The Birmingham City Schools Board of Education has rejected a state-backed plan to reduce expenses in the system, setting the stage for a state takeover.
During a three-hour meeting Tuesday night, several board members tried to put Superintendent Craig Witherspoon and former state Superintendent Ed Richardson on the defensive for not sharing the system’s true financial picture with the board. Board member Tyrone Belcher accused the state of racism, saying the team appointed by Superintendent Tommy Bice was not giving the same leeway to the majority black school system that the state had given to other systems.
Members of the Alabama Education Association and American Federation of Teachers packed the auditorium at the school board headquarters, frequently booing and jeering speakers and board members who favored a plan to cut about 200 positions form the system. The two-year plan for reducing expenses would have restored a reserve of one month’s operating expenses. However, union members argued that the plan did not do enough to cut central staff and instead pushed employees in lower level positions out of their jobs. The plan would have restored a surplus of about $17 million after two years, members of the state team have said.
Initially, the state school board sent the team of advisors, led by Richardson, to Birmingham after a political fight over Witherspoon’s contract. However, as the team was conducting its investigation, it determined that the system needed to shore up its finances first, Richardson said. The investigation into the Birmingham board members has been delayed until there is a financial plan in place to reduce system costs, he said.
The decision to put finances first could be as much of a political ploy as a fiscal one. Historically, the state has taken over school systems for one of two reasons — academics or financial misfeasance. By rejecting the state’s plan for cost reductions, the Birmingham board has opened the door for a state takeover.
The board rejected the state’s plan in a 4-4-1 vote. School board members Tyrone Belcher, Emanuel Ford, Edward Maddox and Virginia Volker voted against the cuts. Board members Brian Giattina, Alana Edwards, Willie Jame Maye and Phyllis Wyne voted to approve the plan. Board member April Williams abstained, and the item died for a lack of a majority.
After the meeting, Richardson said he would inform the state superintendent that the board had rejected the plan. The state school board had already authorized Bice to take over the system if the plan were not accepted, he said. The Birmingham News later reported that Bice said a state takeover of the school system would begin on Wednesday with the appointment of a chief financial officer and chief executive.