While the focus and scope of the Alabama School Connection remains at the state level, a story developing in Birmingham should prove to be a cautionary tale for many school systems in Alabama and beyond. A tale in the spirit of the Brothers Grimm, that is. Sadly, there are winners and losers in such tales, and the educational futures of 25,000 schoolchildren are currently at stake.
The story is of a superintendent and a board who cannot get along for reasons that include board members lack of understanding of the role of a board member. This is a story all too common in today’s public education landscape.
For many months now, allegations of micromanagement, interference with daily operations and general dysfunction by the Birmingham Board of Education have been a topic of conversation. Board members have routinely and openly embarrassingly disagreed with each other in board meetings and have proved themselves incompetent in even the smallest capacities as a board. Their list of complaints about their superintendent further reveals their lack of understanding of their proper role as school board members and their continued interference with daily operations and micromanagement, which are all violations of school accreditation standards.
What has yet to be said, at least out loud where the public can hear is the very real threat of a district losing its accreditation due to board members continued interference with school district operations. Consider it: 25,000 schoolchildren held hostage by a nine-member board of education.
Right now, a war is waging between board members over the future of their superintendent, Dr. Craig Witherspoon. On Tuesday, April 10, State Superintendent Dr. Tommy Bice attended a regularly-scheduled board meeting to observe, after asking the board to delay a hastily- and specially-called meeting on the Friday prior, where many believed the board intended to fire Witherspoon. State Board of Education member Dr. Yvette Richardson was also in attendance. Richardson spoke to the board of education near the end of the meeting, telling them that she and Bice would be going back to Montgomery to determine the relationship between the state board of education and the Birmingham Board of Education. On Thursday, April 12, the state board of education enacted a resolution to investigate and review the governance of the Birmingham City Board of Education. Further, a letter to the Birmingham board states they are not to approve any non-routine items until further notice.
The embattled superintendent welcomes the investigation.
Why Is the Future of the Superintendent Being Warred Over?
From comments made by current board members, it appears that those who would like to fire Witherspoon believe he is unresponsive to their constituents (this is an elected board, segregated by districts) and to them personally as board members. The faction of the board that dislikes Witherspoon’s leadership and direction appears to believe that he doesn’t put enough time into helping their constituents’ children’s schools. They point to problems at their neighborhood schools that Witherspoon has not addressed to their satisfaction and cite his unwillingness to engage in conversation or even return phone calls.
The faction of the board that supports Witherspoon states they have no problem communicating with him, that he returns their phone calls and talks with their constituents regularly. They cite his impressive list of accomplishments, including implementing career academies at all of Birmingham’s high schools, effectively handling difficult budget challenges, and his positive relationship with the civic and corporate community, which generates good will and monetary support for Birmingham City Schools.
Birmingham’s city leadership passed a resolution on Tuesday in support of Witherspoon, and a majority of Council members were present as the resolution was read aloud at Tuesday’s meeting. Mayor William Bell spoke to the board in support of Witherspoon as well. Corporate and civic leaders spoke in support of Witherspoon.
And yet the five members of the board who claim Witherspoon is not the man for the job refused to extend his contract not once, but twice, and a motion to fire him….twice….never made it to the table due to procedural problems.
When Did the Relationship Go Bad? A Little History, Please
Birmingham City Schools have had five superintendents in the past 12 years, with Witherspoon being that fifth superintendent. While not unusual for an urban superintendent to have a short tenure (2.75 years according to the Council of the Great City Schools), experts agree that superintendents need time to turn around a struggling school system. Research points to poor board-superintendent relations as the leading cause of termination of a superintendent’s contract.
When Witherspoon was first selected as the finalist for the superintendency in December 2009, signs of dysfunction and distress were already present. Witherspoon said everything he needed to say to raise hopes high. Witherspoon was subsequently hired as superintendent in a 7-2 vote in January 2010.
While Witherspoon has compiled an impressive list of initiatives since being hired, he made a series of missteps of which the local media took note.
Witherspoon’s first misstep was in June 2010: the firing the much-loved principal of Parker High School. The community took Witherspoon to task for doing so.
The second misstep was when he stated to the board his desire to meet with them in small groups, an obvious attempt to evade the Open Meetings Act. He wanted to discuss laying off tenured staff.
Witherspoon’s third misstep was in July 2010 when he hired a human resources director with some questionable issues in his work history. The new hire resigned three days after being hired.
In August 2010, Witherspoon’s successful attempt to reign in long-criticized out-of-proportion legal fees was thwarted by the board who claimed sole privilege of determining who hires whose attorneys.
By the November 2010 board president elections, a 5-4 split was becoming evident, although the members of each side seem to have shifted over time.
In December 2010, another misstep: after pushing for the board to hire a company to run its dropout recovery program, the board terminated its contract due to serious concerns with the director’s legal problems. Witherspoon then made the decision to run the program with in-house people, with great results.
When Witherspoon recommended hiring Teach for America teachers for Birmingham City schools in January 2011, the vote went 5-4, with now-Vice President Alana Edwards providing the swing vote. That meeting was not without controversy, though, as board members scuffled in a closed-door meeting that resulted in harassment charges being filed by two board members against a third board member.
In March 2011, the board fully backed Witherspoon’s recommendation to buy out 329 employees, an unusual show of unity for a usually-controversial issue.
His August 2011 evaluation by the board earned him a 3.24 out of 5. Human resources management was his lowest grade.
By the end of September 2011, board members were “snubbing” his personnel recommendations. Not to mention being unable to even approve an agenda, a basic procedure to conduct a board meeting. From the article:
Board President Phyllis Wyne said the politics and divisiveness on the board disgusted her. “I just have a problem with a board that doesn’t understand they have a legal responsibility to conduct business,” she said. “It’s really frustrating that you get an agenda two weeks in advance in a work session, and then an updated agenda Friday before the meeting, and you still don’t say anything. But then you try to thwart the meeting when you get there. The public needs to know they’re not being represented right.” Board member Brian Giattina echoed her frustrations. “We spent 20 minutes trying to get them to explain what they didn’t like on the agenda,” he said of the four board members who blocked action. “If it’s personnel, let’s pull it and talk about it. But just not to approve the entire agenda … I don’t understand that.”
The Birmingham News‘ editorial board took note of the red flags, being the first to mention publicly the school system’s accreditation agency might want to pay closer attention.
The Alabama Association of School Boards offered the Birmingham Board of Education free conflict-resolution training, but board members did not take them up on their offer. The editorial board had a few observations about their refusal, calling them to task again for micromanaging Witherspoon.
By November 2011, the same editorial board questioned whether the latest board president election was a sign that Witherspoon’s days were numbered.
The board’s one-day notice of a 5:00 p.m. specially-called meeting on Good Friday appears to be the straw that broke the camel’s back (back to fairy tales). While the meeting was canceled, the drama surrounding the events caught the attention of State Superintendent Dr. Tommy Bice, who attended the regular meeting on Tuesday, April 10, and promised to help the board find better ways of conducting the business it was elected to conduct. Bice was clear to say that he had no intention of interfering with their retention or firing of Witherspoon, as that is a function reserved solely for the board. On Thursday, April 12, Bice and the State Board of Education passed a resolution to investigate the governance of the Birmingham Board of Education. That investigation apparently means that the Birmingham board cannot pass any non-routine items until the investigation is complete (securing Witherspoon’s job for now).
Good thing Bice knows his role as superintendent. Perhaps he can help the Birmingham Board learn their role.
What Are the Board Members Doing That They Shouldn’t Be Doing?
A board of education has a very specific role in a school system. The board is limited to a governance function, meaning it cannot get involved in the day-to-day operations of a school system and tell the superintendent, implicitly or otherwise, how to run the schools and system. Typically a board of education is responsible for passing a budget and setting policy. If the superintendent is not elected, then the board is responsible for hiring the superintendent as well. The role of the board is to set policy and goals and help make plans for success, but not to implement those plans. Implementation is the job of the superintendent and his or her staff.
As noted in this American Association of School Administrators article, board members often find themselves “pulled” into micromanagement due to constituents’ concerns (sound familiar?). Too often, parents and teachers will reach out to a board member rather than following the proper protocol to have their problem addressed. Surely, sometimes proper protocol is followed, though, and the request from a parent or teacher for help from a board member comes after all other paths for remedy are exhausted.
School board members are ultimately put in a difficult spot—wanting to help their constituent, but needing to turn the problem over to the superintendent to handle. That school board member must handle it properly or risk being guilty of micromanagement.
The Alabama Association of School Boards (AASB) defines micromanagement as: “a term used in business that describes a manager who is overly involved in tasks or details that should be handled by those who report to him. In the case of a School Board, ‘micromanagement’ is used to describe a Board that becomes involved in the day-to-day operations of the school district rather than setting direction through goals and policies and letting the administration determine how to accomplish the goals.”
In their defense, board members are all too often learning on-the-job, with little training. [That could change if the School Board Governance Improvement Act is signed into law this session.] But board members committed to students should make the time to learn how to become a great school board member.
How Does a School Board Member Learn How to be a School Board Member?
In Alabama, we are fortunate to have the AASB. The AASB conducts orientation sessions for new board members and offers training throughout each year to help school board members learn their proper role and better contribute to the school communities they serve. Their web site is rich with information for board members who may have difficulty accessing training sessions. Individualized assistance is offered as well.
The problem arises when a school board member doesn’t believe he needs the training or believes it isn’t worthwhile to take the time to become trained.
From the AASB’s web site: “No one is born knowing how to be a good school board member. Your superintendent went to school for many years as a student, as a teacher and then again as a student, to learn to be an effective administrator. But board members need information on local issues, policies and procedures as well as knowledge of how the educational system functions beyond the community in which they serve.” In other words: you have to learn how to be a good school board member. It doesn’t just come naturally.
Plenty of opportunities exist for board members to strengthen their board member skills.
What Are the Consequences for Boards That Don’t Know How to be Boards?
A board of education that does not stay within the boundaries of governance and policy-making can bring all sorts of problems to a district. Forget the day-to-day dysfunction and the headaches and stress caused by “too many cooks in the kitchen”….the overarching interference of a board with a school system’s operations can place a school and/or district’s accreditation in jeopardy.
At the end of January, the AASB offered board of education training on what micromanagement is. AASB Executive Director Sally Howell stated that micromanagement can and does lead school districts to lose their accreditation.
AdvancEd is the accrediting agency for public schools in the United States. It is also known as SACS CASI (SACS is the name used in conversation as the accreditation agency by many in our region).
Why bother with accreditation? AdvancEd ‘s web site offers the following explanation of accreditation: “Accreditation is a voluntary method of quality assurance developed more than 100 years ago by American universities and secondary schools, and designed primarily to distinguish schools adhering to a set of educational standards. The accreditation process is also known in terms of its ability to effectively drive student performance and continuous improvement in education. But such definitions, though accurate, are incomplete.”
In short, standards must be adhered to in order to achieve accreditation. Accreditation is a sort of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. And accreditation is getting more difficult to achieve and retain.
AdvancEd has standards for both school and school district accreditation. One of those standards involves governance and leadership by the board of education. Here are the standards for school accreditation. Here are the standards for school district accreditation. [District accreditation is becoming more popular. It is a more centralized process, as opposed to each school having to participate in the intense review of years ago. Birmingham City Schools are still accredited at the school level. Here is a list of the school districts in Alabama that currently hold district accreditation.]
“Standard 2: Governance and Leadership” is the standard that applies to board governance. It is the same for school and district accreditation. Here’s what those standards are (the ones that apply to micromanagement are in red):
Indicator 2.1 The governing body establishes policies and supports practices that ensure effective administration of the system and its schools.
Indicator 2.2 The governing body operates responsibly and functions effectively.
Indicator 2.3 The governing body ensures that the leadership at all levels has the autonomy to meet goals for achievement and instruction and to manage day-to-day operations effectively.
Indicator 2.4 Leadership and staff at all levels of the system foster a culture consistent with the system’s purpose and direction.
Indicator 2.5 Leadership engages stakeholders effectively in support of the system’s purpose and direction.
Indicator 2.6 Leadership and staff supervision and evaluation processes result in improved professional practice in all areas of the system and improved student success.
Violation of these standards can result in a school district losing its accreditation.
Do Schools and Districts Ever Lose Accreditation?
Why yes, yes they do. From an article in January 2012 in USA Today:
“It happens more often than you’d think, but it needs to happen more often than it does,” says Mark A. Elgart, president and CEO of AdvancED, a private Atlanta-based accreditation agency that works with about 30,000 schools. In the past five years, the organization has pulled accreditation on four school systems and a dozen private schools, for reasons ranging from poor academic performance to governance to financial fraud.
School systems in Georgia, including Atlanta Public Schools and DeKalb County Schools had serious threats to their accreditation by AdvancEd beginning in 2010. Effective board governance and superintendent-board relations were cited in each system’s investigation. Warren County Schools lost their accreditation in 2010, regaining it in 2011, and board governance was cited as the problem with that system as well. Five school districts in Georgia were on probation in June 2011.
Perhaps the most famous district in our area for losing its accreditation is Clayton County schools in Georgia. They lost their accreditation in 2008 because of their “dysfunctional” and “fatally flawed” board. They did not regain accreditation until June of 2011.
A complaint was filed against Hoover City Schools in 2008, alleging interference by board members and city leaders in the operation of the school system. After acknowledging that issues in the complaint were valid, questions of governance were resolved through the district’s participation in the district accreditation process, a process that systematically looks at each area to ensure standards are upheld. [In the spirit of full disclosure, I was the author of the complaint.]
Here’s a good article explaining why it matters if a district loses accreditation. While it appears that there are differences among states as to what the consequences are for students attending unaccredited schools, losing accreditation is a risk that schools and systems and their city leadership should not be willing to take. Here’s what was at stake in Atlanta when their accreditation was at risk.
Details have yet to emerge about just what Bice and the state board mean by investigating the governance of the Birmingham City School board. No doubt the devil will be in those details.
You only need to google “schools lose accreditation” to find story after story of children in schools all over the United States falling victim to board members who do not know their proper role. It is unconscionable that children suffer because adults don’t know their role.
Whether your school board is appointed or elected, here’s hoping this cautionary tale will inspire you to pay close attention to those who want to be in charge of your local schools. It is in the school community’s best interest to vet carefully any person seeking a position on a school board.
Stay tuned for the resolution of this tale.