Supporters of Birmingham City Schools Superintendent Craig Witherspoon rallied Friday afternoon in Linn Park to support a contract extension for Witherspoon and oppose a move by some members of the Birmingham Board of Education to discuss his contract in a hastily-called meeting on a holiday weekend.
The rally opposed a surprise board meeting called by by five board members in conflict with Witherspoon for months. That meeting had been scheduled for 5 p.m. Friday — Good Friday — but the same members cancelled the meeting Friday afternoon. The rally by Citizens Are Responsible for Education, or CARE, continued as planned.
“No organization wins and children suffer when you have almost a decade of leadership that changes every two years,” Randall Woodfin, founder of CARE, said in a press release. “The fact that this meeting has been called on Good Friday makes the board’s intentions for considering Witherspoon’s contract all the more suspicious.”
The crowd at the rally included representatives from the Birmingham Education Fund, local business leaders and political leaders, a PTA leader and two BOE members, Brian Giattina and Phyllis Wyne. Lawrence Conaway, the pastor of Guiding Light Church in Birmingham, also read a letter signed by 10 ministers in support of Witherspoon.
“We are pleased with the current progress made by the Birmingham city schools under the leadership of Dr. Craig Witherspoon,” Conaway said. “We believe time must be allowed for him as well as any other superintendent’s policy and programs before true results can be determined. We cannot continue the carousel of change that has been in happening in the previous years of leadership, and expect positive results in the education of our children.”
“If they wanted to genuinely have a discussion about Dr. Witherspoon’s performance, they would do so at a public forum at the regularly scheduled board meetings,” Conaway said, reading from the letter.
The pastors urged the board to reconsider reevaluating Witherspoon’s contract this early in his tenure. Witherspoon, who was not present at the rally, was hired in March 2010.
Waymond Jackson, a leader of a group called Yes We Can and an assistant to Birmingham City Council President Roderick Royal also spoke, as did Jerry Tate, a parent and a PTA member at Phillips Academy, and Robert Kelly of Kelly Construction.
Kelly, who said his daughters graduated from the Birmingham school system, read off a list of Witherspoon’s accomplishments, and then railed against the board.
“It blows me away, on Good Friday out of all days, that you’ve got not all board members, but you’ve got basically five board members that’s sitting around a table and saying, ‘You know what? We need to get rid of Dr. Witherspoon.’ Now I’m hoping, also, that they were getting ready to extend the contract.” That comment was greeted with scattered laughter from the audience.
Not everyone supported Witherspoon. Richard Franklin, president of the Birmingham Federation of Teachers, stood with a handful of supporters outside the Birmingham Board of Education building (directly across the street from the south end of Linn Park).
“Right now, I think that the board members — they have valid issues with what’s going on,” Franklin said. “And I think we have five board members that lost confidence in the superintendent. I think that at next Tuesday’s board meeting, so this issue can move forward, they need to come to their senses — the school board and the superintendent — whether he’s going to stay or go.”
“We must remember Dr. Witherspoon initiated this conversation because he said he wanted a contract — to see if they wanted to renew his contract,” Franklin said.
Bishop Calvin Woods, president of the Birmingham chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership conference, said that he supports Witherspoon. “I don’t know what he’s done to merit being fired. I thought he was doing a good job, and I still do,” Woods said after the rally. Woods said that he didn’t know why the board members want to fire Witherspoon. “You hear little things, little rumblings, how people are displeased about certain things at certain schools. But that’s what a superintendent is for — to help to deal with problems, to give leadership in those areas. So he has my support.”
The board’s regular meeting is on Tuesday.