It must be written into the DNA of every Alabamian: “We shall not be told.” Almost from the inception of this state, its politics have been colored with belligerence and bravado, but no matter how willful or obstinate the results almost always prove the same. An outside force comes to say, “You can either do it yourself or have it done to you.”
So has been the case with Birmingham City Schools. In April, the Birmingham Board of Education attempted to fire Superintendent Craig Witherspoon, the latest superintendent to run crosswise with a temptuous and divided board. However, in a fluke of failure, the board violated its own rules of order, and before the members could meet again, the Alabama Board of Education and State Superintendent Tommy Bice intervened. Bice ordered the board to not make any significant personnel decisions without his approval and dispatched a team of advisors led by former State Superintendent Ed Richardson to lay the groundwork for a takeover.
When the board first attempted to fire Witherspoon, it did so with push back from a diverse coalition of elected officials, progressive blacks and repatriated whites. But in the ensuing months, a surge of support has created an equal and opposite force, coming mostly from working-class blacks and teachers unions.
The result has been a step-by-step escalation toward a public relations disaster for the city and a political occupation by the state.
To be fair, the state’s team of advisors did pull something of a bait and switch. When Bice sent the team to Birmingham, the mission was to investigate what was, in essence, a political crisis. Board members has accused each other of collusion and secret meetings. At least two board members have been rumored to not even live within the city limits. Richardson’s job, then, was to get to the bottom of the allegations.
But somewhere between then and the end of May, the state team identified another problem. The state requires local school systems to keep at least one month’s operating expenses in reserves in case of emergencies. (Among cities and counties, it is common practice to keep at least two months’ operating expenses in reserves.) However, years of proration and the effects of declining enrolment had cut deeply into the Birmingham board’s bank account. Instead of the roughly $17 million Birmingham should have had on hand, it had about $2 million.
What’s more, the system did not have a plan to restore its reserves, or even a plan to prevent its bank balance from dropping in the coming year below zero. Witherspoon submitted a plan to the state, but the state decided that the plan lacked the necessary detail to be satisfactory. (This is a very important point for Witherspoon’s detractors and one we’ll come back to soon.)
Having passed the deadline for the local system to submit a plan, the state crafted its own for the board to consider. The plan consisted of two years’ of cuts that would restore the system’s fund balance, but the plan also involved firing or demoting about 200 employees.
The proposed cuts generated a huge backlash from the two major teachers unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the Alabama Education Association. In particular, the unions and sympathetic lawmakers attacked the plan because it seemed to preserve jobs for upper-level employees and central staff at the expense of employees on the bottom rungs of the system’s ladder.
On Monday, Representatives John Rogers and Mary Moore blasted the plan for hurting poor people the hardest.
But if the unions and lawmakers were unhappy with the planned reduction in force, they had been impaled by their own sword. Tenure laws and personnel rules only allow the system to eliminate positions, not particular employees.
The plan the state proposed cut assistant superintendents and other central staff positions, but the personnel rules allowed the employees in those positions to roll back to jobs they had held previously, so long as they still met the qualifications for those positions. Much like the recent layoffs at Jefferson County, that would set in motion a chain reaction of bumping and rifting. Tenured employees with experience in lower positions would roll into another job, while those without a lower position to fall into would be left unemployed.
Initially, the Birmingham school board passed a modified version of the state’s, but when it came time to approve the actual employees to be cut, the board balked.
By doing so, the board opened the door for the state to intervene. Historically, state interventions have happened to cure either academic problems or financial problems. With a financial predicate, the state school board authorized Bice to intervene in the system’s financial affairs.
Since then, the board and the state have tested each other, until last week, when the board finally picked a fight with the state.
In the course of its regularly scheduled meeting, the board fired Witherspoon and instructed him to leave the meeting. The board then named Chief of Operations Samuetta Drew the interim superintendent, and when Richardson tried again to present the financial and personnel plans to the board, Board President Edward Maddox abruptly adjourned the meeting.
No sooner had the board fired Witherspoon than Bice overturned the decision and reinstated him. But despite Bice’s orders, the system locked Witherspoon out of his office, and Drew even took his parking place for a day.
At a press conference last Wednesday, Drew seemed incredulous of questions about the system’s stability and reputation. When asked directly whether she understood why parents might feel uneasy putting their children in a school system where two people had legal claims to the top job, Drew said there was nothing there to be concerned about.
As Drew was wrapping up her press conference, former United States District Judge U.W. Clemon was on his way to the Jefferson County courthouse to file a motion for his client, Witherspoon. Within hours, Circuit Judge Scott Vowell had conducted a hearing and issued a temporary restraining order against the school system until Circuit Judge Houston Brown could make a permanent finding of fact regarding Witherspoon’s job status.
Two days later, Bice and Attorney General Luther Strange also filed a lawsuit against the school system and obtained a similar restraining order from Jefferson County Circuit Judge Elisabeth French. In that order, French told the board to cease interfering with the state’s takeover of the school system.
In their orders, both French and Vowell said that the plaintiffs were likely to prevail in their lawsuits against the board.
On Tuesday, Bice wielded those restraining orders like a club over the heads of the Birmingham board. Instead of approaching the board as a passive participant, as Richardson had attempted, Bice convened and lead the Tuesday board meeting himself. At the outset of the meeting, Bice made the rules clear. He would set the agenda and any attempt to deviate from it would result in an immediate adjournment.
With Bice in charge, Richardson finished his presentation of the financial plan that had been interrupted a week before. Following his presentation the board rejected the plan in a 2-2-2 vote. Board members Phyllis Wyne and Willie James Maye voted for the plan. Emmanuel Ford and Tyrone Belcher voted against it. Board members Virginia Volker and Maddox abstained.
Citing state law, Bice immediately overturned the decision.
Next, board members rejected the state’s personnel plan for layoffs and staff demotions, and again Bice overturned them.
Throughout the meeting, board members voiced their frustration and made demands of Bice. To each of those demands, Bice politely told the board that he would take their concerns into consideration.
But the message was clear: It no longer matters what the board wants. The state is now in control, and Birmingham must do as it’s told.