What’s wrong with Birmingham School Board and City Council?

Members of the Birmingham City Schools Board of Education
Members of the Birmingham City Schools Board of Education

Oh no!  It’s happened again.

Birmingham City Schools lost another superintendent.

Kelley Castlin-Gacutan was fired after 16 months—the 8th superintendent in 17 years.

How can one school board after another continue to make such bad hiring and/or firing decisions?

Castlin-Gacutan was terminated without cause and this will likely cost the school system about $400,000 in severance.

We can’t afford to keep spitting out superintendents.  We’re left with no continuity, wasted money, and poorly educated children. Our whole community suffers.

Some people want to blame lack of funding.

Birmingham City Schools are actually funded better than the next two largest school systems in the state and not much less than Vestavia Hills—one of our best school systems.

School Spending Per Pupil:

  • Birmingham City Schools: $9,933
  • Montgomery County Schools: $8,420
  • Mobile County Schools: $8,937
  • Vestavia Hills City Schools: $10,513

So if money’s not necessarily the issue, what is?

School board member Randall Woodfin got it exactly right, “We get into a situation when we have school board members elected by district and unfortunately they can’t look past their district and look at the system.”

Birmingham School Board members are elected from nine separate districts.  No board member is elected city-wide.  So it’s in the best interest of each school board member to please his or her constituents rather than to make decisions that may benefit the school system as a whole.

The end result is what you might expect.  No superintendent can survive with nine board members pulling and pushing from different directions.

Sound familiar?

The same is true for the Birmingham City Council.

Birmingham City Council members are elected from the same nine districts as the school board.  None are elected city-wide and the end result is bickering, backstabbing, and a lack of a common vision.

Our Birmingham region’s stagnation is caused by poor government structure.

Every single Birmingham school member for the past twenty years can’t be bad.

Every single Birmingham City Council member for the past 20 years can’t be bad.

Our government structure is bad.

Fix our structure—fix Birmingham.

Editor’s superintendent recommendation: The Birmingham Board of Education might consider appointing a superintendent already working in Birmingham schools.  A local seasoned administrator is likely committed to our children and to Birmingham.

Though I don’t know Dr. Spencer Horn, the previous Interim Superintendent well, he might be a good candidate.

Or the Board might consider appointing Dr. Larry Contri, the current Interim Superintendent. I have known Dr. Contri my entire adult life and there is not a more selfless competent educator in the State of Alabama. Some people may think 70 year old Dr. Contri is too old, but he’s about the same age as both presidential candidates.

Let’s not recruit an unknown out-of-state candidate who doesn’t know our politics, our school employees, our business leaders, or our children. 

Let’s turn Birmingham around.  Click here to sign up for our newsletter. There’s power in numbers. (Opt out at any time)

David Sher is Co-Founder of AmSher Compassionate Collections.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

Invite David to speak to your group about a better Birmingham. dsher@amsher.com.

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8 thoughts on “What’s wrong with Birmingham School Board and City Council?”

  1. I think in the case of the school board, running the schools (much less turning them around) is such a massive undertaking of such a dysfunctional bureaucracy that it might be straight-up impossible to do it in a satisfactory way. It’s true that school board members are often called on to look after their districts, and this leads to a type of tug-of-war over resources. For example, everyone knows that schools have to be closed for an efficiently running system, but no one wants their neighborhood school to be the one that closes. But that’s not all there is to this. Organizations can grow so large and complex that everything can’t be efficiently overseen. I honestly think that’s what happens in cases like this one (and the case of Dr. Witherspoon before). Not that that’s a satisfactory answer when a mistake has been made, just that it might be considered before sacking the superintendent, again and again and again.

  2. You’ll never make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Government is inherently political, and monopolies are inherently evil. We gave government a monopoly on education, so don’t be surprised that it failed. Government education is marginally satisfactory only in the few areas where the parents have the will and the resources to overcome most of the deficiencies.

    Try vouchers. They worked with the GI Bill after World War II, and they can’t be worse than what we have.

  3. You really had me until you suggested Larry Contri as a good candidate for the job instead of “an unknown out-of-state candidate who doesn’t know our politics, our school employees, our business leaders, or our children.” This suggestion shows that you don’t really understand that situation either.

    Larry Contri, while likable, represents the same backwardness, pettiness, and corruption that you see in the school board. The fact that he’s the interim superintendent in this situation is no accident. He’s happy to oblige the school board on hooking people up with jobs and districts with money with little regard to the health of the system or the future of our children. Suggesting otherwise pretty seriously undermines your credibility.

  4. I’m sorry to disagree with your observation/opinion. Dr. Contri has dedicated his entire career to the school system from which he graduated and loves. He has excelled in each and every position to which he has been promoted throughout his tenure. I would bet my home and belongings that he would be more successful than any “nationally recruited” individual that this or any other BOE could possibly employ. Why on earth can’t this BOE see the forest for the trees. He has what it would take to get through all the riff raff of city politics and serve to move this stagnant school district forward.

    1. Fred, I don’t understand your comments. I endorsed Dr. Contri in my piece:

      “The Board might consider appointing Dr. Larry Contri, the current Interim Superintendent. I have known Dr. Contri my entire adult life and there is not a more selfless competent educator in the State of Alabama. Some people may think 70 year old Dr. Contri is too old, but he’s about the same age as both presidential candidates.”

  5. David,

    I’m sure your “district” argument is part of the problem, but I’ve seen on other local government boards– including my time on the BJCTA (Transit) Board– that the problem is caused by a severe misunderstanding of Board members’ role. Although I see for the most part good and honest Board members serving, they seem to misunderstand the “fiduciary” definition and believe it to mean they should intervene whenever they don’t fully understand or like decisions being made by the executives the boards have selected. It’s micro-management at its worst, and they cloak it in their “fiduciary responsibility” and recently “transparency.”

    Board members seem to get way more kudos when they catch a few dollars misspent than they do when they help build a system– be it school, transit, or general government– to become successful over time. It is the culture in this community, and our local columnists help to fuel this fire.

    Board members and councilors are elected to provide vision and select executive leadership. Board members hire auditors to catch fraud. I hope our local board members and city councilors (both Birmingham and the surrounding cities, including mine) can learn to keep the top performing executives we do have and will get in the future, and learn that a fiduciary role means to ensure long term success for their organization.

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