The takeover of the Birmingham City Schools by the Alabama Board of Education will result in “substantial improvements” in the Birmingham system, former state Superintendent of Schools Ed Richardson told the Rotary Club of Birmingham today. The remarks by Richardson — who is heading the investigation of the Birmingham Board of Education ordered by current state Superintendent Tommy Bice — came at the Rotary’s regular weekly meeting at the downtown Harbert Center.
“I’m very confident that all of the ingredients for success are here,” Richardson said. “There are more than adequate resources to do what needs to be done to see the kind of improvements we all want to see here. It’s just a matter of priorities and having the right leadership in place.”
Richardson was quick to add his opinion that Birmingham schools have the right leadership in Superintendent Craig Witherspoon, whom he called “an excellent superintendent [who] given half a chance will get the job done.” He was less kind to the Birmingham school board, or at least to the majority on the board whose “behavior and actions” toward Witherspoon and related to the operation of the system are, “to be kind, an embarrassment,” he said.
“The majority of the board cannot and will not see the big picture,” Richardson said. “Birmingham is Alabama’s largest city, the state’s economic engine. What goes on here affects all of Alabama, and we cannot allow this situation with the Birmingham schools to go on any longer.”
Richardson took note of several things, both positive and negative, that he said will factor into the future of Birmingham schools. Among the positives are that Birmingham ranks seventh in the state in per pupil expenditures and has no capital indebtedness. On the negative side of the ledger is the fact that while per pupil funding is well above the state average, student achievement is well below.
Another problem is what has become a perennial decline in enrollment — averaging 6,000 to 8,000 students per year over the past several years — costs the city about $6 million in state funding annually. As a result of declining enrollment, roughly one-quarter of city schools currently are operating at 40 percent capacity or less, which Richardson said indicates a need to close some schools.
“In my opinion, eight to 10 more schools need to be closed,” Richardson said. “That would save the system $4 million to $5 million annually, even if the buildings aren’t sold.”
Reiterating his support of Witherspoon, Richardson said that in his experience, it takes four years for a superintendent to turn around an ailing school system. Noting that the average “life expectancy” of superintendents in Birmingham over the past decade has been “about two years,” Richardson said that indicates that the problem has been with the school board rather than the superintendents.
“It tells me that you have a majority of the board that doesn’t want the system to be successful. They just want to control the system and its $200 million budget,” Richardson declared.
Richardson also addressed criticism of the financial plan the state has put in place for the current school year, saying it “did not accomplish as much as we need to.” He attributed that to the delaying tactics of the Birmingham board that “gave us about three weeks” to produce a balanced budget, adding that the short expanse time meant that resulting personnel cuts had to based completely on seniority.
The long-range financial plan currently being formulated by the state will be ready in December, Richardson added. He said that plan will “redirect” resources as necessary to “give Dr. Witherspoon a chance to focus on student achievement” and “make corrections at the central office level” in relation to staffing, possible school closures and other issues that need to be addressed to improve the performance and fiscal health of the system.
“Once we reorganize, the superintendent will have people around him in whom he can have confidence,” said Richardson.
Richardson also told the Rotary that he hopes to present the findings of his investigation of the board by the end of September “in a public setting.” He reminded the group that the initial investigation did not involve the school system’s finances, but rather apparent instances of nepotism, violation of open meeting laws and allegations that one school board member does not reside in the district he represents.
At the close of his remarks, Richardson responded to questions from the audience. Among those was one asking his thoughts on next year’s school board election.
“People are just going to have to decide for themselves,” Richardson responded. “Is this issue with the schools important enough to find good candidates, work to get them elected, and support them once they’re in that position? That’s the question.”
Mark Kelly is the publisher of Weld. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.