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More than 100 Rally Behind B'ham School Superintendent

Special Board Meeting on His Contract Canceled (For Now)

By Dan Carsen, April 6, 2012

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- About 150 people gathered in Birmingham's Linn Park today to show their support for embattled schools chief Craig Witherspoon. The superintendent's job security has been in doubt over the last two days especially, after the Board of Education on Thursday suddenly called a special meeting for the very next day on the topic of his contract, knowing two staunch Witherspoon supporters would be out of town.

The board canceled today's meeting just a few hours before it was set to begin. Alabama schools Superintendent Tommy Bice, who supports Witherspoon, had requested that any discussion of Witherspoon's contract not take place until the regular meeting set for Tuesday April 10, so Bice could be there. Whatever the reasons for the cancellation of the last-minute, holiday-weekend meeting -- and many attribute it partly to public outcry over what's seen as an attempted anti-Witherspoon ambush -- speakers at today's rally, which went on as scheduled, were pleased:

"Here's the silver lining in all of this," said Robert Early Kelly, co-chair of the Birmingham Education Foundation's "Ed" campaign: "we woke up. We now know that we need to be more engaged politically with what's going on in education in the City of Birmingham."

Kelly has two daughters who graduated from Birmingham schools and is president of Kelly Construction, which hires directly from the school system. He and other speakers listed a dropout recovery program, balanced budgets in tight fiscal times, career academies, ACT tutoring, International Baccalaureate programs, and improved morale among students as some of Witherspoon's accomplishments, and predicted that schools under his continued leadership would do even more.

Kelly added, "If people living in New York City, Miami, Houston, Mobile, Bangkok, Shanghai, wherever, if they were reading about those accomplishments, they would say that Birmingham, Alabama, boy they've really got themselves a good school superintendent."

After the rally, Waymond Jackson, a product of the Birmingham School system who handles community engagement for the Birmingham Education foundation, said, "We need continuity in our leadership positions in the school system. We need to give someone a chance to really get things accomplished. We have a lot of people who've bought into Witherspoon and what he's doing. Community groups, faith- based organizations, the business community. All that is so important."

Randall Woodfin, founder of the grassroots group Citizens Are Responsible for Education, was the main organizer of the rally.

Five of the nine board members have expressed varying degrees of disapproval of Witherspoon's leadership, which began in March 2010. As of this writing, none of those five had returned calls or emails, but in the past they've said Witherspoon doesn't communicate well with them or with teachers. Several speakers at the rally said that's because he focuses so much on the system's 25,000 children.

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.

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

Jerry Tate, a parent and PTA member at Phillips Academy, said he and others were planning to ask the Board to extend Witherspoon's contract at Tuesday's meeting: "Let's not delay any longer. We feel that we have the right man, at the right time, for the right job to move this system forward. Let's instill confidence in him."

That meeting is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 10, at 2015 Park Place in downtown Birmingham.