by board member April Williams, who also serves as chair of the search committee, while the Birmingham Police Department swept the interior of the building for explosives. Both Williams and Board President Wardine Alexander remained resolute in their belief that the process should continue as planned. They were questioned by reporters about whether the latest developments — candidates withdrawing and bomb threats being made against the BBOE — would cause the board to halt the search and rethink their strategy.
“[Dotson] was very disappointed and felt that in this particular climate he would not be able to meet the needs and the wishes of what generally seems to be going on in the public right now,” Alexander said, as onlookers passed by to catch a glimpse of the situation unfolding outside the BOE building.
“I have looked at this process, and it is nothing different than what happens across the nation with superintendent searches,” Williams said, as several bomb sniffing dogs entered the building behind her. “The board fully approved the process. We asked for up to five candidates and they provided the max of what we asked for. I’m more concerned with pausing. We did that once before and we ended up with one long process where the board didn’t have a decision to make.”
Williams said she was disappointed that Dotson, a candidate she described as highly qualified, would come to Birmingham and withdraw his name from consideration after detailing the similarities of his experience in a struggling school system in Kentucky and the improvements he was able to oversee there. “He wanted to bring that same change to Birmingham. His perspective changed when he had to consider how that career change would impact the quality of life with his family,” Williams said. “It really breaks my heart.”
She went on to describe how a “small group of people” were having a negative impact on a process of selecting the next superintendent — a process some board members publicly called “flawed.” While not specifying who she meant, Williams said, “Just look at the data. I don’t have to tell you. You already know who is making the noise.”
It is unclear if the board will rethink the search if any candidate withdraws from consideration. “I don’t want to speculate about ‘what-ifs,’ because we could go down that path forever,” Williams said. “I would like to encourage all the remaining candidates to stay in the race.”
Not every board member was as constrained as Williams in expressing their thoughts on the unfolding situation. “It’s blanking ridiculous! You fill in the blank,” Sandra Brown snapped as she was being escorted from the building during the bomb scare. “This is just a distraction. We’re moving forward because we’ve already interviewed one candidate. It would be unfair to the others to stop now.”
Brown went on to compare the current search to that which resulted in the hiring of Castlin-Gacutan. “It’s horrible. The first one we had, there was no conflict. Sure, we had a few disagreements among the board members but nothing to this magnitude,” Brown said. She and the other board members who were interviewed for this story did not express fear over the bomb threat. But several expressed frustration with how the incident will reflect on the beleaguered school system and the search process that has been in disarray in recent weeks.
“My only concern is — out of everything that is going on — you very seldom hear a word about the students. They’re the ones who are going to be affected,” Brown said.
Board member Brian Giattina was seated on a curb outside the BOE building as it was being cleared for explosives. He pointed to infighting and unnecessary claims about a lack of local candidates as being part of a larger issue among board members, though he declined to specify his comments on record.
“I believe that if you look at the process you’ll see we’ve been trying to go through a logical order of events. I believe it’s external factors that didn’t like the results of the process that are creating these distractions,” Giattina said.
On how the bomb threat will affect the board’s job moving forward, “This is not a protest in front of the board of education. This is a federal crime in a public building, and I don’t take that lightly, and I don’t think the police will either,” he said.
With only three candidates remaining — at the time of the conversation there was one full interview left to conduct, plus the second half of Herring’s which was interrupted — Giattina said that if the board cannot decide on a new superintendent, then the body would take a step back and perhaps consider other candidates.
“If you work through the process and get to the end and if those three people don’t inspire and prove to us they have what it takes to move this forward then we will stop and back up. That is our responsibility,” Giattina said, adding that there has been no conversation with board leadership indicating that a reset will take place.
When the board reconvened once the building was clear they applauded Herring for her composure during a difficult situation. She hugged each member of the board after the interview. The other candidates did not.
As to the bomb threat, the Birmingham Police investigation is apparently still ongoing. No additional information was available as of press time.