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State BOE Votes to Step Up Involvement in B'ham Schools

Total Takeover of Finances Could Be Around The Corner

At center right, state superintendent Tommy Bice and state board member Yvette Richardson (burgundy jacket) look on with concern at the April Birmingham school board meeting that first triggered state involvement. Photo by Dan Carsen.

By Dan Carsen, June 14, 2012

The Alabama State Board of Education today voted 6-0 to have the state oversee the Birmingham School Board's day-to-day financial operations, specifically its implementation of the cost-cutting plan the local board approved Tuesday evening.

And according to the resolution passed today, if the local board hasn't pushed ahead with the financial recovery plan to the state's satisfaction by June 22, or doesn't approve those cuts at its meeting scheduled for June 26, the state will take total control of the district's purse strings. That would include, among other things, instating a CFO who'd report to state superintendent Tommy Bice.

State law requires school districts to have one month's operating expenses in reserve. Birmingham should have about $17 million but has only $2 million. On top of that, drops in enrollment -- which translate into a $6-million decrease in money coming from the state -- means next fiscal year is looking bleak, with a multimillion-dollar deficit almost guaranteed.

The plan the local board adopted on a third try Tuesday, which is really just a framework -- names still have to be connected to the cut positions -- had become just one of the pitched battles bedeviling the fractious local board recently.

"This back-and-forth political posturing has got to stop. There are children involved. There are teachers waiting," Bice told the state board before the vote. "The whole school system is on hold, and I am very concerned."

"The children are at stake," said Yvette Richardson, the state board member whose district includes Birmingham. "Something needs to be done."

She pointed out that the state was originally invited to investigate by several members of the Birmingham board itself, and that other area school districts have been through state takeovers and come out more fiscally sound for it.

Birmingham was one of 30 systems in the state that failed to meet the reserve-fund requirement. Each had to submit a remedial plan by May 1. Birmingham was the only district that missed the deadline. It did submit an outline of a plan, but was supposed to come back with a more detailed plan, which didn't happen.

The adopted cost-cutting plan, a slightly modified version of what the state's investigative team proposed weeks earlier, would save the system about $12 million, mainly by cutting staff, and most of those positions from the central office. Birmingham has far more administrators per student than most comparable districts. If there's no takeover, the Birmingham Board of Education would still have to approve each personnel cut and other cost-saving measures -- not a simple or painless process no matter who undertakes it.

Birmingham Board President Edward Maddox said late Thursday, "Basically, the resolution [approved by the state board today] is going along with what we'd already done -- it wasn't necessary. We're obligated to do what's best for our children and this city. We're going to implement that plan."