Birmingham Judge Approves State Schools Takeover

Published August 15, 2012

Birmingham public schools enrollment and teaching staff have decreased over the past decade while the city’s central education office has remained disproportionately flush with employees, many of whom have retained hefty salaries amidst budget cuts.

In June, Alabama’s Department of Education voted unanimously to step in and oversee financial operations within Birmingham schools, but after weeks of school board delays, it approved a complete takeover. The state plans to cut $12 million from the district’s $104 million budget for 2012-2013, mostly through layoffs.

A court battle followed. On Aug. 13, a county judge ruled in favor of the takeover while maintaining Birmingham Superintendent Craig Witherspoon could not be ousted from his position by his board’s vote.

State Superintendent Tommy Bice released a statement afterward emphasizing the state’s main objectives: To review the local board, the schools’ accreditation status, and “to restore the system to a sound financial status.”

“The school system here has been in disarray and not meeting its education attainment goals for years,” said state Rep. Patricia Todd (D-Birmingham). “We had to do something, and I’m glad the state stepped in.”

Administrative Bloat
Birmingham’s education troubles have been building for a decade. From the1999-2000 to 2008-2009, enrollment dropped 28 percent. The number of teachers decreased accordingly. More than 20 city schools closed. 

But the number of support staff and administrators doubled over the same period, according to the Alabama Policy Institute (API). Non-teacher certified personnel almost tripled.

“You have an incredibly inefficient and poorly-run entity—and Birmingham isn’t the only one, there are plenty throughout Alabama,” said Cameron Smith, API’s policy director and general counsel.

In 2010, Birmingham schools had 23 employees making more than $100,000, three times as many as in nearby Shelby and Jefferson County schools, though both had more students and employees. Tenure is protecting some of Birmingham schools’ leaders, while lower-level positions have been cut.

In 2011-2012, 12 more schools closed and enrollment dropped again.

“You’ve got to look at the central office,” Todd said. “They have to get rid of some of those top-name people who aren’t moving us forward.”

Dropout Crisis
As Birmingham’s education reputation has worsened, more families have fled for surrounding counties, said Gary Palmer, API’s president.

“The economic impact of losing these families is enormous,” he said.

The state’s new graduation rate formula, which now counts relocating students as “dropouts” if they do not resurface in the system, shows that only 55 percent of Birmingham students graduated on time. The state average is 72 percent.

“The demographics for the city of Birmingham are awful,” Palmer said. “[The] crime rate has an almost linear relationship to your dropout rate.”

School Choice Offers Outlet
Since the Birmingham school board is elected, state control has ramifications beyond education and economics, Smith said.

“You have several white people coming into a predominantly black school board and population and then supplanting their judgment for the judgment of elected officials,” he said. “So you have this very tense situation.”

Charter schools and school choice would resolve some of these issues by empowering local parents to control their child’s education, Smith said.

“Charter schools and school choice are things we need to look at,” Todd said. “We need to make sure every student, no matter where they live or the color of the skin or their abilities, that they have access to quality education.”

Quality Options Await
Not every Birmingham school is dismal. Cornerstone Schools offer rigorous coursework and strong student results, but is maxing out current facilities, said Nita Carr, its executive director.

“We would like to reproduce this model if we could figure out a way to pay for it,” Carr said. “Our mission is to help kids who have no choice and kids in Birmingham can’t afford to go to private school or move out of the city.”

Local unions, the school board, and state superintendent don’t want to surrender control over traditional schools, said Reform Alabama Executive Director Ashley Newman.

“There is tremendous momentum for charter schools because of things like Birmingham city schools,” she said. “It’s simply a matter of whether the old voices are able to drown out new ideas.”


Image by Julia Frost.