Witherspoon Is Still B’ham Schools Chief

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UPDATED LATE THURSDAY: Despite repeated efforts by some at the Birmingham Board of Education meeting Tuesday night, Craig Witherspoon is still the school system's superintendent, and will remain so during a new state-level investigation of the local school board. Our Southern Education Desk reporter Dan Carsen was at the charged meeting and filed this extensive web-exclusive report. Click on the story to read Witherspoon's statement in response to the investigation, the state board's official April 12 resolution initiating it, and more.

Birmingham Schools Chief Craig Witherspoon Keeps His Job

State Investigation of Local Board Freezes Efforts to Fire Him

UPDATE, LATE THURSDAY, APRIL 12: As a result of the acrimony at Tuesday night’s meeting, and other problems surrounding the Birmingham Board of Education, the Alabama Board of Education today voted unanimously to authorize state superintendent Tommy Bice to investigate the Birmingham Board. Bice said the investigation would last about two months, during which time, according to a letter he wrote to the Birmingham board and obtained by the Birmingham News, “the board is not to initiate or approve any adverse personnel action at the senior executive level … without prior written approval.”

To read the state board’s reasons for investigating the Birmingham board, click here for the official resolution.

Also, Birmingham Superintendent Craig Witherspoon, who hasn’t said much throughout the controversy, issued a short statement today.

By Dan Carsen, April 11, 2012

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — As of the end of the Birmingham Board of Education meeting Tuesday night, Craig Witherspoon is still
the school system’s superintendent. That’s despite two board members making separate motions to
dismiss him, and despite the fact that the board’s five-member anti-Witherspoon majority remains
unswayed by other board members, state and community leaders, and about 150 people who rallied in
support of Witherspoon in Linn Park last week.

Motions to extend Witherspoon’s contract also failed. His contract expires on June 30, 2013.

It was clear at the meeting that the majority of the nine-member board was frustrated and still wants
Witherspoon gone. It was just as clear the remaining four board members want to keep him at the helm
of a large, troubled system which has, by many accounts, shown recent improvement. Through it all —
through all the criticisms and defenses, speeches and rebuttals — Witherspoon sat calmly, silently, face almost
totally emotionless.

But board members, local leaders, school administrators, parents, clergy, and other members of the
public more than made up for Witherspoon’s lack of emotion.

Board member Brian Giattina, a Witherspoon supporter, said the whole affair made him feel
“nauseated” and “sick.”

But Vanessa Fykes, a parent of several children in the system, echoed one of the board’s criticisms of
Witherspoon: what they say is a counterproductive lack of communication. She addressed Witherspoon
directly, saying, “You can return calls to parents that live in Crestwood, but can’t return my call, that
lives in the city.” She also asked how students could possibly be learning when they’re skipping classes
at several city schools.

There were dozens of speakers, most of whom supported Witherspoon, and most of whom struggled to
stay under the two-minute time limit, even with an electronic scoreboard clock marking time for them.
At least two citizens brought babies up to the podium, which temporarily lightened the mood, but also
drove home their points about how important board decisions are, not just for now, but for decades
from now.

A contingent from the Birmingham City Council, which earlier had unanimously passed a resolution
supporting Witherspoon, also took turns at the microphone, as did Mayor William Bell, who said, “If we
continue with instability, were going to continue with an exodus of people who don’t want to be a part
of this school system.”

Birmingham has had five superintendents in the last dozen years.

Bell went on: “I’m heartened by the fact that we have both blacks and whites come before us to say
they support the superintendent. I’m proud of the fact that we have both blacks and whites who want
to be part of something good…. If we continue to stand in the way of any superintendent, whether it’s
Dr. Witherspoon or any other superintendent that comes in here, then we’re not going to give them the
opportunity to show us what they really have … and we’ll all be blamed for that.”

The five board members who want to dismiss Witherspoon are Tyrone Belcher, Alana Edwards, Emanuel
Ford, Edward Maddox, and Virginia Volker. The four who do not are Giattina, W. J. Maye, April Williams,
and Phyllis Wyne.

The back-and-forth between board members included disagreements about Witherspoon, but also
about the parliamentary procedures of the board itself. There were recurring shouts of “you’re out of
order.” Some members seemed to be unaware of the rules governing the board’s operation, and relied
heavily on the body’s lawyers to guide the proceedings. Their advice not to proceed with Board
President Maddox’s motion to terminate Witherspoon unless everyone was absolutely sure about the
applicable procedures likely saved Witherspoon’s job, at least for the time being.

After Maddox withdrew his initial motion, sensing some reluctance to proceed down that path, he said,
“Y’all left me hangin.'”

That comment led Wyne, with backing from Giattina and other Witherspoon supporters, to call for an
investigation of the board itself for allegedly violating open meetings laws. They felt Maddox’s comment
showed pre-meeting collusion between the anti-Witherspoon board members, with the pro-
Witherspoon minority being left in the dark, as they claim they were regarding the sudden planning of a
5 p.m. Good Friday meeting. That special meeting, which had one item on the agenda — discussion of
Witherspoon’s contract — would’ve taken place when two Witherspoon supporters were out of town,
but was cancelled after public outcry, including online petitions and Friday’s rally.

After Maddox withdrew his motion to terminate Witherspoon, Alana Edwards, one of the most vocal
Witherspoon critics, moved to initiate a private five-minute executive session to discuss the good name
and character of the superintendent. Many in the overflowing crowd of more than 100 let out gasps of
surprise. But the circumstances apparently did not legally warrant an executive session: board members
returned to the main room a few minutes later, and Maddox said there had been no executive session.
Edwards soon after tried, unsuccessfully, to move to have Witherspoon terminated.

When asked how Witherspoon was supposed to function knowing that five of nine board members
want him out, Giattina replied, “I don’t believe he can. That’s why I specifically asked [Alabama State
Superintendent] Dr. [Tommy] Bice to get involved, because I don’t believe that the Superintendent can
manage a system of two hundred and fifty million dollars with three thousand employees without the
support of the board.”

Bice, who at times was visibly troubled by the discord on the board, said, “the state department [of
education] is committed to stepping in, in any role that we can, to help what was very obvious tonight:
some problems with the relationships between the board, and their ability to come to conclusions and
make decisions. We don’t want it to be a confrontational sort of relationship … [we want] a positive
intervention. I’m not sure what our exact role will be, but I’ve made a commitment that we want to be a
part of their solution.”

Bice added that the nature of any intervention would be determined by the full Alabama Board of
Education. He went on:

“We’ll start working with them to develop a plan on how we can right this ship and get it working in a
positive direction … I came tonight as an interested observer; I’m leaving as a concerned observer…. It’s
disheartening to see the personal divisiveness among the group. They are concerned they’re not
working together, so I’m encouraged at least that was acknowledged.”

Board member Brian Giattina’s company, Giattina Aycock Architecture Studio, is a WBHM underwriter.