The Alabama State Board of Education passed a resolution Thursday morning to begin an investigation into the operations of the Birmingham Board of Education and schools. The resolution, which the state board passed unanimously, followed a Tuesday Birmingham Board of Education meeting in which members requested intervention from the state and an investigation into violations of the state’s Open Meetings Law and other ethics violations.
Alabama State Schools Superintendent Dr. Tommy Bice introduced the resolution after attending Tuesday’s Birmingham BoE meeting. At that meeting, members voted twice, both in 5-4 votes, to not extend Birmingham Schools Superintendent Dr. Craig Witherspoon’s contract, and tried twice to terminate his contract (both attempts failed due to the board’s own rules of parliamentary procedure). The votes against Witherspoon came after dozens of members of the public and local pols — including the entire Birmingham City Council and Birmingham Mayor William Bell — spoke in favor of Witherspoon. Some board members requested intervention from the state superintendent and an investigation by Alabama Ethics Commission.
Last Thursday, Birmingham BoE members hostile to Witherspoon called an emergency meeting for the following day, Good Friday, when some board members had plans to leave town. The only item on the agenda was Witherspoon’s contract.
“As state superintendent, anytime there’s an emergency meeting I feel the responsibility to inquire as to what that emergency is so that we can offer whatever resources and support is needed,” Bice said in Thursday’s state BoE meeting. “As I looked into that, I discovered there were no children or people involved in that call to meeting. It was actually a meeting to discuss the superintendent’s contract.”
That meeting was canceled following a public outcry and a request from Bice, and he and state BoE member Dr. Yvette Richardson made plans to attend the regularly scheduled Birmingham BoE meeting on Tuesday.
“So I went strictly as an interested observer so I could better understand what the urgency of the situation was related to the superintendent’s contract or anything else that came up,” Bice told the state BoE on Thursday. “As the meeting progressed, the issue of the superintendent’s contract — at least from my perspective — became far less of a concern or me, but rather the operation of the school board. Because, as I observed at this meeting, it appeared that most of the concerns were actually between board members to the point of accusations of ethics violations and open meeting law violations and questioning contractual agreements. That became my major concern. I’m also concerned about the superintendent, but it’s really the functioning of the school board.”
“I came tonight as an interested observer,” Bice told the press after Tuesday’s meeting. “I’m leaving as a concerned observer.”
Bice said Thursday that the next three months, which include budget and personnel decisions for the 2012-2013 school year, are “crucial” to school systems, and that urgent need prompted his drive for intervention.
The resolution, called a “Resolution for An Investigative Review of the Governance of the Birmingham City Board of Education,” says that the Birmingham BoE has failed to fulfill its duties in recent months and cites recent infighting (including one physical altercation), and the superintendent’s power to intervene based on the results of the investigation.
Alabama Board of Education meeting, 4/12/2012 (fast forward to the 19:45 mark):
Alabama State Schools Superintendent Dr. Tommy Bice after Tuesday’s Birmingham City Board of Education meeting:
Text of the Alabama Board of Education resolution: