Dr. Craig Witherspoon was laughing loudly as he walked into the auditorium at Tuesday’s special called Birmingham Board of Education meeting. Moments later, the Birmingham City School superintendent resigned his post, effective Dec. 31.
The laughter stopped. He took no questions after the announcement, leaving many to wonder what happened and what this means for the ailing Birmingham City Schools.
Since then, questions remain as to why he chose to resign when he did, just two months after July 23, when the school board voted to extend Witherspoon’s contract to June 30, 2018. Also, the resignation announcement came a week after the BBOE began a new fiscal year. Witherspoon had previously trumpeted the financial stability of the school system and how his administration had been “good stewards of the dollars.”
However, his announcement came in the midst of his administration facing criticism for a possible misappropriation of federal Title 1 funding and the abrupt resignations of two high-ranking employees. While those problems were swirling through the school system, an in-house audit revealed an unauthorized transaction of $64,105.00 just as the fiscal year was coming to a close.
What exactly triggered the resignation? The superintendent hasn’t said. Thus far, he has not been available to comment. His lawyer, however, former federal judge U.W. Clemon, offered some insight.
“He chose to resign because he thought it was in his best interest to do so,” Clemon said. “There have been several disagreements between him and some board members. In his mind, the risk of possible litigation would bring a distraction to the school system. So rather, he chose to resign.”
Brandon Wilson, president of Wilbron Institute — which handles public relations for the BBOE — gave a different reason why Witherspoon decided to leave the school system.
“Dr. Witherspoon just felt it was time. He was here for four-and-a-half years, thus outlasting previous superintendents. So, everyone involved believes he has earned the right to say when he feels it is his time,” Wilson said.
As for the terms of the resignation, BBOE President Randall Woodfin said that “there is no buyout.” Witherspoon will receive his normal compensation until his resignation takes effect.
“He’s at work today, just like he was last week, just like he will be next week. Just like any organization in the United States of America that forms a transitional plan in regards to an effective date of a resignation. He is employed with the school district. He’s running the school district until Dec. 31,” Woodfin said.
After the board voted to accept his resignation, Witherspoon read a prepared statement in which he touched on several of the high points of his tenure. He also noted that “This decision will allow me to pursue other opportunities and gives the Board of Education the time needed to make a smooth transition as it searches for a new superintendent.”
He also mentioned that, among other things, his administration has seen a 15-point increase in graduation rate, reduced the dropout rate by 4 percent, and “worked with [a] state team to increase fund balance from $2 [million to] $20 million. …
“Each of these accomplishments helped us establish a solid foundation for the future of Birmingham City Schools,” he said. “I am personally excited about that future.”
Former State Superintendent Dr. Ed Richardson has been heavily involved with overseeing the state’s financial intervention with the BBOE since June 2012. Richardson, who was not involved in the run up to the resignation, characterized Witherspoon’s timing as “unusual.”
“The timing is certainly an issue. I do know that the board, the ones they have now, I’m very confident that they will move in a deliberate manner,” Richardson said. “I’m just not privy to the inside information. I just don’t know what led to it. But the timing of it, especially after just having a renewal, causes you to wonder exactly what happened.
“They just had a review, which came back good. So the fact that this came out at this time is surprising. Again, I’ve had no conversations with anyone so I don’t know what led to that. So either it was something that was repeated, or an issue that was of some concern to the board, or it was something that they thought might affect finances. I just don’t know.”
Richardson said he is also confident that the school board will make the right decision for a replacement, someone he hopes will stick around for “four to eight years on the short side.”
Over the last 20 years, the Birmingham City School system has had seven superintendents. Richardson believes that choosing the next one carefully is the key to moving the school district in a positive direction for years to come.
“This system has a history of changing superintendents. This decision is so important because you have to have someone who is going to be there a while. … They need to package it so any applicants would have an idea of what’s going on. Based on history and what just occurred, that may cause some applicants to wonder,” Richardson said.
Current State Superintendent Tommy Bice wished Witherspoon a fond farewell and thanked him for his service.
“The Birmingham Board of Education has been in regular contact with me regarding Dr. Witherspoon’s resignation,” Bice said. “I, along with the Birmingham Board, thank Dr. Witherspoon for his service and wish him well in his future endeavors. Much has been accomplished since our initial state intervention and we will continue work with the Birmingham Board to ensure a smooth transition in leadership with a laser focus on acceleration of student learning, programmatic innovation and financial stability,” Bice said.
The Birmingham Education Foundation (ED), which began working with the city system in 2010, has helped to provide funding for the school district. Executive Director J.W. Carpenter said that Witherspoon’s resignation will not affect their partnership with the school system whatsoever.
“First thing I would say is ‘Thank you’ to Craig Witherspoon,” Carpenter said. “He put his all into this and has a lot to be proud of. Rapid expansion of pre-k, he helped navigate the system through some tough times and I wish him nothing but the best.
“I see this as a big opportunity. We need to make sure we are building a diverse pool of candidates both locally and nationally, and that our selection process is transparent and make sure the voices of our students, our parents, our educators and our community is heard in that process,” Carpenter explained.
The process of finding the right person for the job, someone who will become a “permanent” fixture in the Birmingham City School system, may take some time, according to Woodfin.
“The school board is currently developing a succession plan,” Woodfin explained. “When that plan is detailed and finalized it will be shared with all of our stakeholders and our employees, other elected officials, as well as media outlets. Part of this plan will be to engage in conversation with the Alabama Association of School Boards as well as other entities that provide educational information to school boards in regards to the process, direction, timeline, et cetera.
“It will be an intentional, detailed process. It will not be rushed. From the long-term standpoint of finding a permanent superintendent it will be a minimum of a six-month process.” Woodfin also noted that it would be important for the entire board to be involved in finding a new superintendent.
In a statement the BBOE said the search provides an opportunity to “assess Birmingham City School System’s priorities and align succession planning and the search process with an approach that attracts candidates who meet the needs of all those involved in the district.”
The board’s statement also included, in no particular order, the steps it expects to undertake in the search: “identify desired characteristics for leadership; coordinate with community members to ensure stakeholder involvement; identify a search firm to assist in a national search; meet with community partners who can aid in the coordination and management of this executive search.”
In the meantime, initiatives that Witherspoon implemented, such as the Drop Out Recovery Program, will continue and “will not be affected,” Woodfin said.
Given the historically high turnover rate at the Birmingham superintendent’s office, Richardson noted that finding a new head for the system is tough enough that the state should lend assistance.
“I assume that the board, working with Dr. Bice, would secure an interim, because it’s just not an easy job. There’s just not a lot of people out there that can do the job and who would want to assume the position in just a few months,” Richardson said.
He noted that potential candidates might find the job more desirable if BBOE succeeds in getting released from state financial intervention. Despite the audit that revealed the unauthorized expenditure at the end of the fiscal year, the system remains eligible to ask the state to ease its oversight, Richardson said.
Richardson and Bice both noted, however, that Witherspoon’s resignation does not affect the financial intervention in any way.
“Our current intervention work remains unchanged. Dr. Witherspoon, the Birmingham Board and Chief Financial Officer Arthur Watts have done a great job in addressing the issues related to the need for a one-month reserve for financial stability,” Bice said.
“I don’t see that having any negative impact on the financial intervention,” Richardson explained. “Assuming the finances are the same as when we left, then they will be eligible to request a release from the financial intervention. I don’t see the state being involved. I did recommend they call AdvancEd, the accrediting body, and inform them [of the resignation].”
Changes in perception
Cathy Parrill has a granddaughter who attends Avondale Elementary school. As someone who has seen the rise and fall of several superintendents in the Birmingham School System, and who works in educational enrichment for a private firm, Parrill said, “We’ve had so many leaders in this district in the last 15 years, and to make systemic change takes real vision and it takes time.”
When she heard about Witherspoon’s resignation, Parrill said she couldn’t help but say, “Here we go again.” Parrill said she is worried that so many changes in leadership can reflect the instability of the school system as a whole.
“When I heard the news I was very disappointed. Real disappointment. Because I remember his first meetings and the great sense of hope. And we’ve had our hopes dashed so many times in education here that we’ve become very cynical,” Parrill said.
One problem with the Birmingham City Schools, Parrill noted, is the negative perception that people may have of the schools in the district. While her own perception is “not all negative,” she did say that other people may not feel the same.
“I think the perception is fairly negative. It’s one of ‘not again’ and lack of hope for improvement. To many people, the system feels out of their control, and that it continues to disappoint. Can a new superintendent change that? Yes, I think so. But not just any superintendent.
“We need one who is an expert in change management, and who doesn’t have to spend a ton of money with a PR firm to build good public relations. His vision, strategy and results are what will build trust and confidence. Nothing short of that will work,” Parrill said.
As she noted, from December 2013 to June 2014, the BBOE spent $59,840.99 with Wilbron Institute for their public relations services. This includes both local and federal money according to the school board’s check register.
Parrill hopes that the new superintendent can build a coalition that reaches across both business and nonprofit sectors and rally people together around the idea of putting children’s educational needs first.
“I’d like to see someone with real vision,” Parrill said. “And a philosophy that could change the culture in the whole school system. And that is really hard to do. Our culture nationwide in schools, I think, is very driven towards specific test results. What we’ve always called filling in the gaps and turning it around. We see more and more failing schools around the country and more kids in those schools failing. So I think culturally we’ve created a situation where we are just hammering away at symptoms, but not looking at the culture as a whole.”
Richard Franklin, the Birmingham chapter president of American Federation of Teachers, has been outspoken at BBOE meetings recently. When Witherspoon announced his resignation, Franklin said he was “shocked, and little bit relieved, and a little upset, the more I thought about it.”
Over the past couple weeks, Franklin explained, he has had a “bad taste in [his] mouth” with the way Witherspoon has handled the school district’s business.
“He just accepted an extension, and then we have these allegations he misappropriated funds and he just up and resigned in the middle of this conversation instead of telling us what happened,” Franklin said.
Instances like those add to the negative perception that people may have towards the Birmingham City Schools, Franklin lamented. “I think people that live in Birmingham, we didn’t really have any connection with Dr. Witherspoon. He didn’t really talk to us. A lot of the businesspeople — they had an excellent relationship with Dr. Witherspoon.”
As for Witherspoon’s replacement, much like Parrill, Franklin hopes to see someone who can bring together the business community as well as the citizens who send their children to the schools in Birmingham.
“I hope the next superintendent can balance a relationship between businesses and the community and doesn’t favor one or the other. I think right now, Birmingham is looked at in a negative light. There are some success stories, but those stories are not often told. Robinson Elementary over the last eight years has made some serious strides. And last year they came off the failing schools list. People who have their children here need to look at it in more of a positive light. It looks bad from the outside. But Dr. Witherspoon doesn’t teach our children — teachers do,” Franklin said.
Carpenter underlined the importance of the upcoming selection process and how it can help change the perception of the school system that has limped its way through multiple transitions and setbacks.
“We need to recognize that this position is one of the most important leadership roles in the Birmingham area. We need to build a diverse group of talented people who reflect our understanding and commitment that this is one of our most important leadership positions. We have 25,000 kids in the Birmingham city schools who are our current and future leaders and they need to get a great education befitting of their limitless talents and that requires a great leader at the top of the pyramid,” Carpenter said.
As the BBOE begins the search for a new superintendent and members of the community grapple with why Witherspoon chose to leave, Parrill posed a simple question that she believes gets to the heart of the system’s issues — a question she hopes the new superintendent can answer.
“We’ve always had such a top-down approach to education here. We have a hard time keeping our best teachers. What if this wasn’t the case?” Parrill asked. “What if we were able to keep them around? Think of the difference that would make with our students — who, by the way, this is all about.”