When Mayor William Bell spoke to the Birmingham Board of Education last week, he recounted a meeting in 1995. Consultants had analyzed the region’s economic development potential and had identified one weakness preventing the region from competing with its peers — education.
Several suburban mayors defended their schools, Bell told the board. Finally, the consultants stopped them. Suburban schools were not the problem. It was Birmingham City Schools. The deterioration of the school system there was hurting the entire region.
Seventeen years later, little has changed. The system has continued to hemorrhage students. The quality of the city schools, or lack of it, remains the primary reason families leave the city and transplants to the metro area look elsewhere for a place to settle.
Birmingham has suffered from what former Birmingham Mayor Bernard Kincaid called “green flight.” White, black or whatever — people with the money to leave have moved out of town. The city might still be home to the region’s biggest business interests and the the state’s largest employer, UAB, but when it comes to education, the core is rotten.
Theater of the Absurd
Built in 1965, the Birmingham City Schools’ administration building downtown has all the aesthetic charm of a bomb shelter. It’s gray concrete facade faces Linn Park, where it is the weakest sibling of the two other public buildings on the block — Birmingham City Hall and the Jefferson County Courthouse. While City Hall and the courthouse have undergone extensive renovations through the years, the school system’s administration building looks much like it did when it was built, with the exception of a few wheelchair ramps awkwardly grafted on and in the structure to make it closer to being ADA compliant.
The auditorium, where the board conducts its meetings, was clearly never meant to host the kind of crowd that showed last Tuesday. Several rows of folding chairs filled more than a half an hour before the meeting began, as did an overflow room on the second floor. Another 30 people or more stood in the building’s cramped lobby watching the board meeting on a television hung high on the wall there. Inside the auditorium, the board members sat behind a cheap pine dais which sits on the floor in front of a tiny stage and proscenium.
The board itself consists of nine members elected from the same districts as the members of the Birmingham City Council. A decade ago, the Alabama Legislature changed the board from an appointed body to an elected one. The shift was supposed to make the board more accountable and end years of bickering and backbiting, but instead, school board politics worsened. City council races have overshadowed school board races. The result has been something of a bizzaro twin of the council — the same number of members from the same districts, only more dysfunctional and embarrassing.
The one thing that has not changed, despite the new system for selecting board members, is the revolving door on the superintendent’s office. The Birmingham school system has had five superintendents in 12 years, most of whom have left under pressure from the board.
When Superintendent Craig Witherspoon took the job two years ago, he faced the seemingly perpetual challenges of the school system — a student population largely from disadvantaged households, and limited resources with which to address those students’ needs.
Like many school systems in urban areas, the Birmingham school system faces an ethical quandary: When you lack the resources to educate all students sufficiently, do you create a meritocratic system that rations those resources to the more gifted students, or do you allocate those resources evenly, regardless of merit, and in doing so, spread them so thin that few students can hope to succeed?
Witherspoon has taken a two-front attack. He has expanded the International Baccalaureate programs in Birmingham schools, in the hope of replicating the success of Jefferson County Schools’ IB program, and he has promoted so-called “career academies” for preparing students for the workforce. He has courted the corporate community and groups such as the Birmingham Education Foundation, which seeks to bring a region-wide focus to the blighted system’s problems.
But political systems are resistant to change — especially dysfunctional systems. Decisive actions come with equal and opposite reactions. By rationing the system’s resources, Witherspoon has made enemies of parents who felt their children had been cheated of opportunity, as well as faculty from schools.
The backlash was not a surprise, but the ambush was.
The day before Good Friday, five school board members scheduled an emergency meeting with only one item on the agenda — Witherspoon’s contract. The superintendent’s current contract runs through the summer of 2013, but five board members sought to bring it to an abrupt end. What’s more, two board members — both of whom had sided with Witherspoon throughout his tenure — would not be able to attend the meeting.
Witherspoon supporters assembled a rally in Linn Park before the Good Friday meeting. The diverse crowd of about 200 people consisted of young, aspiring black leaders, black and white business leaders, and young whites repatriated to the city. All lauded Witherspoon and his plan for the system and blasted the five board members seeking to fire the superintendent.
Not everyone in attendance supported the superintendent, however. In comments to the Birmingham News, Barbara Thompson, a former teacher, called Witherspoon an Uncle Tom. Frank Matthews, a political hitman and sometimes-talk show host, yelled at the crowd, joking about the rally being held in front of the Confederate war memorial.
But the Witherspoon supporters in Linn Park were not the only ones putting pressure on the board. Alabama School Superintendent Tommy Bice all but threatened to take over the system if the meeting were not canceled. The five board members caved under the pressure, and instead, waited until the next regularly scheduled meeting.
Home and Away
As part of its regular agenda, the the school board allows members of the public to speak. It limits each speaker to two minutes and keeps time with the sort of game clock you’d see at high school basketball game. The clock is built to keep score for “Home” and “Away,” and even before the meeting, at least one board member was trying to define those designations.
Board member Tyrone Belcher, one of the five members in favor of firing Witherspoon, told The Birmingham News that the superintendent’s supporters were outsiders. “All these folks coming out for him, they ain’t got kids in the school system. But in my community? They don’t give a damn about Witherspoon,” Belcher said.
It was a dividing line drawn before, during and after the meeting.
But if Witherspoon’s supporters were the Away team, then the Home team got trounced at the meeting. By a margin of about 10-to-one, the speakers threw their support behind the superintendent.
“I live in Birmingham and I give a damn,” Gwendolyn Welch told the board.
But the most interesting and politically significant support for the superintendent came from a place that has kept its distance from school board politics — Birmingham City Hall. Earlier in the day, the Birmingham City Council unanimously passed a resolution supporting the superintendent. Councilors Kim Rafferty, Jay Roberson, Valerie Abbott, Johnathan Austin and Roderick Royal stepped to the podium, as Rafferty read the resolution.
After the council had spoken, Mayor Bell took his turn to put his support behind Witherspoon.
The school system cannot continue to obstruct every superintendent that comes to Birmingham, Bell said. The system should give him a chance.
“If he does not turn the school system around, then we do not have anyone to blame but Dr. Witherspoon, but if we continue to interfere, interrupt and not stay in our lane… then if he leaves or anyone else comes and goes, then we’ll all be blamed for that,” Bell said. “I just ask for stability. I just ask for the time necessary to move this system forward.”
Bell also said he was encouraged by the support he saw for the superintendent, even if some of the supporters weren’t a homogeneous crowd. “I’m heartened by the fact that we have both black and whites come before us to say that they support the superintendent,” Bell said. “I’m proud of the fact that we have both blacks and whites who say they want to be part of something good.”
Despite the outpouring of support, the five board members allied against Witherspoon — Belcher, Ford, Edward Maddox, Alana Edwards and Virginia Volker — attempted to fire the superintendent anyway, failing only because the board members were ignorant of their own parliamentary procedures. Board President Maddox made a motion to terminate Witherspoon’s contract, but the board’s rules do not allow for the president to make such a motion. At that moment, another of the five members could have made the motion, instead, but because of fear or confusion, none did so. Maddox sulked, saying that his colleagues had “left me hanging.”
At the end of the meeting, Edwards finally made a motion to fire Witherspoon, but the board had finished its regular business, and the motion was out of order.
Throughout the meeting, the state superintendent sat silently on the second row in the crowd. After the meeting, he told the media that he would make a recommendation to the state school board for how to deal with Birmingham.
Board member Brian Giattina all but asked Bice to take over the school system, as did board members April Williams and Phyllis Wyne, all of whom support Witherspoon. Wyne and Williams asked that there be an investigation of the board members to determine whether board members had broken open meetings laws or state ethics laws.
The next day, Bice recommended to the state board that the state investigate the Birmingham board and the operations of the school system. After the state board approved his recommendation, Bice sent a letter to the Birmingham board instructing them against making any significant personnel decisions until the investigation is complete.
Since the 1990s, the state has seized control of numerous school systems, but all after either financial or academic failures. This action was different. Bice said the division and dysfunction of the Birmingham board had created a “crisis of confidence.”
The state’s action triggered a blowback from the other side of the political divide. In a press conference Monday, state Rep. John Rogers called the decision racist and illegal. He encouraged the five anti-Witherspoon board members to fire the superintendent anyway and fight the state in court. Rep. Mary Moore said the real fight was over charter schools — a hot-button issue now in the Alabama Legislature — and accused the other side of being in favor of privatizing education.
The fight over Witherspoon’s future has exposed a new political divide in Birmingham.
On one side is a loose coalition of liberal whites, black elites and business interests who see the school system’s failures as the proximate cause of Birmingham’s decline.
On the other side are the urban version of Alabama’s political intolerance of others and a suspicion of outsiders. It’s the same brand of politics that led generations of Alabama politicians to blast pointy-headed intellectuals, outside agitators and liberal Yankee journalists — only the color has changed.
The outcome is uncertain, but a resolution must grapple with two unanswered questions: Who is responsible for our problem, and who is going to fix it?
The Messenger Shoot Back is a column about political culture.