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B'ham Ed Board Suddenly Calls Late Friday Meeting on School Chief's Contract

Pro-Witherspoon Press Conference Planned as Potential Showdown Looms

By Dan Carsen, April 6, 2012


BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Good Friday might be anything but for Birmingham Schools Superintendent Craig Witherspoon and his supporters. Barely a day earlier, the Board of Education called a special meeting for 5 p.m. Friday, knowing that two Witherspoon supporters would be out of town for the holiday weekend, and that a regular board meeting was already scheduled for the following Tuesday. And there's only one item listed on the agenda for today's special meeting: the superintendent's contract.

"This is as big as anything that's happened in our city for a while," said Board member Brian Giattina, who supports Witherspoon. "If they run him off, we'll never get another good superintendent. And it'll be the last straw for 26,000 kids. We're in the middle of testing, budgets, major staff changes. So what's their plan? If they let him go, we'll need someone to run the schools at 5:01 p.m. Friday. This is very, very serious."

Five of nine board members have expressed varying degrees of disapproval of Witherspoon's leadership, which began in March 2010. As of this writing, no other board members had returned calls or emails, but in the past they've said Witherspoon doesn't communicate well with them or with teachers and have questioned his leadership style.

Witherspoon has more than a year left on his contract. Several sources said anti-Witherspoon board members are hoping to buy him out for $200,000, although his contract at this point would be worth closer to $300,000.

"It's a bad idea," said Randall Woodfin, a community leader and volunteer who's on the school district's finance committee and has served on the school policy committee. "It's not in the interests of the kids, or the morale of the teachers. They can't control him and they don't like it. Nobody else -- parents, grandparents, neighborhood associations, the business community -- nobody wants him fired. If they get rid of him, the state should take over the system."

The Board itself has been plagued by inaction on issues including how to evaluate Witherspoon, and by stong disagreements, some of them intense enough to become physical.

A different type of instability has marked the Superintendent's position. The city school system has had five in the last dozen years, and that worries Birmingham Education Foundation director Michael Froning. Referring to Birmingham's high school career academies, balanced budgets, International Baccalaureate programs, and other initiatives, Dr. Froning said, "I'm optimistic about the positive trajectory, but it's harder when the board continues its high level of instability. It takes time to get a superintendent. We hope they settle in on one. [Witherspoon] has been a terrific superintendent, and a terrific partner. We think he has the right ideas, the right mentality, and the right abilities. Any interference is a downright shame."

Regardless, he added, "We work with kids, families, and teachers. We'll be here when the sun comes up on Saturday morning."

At least two pro-Witherspoon online petitions are circulating. Alabama state Superintendent Tommy Bice has reportedly asked the board to wait until the regular meeting on Tuesday so he can be there, but has not gotten any response from the board.

A pro-Witherspoon press conference has been set for 4 p.m. in Linn Park, across the street from the school administration building where the 5 p.m. board meeting is scheduled to take place. The meeting will be held in the auditorium of the building at 2015 Park Place.

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