On November 8, the Birmingham Board of Education selected Carol Clarke to fill the unexpired term of Edward Maddox as the board representative from District 4. Vice president of corporate procurement and supplier diversity management for Regions Bank since 2008, Clarke has an extensive background in economic development and construction project management. Immediately prior to joining Regions, she spent eight years in the administration of Birmingham Mayor Bernard Kincaid, first as manager of capital projects for the city, then as director of economic development [full disclosure: this writer was a colleague of Clarke’s in the mayor’s office from 2000-2003].
Preparing for her first meeting as a member of the Birmingham school board on Tuesday, November 13, Clarke took time out of her weekend to answer some questions for Weld.
Weld: You obviously knew this going in, but you’re walking into what has been a very contentious situation, with a school board that has been split along very hard lines. What made you want this position?
Clarke: I don’t know that I wanted it as much as I felt that I needed to do it. When the opening came up, I just thought, “This is my district, this is where I live. I should step up.”
Weld: Then let’s talk about what it is you’re stepping up to. What is your impression of the school board and the job it’s doing?
Clarke: I believe that the board means well. But if you’re really going to do the job, you have to stay focused on the work and not get bogged down in personalities and styles. The diversity of people and opinions on the board can be a strength, but the fact is that making it a strength is hard.
Weld: So how do you do that? What’s the biggest challenge?
Clarke: Change is the challenge. If this system is going to not just survive but also thrive, change is imperative. But embracing change is one of the most difficult things for human beings to do, even when we know that what has been done in the past hasn’t worked, or isn’t working now.
I don’t want to sound presumptuous about this, because I’m new and I have a lot to learn. But I think the key thing going forward is making everyone on the board feel valued. I don’t even like talking about the board in terms of “sides,” but I hear it from every board member I’ve talked to, that they feel like people on the other side don’t respect them or listen to them. It’s important that, individually and as a body, the board values the unique perspective that everybody brings to the table.
I come from a musical family, so I think about it in musical terms. When everybody sings in unison, it can be pretty bland. But when you add harmony, everyone singing their part in their voice, the results can be beautiful. So there’s another challenge: we’ve just got to make it prettier. We have to make the board process more productive.
Weld: What is your impression of [Birmingham City Schools Superintendent] Dr. Witherspoon? Will you be supportive of him?
Clarke: My impression is somewhat favorable at this point. But I’ve been following all of this from the outside, so as a new board member, I need to really study some things before I start staking out positions. What I can promise is that I am always going to come down squarely on the side of anything that improves student outcomes and supports parents.
Weld: A lot of parents in the system have been discouraged by the actions of the board and all of the turmoil—some of it extremely nasty—that has arisen around the effort last spring to fire Dr. Witherspoon and the subsequent state takeover and investigation. What do you say to people who live in the city and want to send their children to its public schools, but are put off by the dysfunction at the board level?
Clarke: I’d say you have to be careful about some of the labels that have been hung on the school board as a whole, on individual board members, and on the system itself. There are good things going on with the city schools, things that will impact student outcomes positively. But we’ve been focused totally on the dysfunction.
Weld: What are those good things?
Clarke: The career academies [note: these are intensive study groups, one in each Birmingham high school, focused on career-oriented curricula] seem to be working well. The international baccalaureate program, the dropout recovery program. These are things that this board has been supporting as a body, and the public needs to recognize that.
Speaking of the career academies, one of the things I’m excited about is that the high school in my district [Woodlawn] is the academy for business and finance, and my company is a partner in that program. Regions has been focused on its partnership with the city schools on financial education for several years now. I think that’s an added value of my board membership, the opportunity as the representative of that district to be hands-on with a program that my employer supports.
Getting back to your question about what I’d say to parents as a member of the school board, I would tell them they need to make sure they have all the information that’s available about the school their child is zoned for. The system gets evaluated as a whole and that overall evaluation helps drive that label, the idea that every school is underperforming. But we have high-performing schools in our system, including some that compete with, and in some cases outperform, some of the Over the Mountain schools. If you’re a parent, you need to look at the individual school.
Weld: Your first meeting as a member of the board is next Tuesday. It’s an important one for several reasons, not the least of which is that the board will be electing new officers. Any idea how you’ll be voting for board president?
Clarke: No. Next question. [Laughs]. I do know the qualities I’d like to see in the next president, one of which is the ability to lead along the lines I’ve talked about, promoting harmony and recognizing all of the voices at the table. We need someone who knows the rules and policies, who knows the responsibilities of the board and will keep us in our lane. There has to be respect for the authority of the state, because they’re here regardless of who wants them here and who doesn’t.
In terms of the board as a whole, I think it’s important that we model the behavior we want our students to have. We need to be civil, and be willing and able to cooperate and compromise. I hope that’s what happened in the process of my selection,that this appointment was a signal that the board can come together and agree on something. Maybe we’re looking at a new era of everyone trying to be more cohesive.
Weld: What’s your role in that?
Clarke: To get up to speed as quickly as I can. To learn everything I can about the system. To work with everyone on the board to make sure this system serves everyone who has a stake in it—students, parents, teachers, administrators, the business community, the city as a whole. To the extent that I can be a harmonizing presence, that’s what I want to do.