By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
Alabama State Board of Education member Mary Scott Hunter (R) from Huntsville talked exclusively with ‘The Alabama Political Reporter’ about the ongoing drama unfolding in the Birmingham City Schools System and state efforts to help Birmingham get their school system operating on a sound fiscal footing.
State Board Member Hunter said, “The Birmingham board has shown by their actions why they are not up to this.”
On Tuesday Night, the Birmingham Board of Education voted 5-3 to fire embattled City Schools Superintendent Craig Witherspoon and then replaced him with Samuetta Drew (Chief of Operations and former head of Special Education) even though they had been told by state officials that they did not have that power and that the state did not approve that action.
When Alabama School Superintendent Dr. Tommie Bice announced that he had overruled their firing of Witherspoon, the Birmingham Board members responded by changing the locks and ordering security to bar Superintendent Witherspoon from his own office. The Birmingham Board also changed the electronic access badges to bar Dr. Ed Richardson and the state department of education intervention team from entering the building. Hours later Acting Superintendent Samuetta Drew relented and called barring state officials from the facility “a mistake.” Superintendent Witherspoon however was still barred from returning to work.
Late Wednesday, Judge Scott Vowell granted Witherspoon’s motion that a temporary restraining order be placed on his firing and the Judge ruled that Witherspoon could remain at work for at least ten days. A hearing is planned in Judge Brown’s courtroom on whether or not the Birmingham Board has the grounds or the authority to fire Witherspoon while the Alabama State Department of Education has intervened in the system.
The Alabama Political Reporter asked Ms. Hunter if we could safely assume that the Birmingham Board of Education would honor the order of the Judge to reinstate Witherspoon as Superintendent. Hunter replied, “I would have assumed that they would have accepted the authority of the state school Superintendent and the State School Board as well…..we will have to see.”
We asked Ms. Hunter if the state really had the legal authority to make the local board retain a City Superintendent that they are adamantly committed to firing at all costs. Ms. Hunter said, “I don’t know the answer to that. In depth discussions are going on in the State Superintendent’s office about this right now though.”
Ms. Hunter said, “I commend the (Birmingham) board members who have tried to do their jobs well.” Ms. Hunter said there are some board members in Birmingham who are trying to do what is in the best interest of the students and work with the state, but there clearly are some board members who are not representing their constituents well.
Ms. Hunter said that the City of Huntsville underwent a state intervention, “That was very successful. The Huntsville Board did a lot of self-critiquing and now the system is on an upward swing.”
Ms. Hunter said that a successful intervention “takes a lot of character” from the local school board members and that some members of the Birmingham Board appear to be lacking that. Ms. Hunter said that the problems in the Birmingham City Schools are “disastrous” for the state. Ms. Hunter said, “Intervention does not have to be a point of contention,” but some Birmingham Board members are making it very contentious.
Ms. Hunter said, “The local boards are set up to be very independent. I defer to local school board in most matters,” but especially in the areas of financial standards the state has the authority to intervene to enforce common sense standards. Ms. Hunter said that she supports state ‘intervention’ when needed not state ‘takeovers’ of local systems.
Ms. Hunter said, “Huntsville was a positive intervention. They (the Huntsville BOE) recognized that they had problems that need to be addressed.” Hunters said that the board members, the staff, the parents, and even the organized groups (teacher unions) thought that the intervention in Huntsville was a positive experience overall.
Ms. Hunter said, “The Birmingham Board of Education has hamstrung itself with a lot of commitments that they can’t afford to keep.” “I really feel for the parents of the system who are having to go through this.”
The City of Birmingham Schools have been hemorrhaging students and money for years. The state intervention was ordered because Birmingham has only 12% of the minimum cash reserves that a school system in Alabama is required to have and the Birmingham BOE has steadfastly refused to implement any plan to raise the $15 million that they need to meet the state requirements. Ms. Hunter said that there is not a State School Board meeting scheduled until August, but expects that they may have to have a special called meeting be for the state board to address the Birmingham situation.
Ms. Hunter said while the situation appears hopeless to many, “It is incredible how fast that situation (in Birmingham) could turn around with a strong leader with the support of a board.”
Ms. Hunter represents Alabama Board of Education District 8 that includes Limestone, Madison, Etowah, Dekalb, and Marshall Counties. Ms. Hunter is a graduate of the University of Alabama, a parent, and is a practicing attorney in the Huntsville area.