“The process was flawed,” said Sherman Collins, a member of the Birmingham Board of Education, the morning after the five finalists for the system’s superintendent were announced to both the board and the public. The candidates’ names were released Tuesday evening at Huffman High School.
Behind him, on the steps of the Birmingham BOE building, about a dozen people gathered to voice their displeasure with the lack of local candidates, or “even a candidate from the state of Alabama,” Collins said. “To say that we were brought the best candidates out there — I challenge that statement. To say you found the best and not include any of our local talent, and to not even give them an opportunity to be interviewed… I just don’t understand how that happens. It’s mindblowing to me.”
Unlike previous superintendent searches, the BBOE paid $6,000 to the Alabama Association of School Boards (AASB) to select the top five candidates (out of 47 applicants who completed the process; 61 people initially applied but did not complete the process) and present them to the board. Board members did not know the names of candidates until Tuesday’s meeting.
The board had not been notified until April 6 that the selection committee had decided that AASB would be selecting the five finalists. In previous instances, the board considered the applications and narrowed the search down to finalists by way of a four-member search committee.
The five finalists and their current positions are as follows:
- Dr. Garrett Brundage, chief officer for Safe Schools Student Affairs and assistant superintendent of administrative services at Rockdale County Public School in Conyers Georgia.
- Dr. Ronnie Dotson, superintendent of Carter County Schools in Grayson, Kentucky.
- Dr. Lisa Herring, chief academic officer for Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville, Kentucky.
- Dr. Regina Thompson, chief of teaching and learning for Richland County School District One in Blythewood, South Carolina (the school district now headed by former Birmingham Superintendent Dr. Craig Witherspoon, who resigned in October 2014 amid allegations of misusing federal Title I money).
- Dr. Timothy Gadson III, superintendent designee and executive director of curriculum and schools for Robbinsdale Area Schools, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Thompson is the only candidate with ties to Birmingham (or Alabama for that matter). She graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Birmingham-Southern College, was an assistant professor at Samford University, and taught in Homewood City Schools from 1995 to 2001. Thompson was also a principal in Fairfield and Montgomery for several years.
Thompson aside, opponents of the shortlist decried the lack of local candidates to head the beleaguered school system at Tuesday’s meeting. That sentiment manifested into a small gathering of protesters in front of the board of education the next morning with chants of, “Ain’t no power like the power of the people, [‘cause] the power of the people won’t stop,” among other things.
Terri Michal, representative with the Birmingham chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, took issue with several candidates she deemed unfit to hold the position. One specific situation, Michal said, was chief among her concerns and indicative of the lack of transparency with the selection process. She pointed to the fact that Gadson was involved with allegations of academic misconduct during his time with the Atlanta Public School system, when a principal at Carver School of Technology, under Gadson’s supervision, ordered a teacher to change grades of 65 students.
According to reports from Atlanta’s WSB-TV, principal Josie Love instructed Rolanda Veal, a 17-year veteran teacher, to change grades. Veal did not comply and brought the situation to the attention of Gadson who, as associate superintendent, had backed Love’s decision to change the grades, Veal said.
“He said, ‘Ms. Veal, at this point, when you did not enter the grades, you were being insubordinate,’” Veal told WSB-TV, adding that it seemed he was supportive of the efforts to manipulate grades. “It seemed like that was what he was doing, because he said it was not my decision to question that. It was not my responsibility.”
An internal investigation by the Atlanta Public Schools found that Love did in fact order Veal to change the grades. She was demoted. No disciplinary actions were brought against Gadson for his alleged knowledge of the situation, which does not sit well with Michal.
“He should’ve said something, and he didn’t,” Michal said. “Obviously he should’ve stepped up for that teacher and made sure she wasn’t made to do anything she was uncomfortable with. So that’s my main problem with him.”
Michal, who organized the demonstration, said her main concern was that no one from within the Birmingham City School system was brought up for consideration as superintendent. “Out of 61 applications, not one single person in Birmingham is more qualified than those folks — more qualified than someone involved in a situation like that? We feel strongly that we need a local person to at least be considered,” she said.
Behind her, several demonstrators yelled, “We want [Dr. Larry] Contri!” As of Tuesday it was unclear whether Contri, the interim superintendent who has been with the school system for 40 years, even applied for the position. Questions regarding his interests in the position were not answered by BCS representatives.
However, board member Cheri Gardner requested that Contri be considered for the position during Tuesday’s special called board meeting. An AASB representative said the list of other candidates would not be released.
It is not too late for the board to start the process over, Collins said, adding that he has spoken to several other board members displeased in the selection process. The board is not contractually or otherwise obligated to select the next superintendent from the shortlist that was presented to them Tuesday. The board has a self-imposed deadline of July 1, 2017, to have a new superintendent in place.
Board President Wardine Alexander issued a statement on Wednesday indicating she does not anticipate the board starting the process over. “There are plans in place to continue with the selection process, which a majority of the school board agreed upon in the fall of 2016,” she said. “To halt this process now and start over would not give the five candidates AASB has already selected an opportunity to continue with a process that was previously established.”
While Collins labeled this particular process “overly complicated” because it “removed the board’s role in selecting candidates,” Alexander said the process that the AASB used in selecting the five candidates is used by school boards across the country. “As board members, we did not know the identity of any of the applicants,” Alexander said. “Nor did we know how many applications were submitted by employees working for Birmingham City Schools or how many applications were submitted by those not connected to our school system.”
Beyond the candidates, another point of contention for Collins was the proposed anonymous scoring rubric that the search committee initially considered implementing but later scrapped. “As you can see from that meeting, I was not in favor of that. I felt like that was our responsibility,” Collins said. “I don’t fault AASB because we control this. We as a board should take full responsibility for this. It’s going to be difficult for me to even more forward with this process.”
Parents also criticized the selection process — both at Tuesday’s meeting and at the subsequent demonstration on Wednesday — specifically for the fact that Contri was not one of the finalists. Juliet Eastlick, who has a child in the school system, said, “Parents want Contri. Teachers want Contri. Administrators want Contri. We’ve been saying this for months: things have been better since he’s been here. He can actually do what needs to be done.”
Eastlick believes the politicized nature of the school board, which consists of nine elected members, has corrupted the search process and the school system as a whole. “Homewood, Hoover, Vestavia, Mountain Brook — all these school systems hire from within. It’s common practice,” Eastlick said, holding up a sign opposing the list of finalists. “It’s effective to operate like that. They need to stop this right now and start over. There are a lot of people that are very angry. This is just the beginning.”
Interviews for the finalists are expected to take place April 19 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the BBOE Central office and are open to the public.