State Board Approves B’ham Schools Management Plan

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Alabama schools chief Tommy Bice, center right, at the April Birmingham school board meeting where board members begged the state to intervene.

Dan Carsen,WBHM

Alabama schools chief Tommy Bice, center right, at the April Birmingham school board meeting where board members begged the state to intervene.

It didn’t take much convincing for Alabama schools chief Tommy Bice to secure his board’s formal
approval of the management plan he’s putting in place for Birmingham Schools. State board members,
after expressing appreciation for Bice’s handling of a difficult situation, voted unanimously to approve it
at a special called meeting early Thursday afternoon.

Bice was required to come back and get that approval per the state board’s June 14 resolution, which gave Bice
to take control of Birmingham City Schools (BCS) if the local board didn’t implement cost cuts by its
meeting this past Tuesday night. The local board didn’t approve those cuts, triggering state’s outright
takeover of the Birmingham system’s purse strings the next morning.

The management plan, which now accounts for the top of BCS’s organizational flow chart, has three components. The first is the assignment of a CFO, which has already happened: former state superintendent
and current investigation leader Dr. Ed Richardson will assume that role
and report directly to Bice.

“He and the team have been there since April … so they already know, intricately, the
financial workings of that system,” Bice told the state board.

The second aspect involves the particulars of how state officials will work with the local board and local
administrators for the duration of the state intervention, which will likely last more than two years. Bice
said he hopes for as much cooperation as possible. But that extends only to a certain point.

“This can be as collaborative as anybody wants it to be,” he said. “… But I reserve the full authority
under state law to take action…. At some point, somebody’s got to make a decision. And at this point —
and I’m not into authority, but I actually have it under state [law] — and it’s time that some decisions
be made.”

The local board will still meet and take votes, but on matters directly or indirectly related to finance, the
state — meaning Richardson, who reports to Bice — will have final say. Put another way, the local board
can commend people or bestow awards and recognition, but other than that, it has very little real power.

The third part of Bice’s management plan as presented to his board was a clear statement of its
overarching goal — the goal of the state’s involvement in general: to bring the Birmingham system into
“compliance with financial and legal mandates applicable to all boards of education,” Bice said, adding that the state has no other agenda, and, “We’re not singling Birmingham out.”

Birmingham Schools have only $2 million of the $17 million required by a state law mandating a reserve
of one month’s operating expenses. And that’s without factoring in a $6 million loss in state funding due
to an 800-student enrollment drop (which makes personnel cuts that much more appropriate, said Bice).
The local board missed a May 1 deadline to submit a detailed corrective plan to the state.

This past Tuesday was a long night for the Birmingham
school board in more ways than one. Photo by Dan Carsen.

Richardson will work with Birmingham’s Superintendent Craig Witherspoon and CFO Arthur Watts —
both of whom are staying on, though they’re reporting to new superiors — to come up with a plan to
restore the district to sound financial condition, Bice said.

But the $12.3-million cost-cutting plan that was the subject of such battles on
the local board will, now that the state is crafting it with little input from that board, likely grow into
a $13.5-million plan. At its July 17th meeting, the local board can either vote it in, or choose
not to adopt it, at which point the state’s administration team would override their vote and enact it

Bice acknowledged the pain caused by any personnel cuts, and that many of the problems currently
faced by the local board were inherited. He also described some of the cost-cutting hurdles in the
Birmingham system. One of those is a policy unique to the district: as an employee is demoted, that
employee keeps his or her current salary for one year. In other words, if a six-figure administrator is demoted to a teacher’s aide, that person would keep the
six-figure salary for a full year. So the savings from certain personnel moves — all the more necessary in
Birmingham, which has more than six times as many administrators per student than nearby Shelby
County — will take two years to show up.

Bice and Richardson have implored the local board to rescind that
policy and will likely do so now, but that won’t take effect before the first round of cuts are
made, as the start of the school year rapidly approaches. Add tenure and contract laws and “rollback
policies,” and cutting personnel costs become even more complicated. Birmingham schools will likely
start the school year three days to two weeks later than the original August 20 date.

As part of the cost-cutting plan, the state will “adjust the positions” of 57 Birmingham administrators,
and 42 of them will be moved out of the central office into teaching positions that were already open, said Bice.

“I hope this will be the last time I come before you to talk about this,” Bice told the state board. “We
need to get to work in Birmingham. We need to make some decisions about personnel, school starts … I
can’t imagine that we can get principals hired and have faculties assigned. Nothing’s ready for school to
start, as it could be, if some of the decisions had been made three months ago.”

As of this writing, Birmingham Board President Edward Maddox could not be reached for comment.

Dan Carsen

Education Reporter