WBHM 90.3 FM
Your NPR News Station

Follow Us:

Birmingham School Board Votes to Fire Witherspoon
State Rescinds Action Legally; Employees Confused

Momentary interim Birmingham Schools Superintendent Samuetta Drew, center, sits where Craig Witherspoon had been just minutes earlier.

By Dan Carsen, July 18, 2012

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- People who've been saying they could no longer be surprised by the Birmingham school board were surprised Tuesday night, for several reasons.

The most important was the fact that, though expressly forbidden by the state team currently administering the district, the board voted five to three to terminate the contract of Superintendent Craig Witherspoon.

Some members of the public had come to the packed meeting in the large auditorium of Carver High School to express disapproval of Witherspoon, but far more attendees and speakers criticized the state's $12-million cost-cutting plan, which will improve finances mainly by cutting personnel. That plan had been on the agenda, as was setting a school-start date, but after the board voted to fire Witherspoon and before handling any other business, the board voted to recess the meeting until Friday. Board president Edward Maddox told Witherspoon to leave, which he did with his wife. The board then instated an interim superintendent, Samuetta Drew, the system's Chief Operating Officer.

State Superintendent Tommy Bice has already rescinded the action legally, and the state team currently in Birmingham will deal only with Witherspoon, but several employees said they were confused as to whom to report.

The continued battling will likely further delay the start of school, and could spill into the courtroom. The school system is currently in violation of a state law that mandates a month's operating expenses be kept in reserve. Birmingham should have $17 million, but has only $2 million, and will lose roughly $6 million in state money next year because of dropping enrollment.

Ed Richardson, the state's lead investigator and currently the CFO of Birmingham Schools, said buying out Witherspoon's contract and initiating a legal fight wouldn't exactly help the system build up the required funds.

Board member Phyllis Wyne, normally a Witherspoon supporter, was not at the meeting. The other three regular Witherspoon supporters -- Brian Giattina, W. J. Maye, and April Williams -- voted against the termination. Voting in favor of removing Witherspoon were Maddox, Emmanuel Ford, Virginia Volker, Tyrone Belcher, and Alana Edwards.

After the vote, Richardson tried to speak from the public podium, but Maddox shouted "You're out of order" and had security make sure Richardson didn't speak. Richardson did take the public podium later as scheduled in the agenda. He gave his first report to the board as CFO, but after several minutes of speaking, Maddox moved to recess the meeting, and the motion passed.

Ed Richardson isn't allowed to respond out of order to the board's controversial vote.

According to Witherspoon's personal attorney, former federal judge U.W. Clemon, the board's vote is meaningless and violated his contract anyway. The board did not give Witherspoon 60 days' notice before placing him on immediate leave, which Clemon said is required by the contract.

But on the big picture of state-versus-local-board authority, board member Ford said, "They didn't send me here from District Five to be a rubber stamp."

And ten minutes later, board member Williams told the crowd, "No matter what happens here today, there are no winners."

~Photos by Dan Carsen

All of Dan's education reporting, including his numerous stories about the Birmingham Board of Education and the state takeover, can be found here.