Last Thursday, when two days of hearings on the roles of the Birmingham Board of Education and the Alabama State Board of Education came to a halt, Jefferson County Circuit Judge Houston Brown did not provide interested students, parents and residents much resolution, except a temporary extension of restraining orders preventing the Birmingham BOE from firing Birmingham Schools Superintendent Dr. Craig Witherspoon and interfering in a state takeover of the Birmingham school system. A permanent injunction limiting or reaffirming the Alabama State BOE’s authority to intervene in local school districts could come later this week.
But the hearings did clarify a months-long history of a school board that has failed to govern effectively, and in the process perhaps endangered state funding and even the accreditation of Birmingham’s school system.
In Alabama, school districts are required to keep a month’s worth of operating costs in reserve in case of emergency. There is a similar requirement for municipal bodies like the city of Birmingham, which is required to keep a reserve fund equal to two months of operating expenses. For the Birmingham school district, this adds up to about $17 million dollars. And Birmingham was about $15 million short of that figure.
But Birmingham was far from the only district in the state that was not meeting its reserve requirement. In fact, Birmingham city schools were just one of 31 districts that did not meet that requirement last year — roughly a quarter of Alabama’s 132 school districts. The problem with the Birmingham school system is that its board, or a majority faction of it, repeatedly rejected the state’s recommendations for its financial plan.
Alabama’s superintendents don’t have to deal with their district’s fiscal crises all on their own. According to testimony Thursday by Deputy State Superintendent of Education Dr. Craig Pouncey, the ALSDE holds an annual meeting for all districts with what Pouncey calls “deteriorating finances.” There, superintendents learn strategies for cutting costs in their district. After the meeting, districts are asked to submit a draft proposal of a plan to meet that reserve requirement. This is due on or around April 2.
Witherspoon submitted Birmingham’s proposal on April 9 — a bit late, but Pouncey said that was fine. The state then reviews the proposal, makes suggestions and returns it to the district. A final plan is expected to be approved and implemented by the district’s board by May 31, giving the district plenty of time to execute the plan — which might involve major projects like cutting personnel and combining schools — by the time school starts again in August.
The Birmingham BOE approved the draft proposal on April 24, but according to Pouncey that plan was not acceptable to the state. “I don’t think it covered the things that it needed to cover in the amounts that we needed it to,” Pouncey testified. The state presented a different financial plan — one which included the state’s suggestions — at a May 24 meeting with ALSDE representatives and members of the board. Pouncey says they asked for input from board members but, perhaps due to animosity by some board members towards the state for its investigation of the Birmingham school district, there was no input.
The state’s plan was presented to the Birmingham BOE for a vote on May 31. It identified a major area of concern for the Birmingham school system: a bloated central staff.
According to Pouncey, the teacher-student ratio in Birmingham city schools is fine compared to other systems, like Jefferson County and Shelby County, which Pouncey said he considers “models of efficiency.” But, compared to similar systems, Birmingham has an enormous central office staff, and that is an expense paid for with local dollars, not state or federal dollars. “We’ve just got people scattered everywhere that have been brought in over the years as a result of the revolving door of superintendents,” Pouncey said.
BCS has had nine superintendents since 1998. New superintendents bring their deputies and assistants with them, but when the superintendents were fired, their deputies remained. “We have become an employment agency,” Pouncey testified.
The state’s recommendations included cutting that central staff and dealing with “excess brick and mortar capacity,” or energy efficiency concerns. Pouncey said there were 18 buildings in the Birmingham system that were not being used to capacity, which Pouncey said was “money out the door.” The plan included consolidation proposals for some schools, but some of those were eventually put on hold.
That plan was not approved at the May 31 Birmingham board meeting, nor at the June 5 meeting. It was finally approved at the June 12 meeting, but it was not implemented until just last month, at a July 24 meeting of the Birmingham BOE run by Alabama State Superintendent Dr. Tommy Bice, who had recently used his authority to intervene in Birmingham’s school system . The board voted to approve the plan failed, but Bice, in his authority as state superintendent, overrode that decision.
The plan called for about $12 million in cuts, resulting in layoffs or demotions of approximately 200 Birmingham city schools employees.
The plan is still to reach the $17 million reserve fund in two years, but Lance Hyche, a Birmingham-area media spokesperson for the Alabama Education Association, told Weld that’s not necessary.
“Nothing in the statute or policy requires that that goal be reached in two years,” Hyche said. (The state argues that the Birmingham school system is capable of cutting quickly due to its relatively large tax base.) One sticking point is that, due to seniority rules (which are often supported by AEA) the lowest-paid employees are often laid off first, while more senior, higher-paid employees are merely demoted. Hyche said he wants a “humane approach” to becoming financially stable, something that may take four or five years and relies on attrition in the staff rather than sharp personnel cuts.
“AEA’s position is that we don’t believe the full burden of the financial cuts should be placed on the backs of the lowest paid employees,” Hyche said. According to Hyche, AEA has acknowledged Birmingham’s “top-heavy” administrative staff in the past and has argued for years for an attrition program. “Unfortunately, because of the lack of leadership in the school district over a number of years — it did not just start, it’s a long problem, an old problem — no one ever initiated a program of attrition. Had they, we would not be in the circumstances we are.”
AEA also advocates cutting the district’s legal costs, selling surplus property and a comprehensive energy management plan that Hyche said would save $3 million a year. “We think until you approach or try some of those other methods of cost saving that you should not be firing employees whether they’re low-paid, high-paid or in between,” Hyche told Weld.
Birmingham’s schools are currently accredited by AdvancED on a rotating school-by-school basis. Each school must be reaccredited every five years, and so each year the Birmingham system is dealing with several accreditations. Accreditation is important; without it, a student’s diploma is effectively meaningless.
The Birmingham system is currently applying for district-wide accreditation, meaning the whole district would be accredited at once, rather than school-by-school. But a July 31 letter sent by AdvancED President and CEO Mark A. Elgart to Birmingham BOE President Edward Maddox warns that Birmingham’s application for district-wide accreditation has been suspended due to “governance issues.”
The letter was filed as part of the evidence in the Birmingham school board base and obtained by the Birmingham News, which reported that Maddox said he did not receive the letter (it was also copied to state Supt. Bice). According to Elgart, AdvancED has “been monitoring with increasing concern the governance issues associated with the Birmingham Board of Education.”
Elgart attached to his letter (PDF) standards for district-wide accreditation. Included was this indicator: “Leadership at all levels of the system implement a continuous improvement process that provides clear direction for improving conditions that support student learning.”
“I would caution you that your current actions could be considered outside of the roles and responsibilities of the board (e.g. micromanagement) and could put your school system’s current and future accreditation in jeopardy,” Elgart wrote in the letter.
If the Birmingham school system lost accreditation, this petty, summer war over our children’s education could become much more than a small-scale court battle, a rather minor fight over a superintendent or an embarrassing spectacle that might delay school for several days. It could spell the end for hopes of a progressive, rebuilding, reignited Birmingham that is capable of educating our children and fostering a healthy city.