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Alabama School Strife Strikes Outside Of Class


You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Now, to Birmingham, Alabama, where the state has effectively taken over the local school board. It's not because of academic issues, but because the board is widely seen as too inept to function.

As Dan Carsen of member station WBHM reports, the intervention has triggered cries of racism in a city with a long history of racial tension.

DAN CARSEN, BYLINE: Do an Internet search on Birmingham school board and dysfunction, and you'll find more reading material than you know what to do with. Board members have assaulted each other, police have gotten involved, and now armed security guards are fixtures at meetings - not just to protect board members from the public, but from each other. There are allegations of secret gatherings. And even in public meetings, the infighting is intense.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I move that we take the motion to extend the (unintelligible) in this contract...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Mr. President, you have...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: ...(unintelligible)...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Mr. President, (unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We're discussing (unintelligible) contract. Mr. (unintelligible), you're out of order. Just simmer down.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Let me check with our counsel. Tom, am I out of order?

CARSEN: This latest squabble was over Birmingham's superintendent, Craig Witherspoon, who's black but has support from blacks and whites. He took over the troubled system two years ago and has made some improvements. But five of the nine board members want to fire him because they say he doesn't communicate well. The board hastily called an evening meeting on Good Friday to discuss his contract. But Witherspoon's supporters held a boisterous rally on his behalf.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: If they continue to do that, we're going to continue to support him.


CARSEN: The board cancelled the surprise meeting after the protest. But the issue came up again at a regular meeting. Two motions to fire him fell on procedural grounds. This ongoing battle was the tipping point for state intervention. Here's Alabama superintendent Tommy Bice, who saw the infighting firsthand.

DR. TOMMY BICE: Anytime you have a group of individuals that are elected to work together around a common goal, it's disheartening to see the personal and divisiveness between the group.

CARSEN: Several Birmingham school board members, including Brian Giattina, welcome the state assistance.

BRIAN GIATTINA: Dr. Bice, we need help. We cannot function freely.


GIATTINA: This is unacceptable at every level.

CARSEN: Bice has launched an investigation. He's ordered the local board to save all records and correspondence going back five years and not to undertake any non-routine action, including firing Witherspoon without permission. The issue of the superintendent is now being overshadowed by the question of who's really in charge of this 95 percent black school district, one of the largest in Alabama. Mary Moore is a state representative who fought to change the appointed board to an elected one a decade ago.

STATE REPRESENTATIVE MARY MOORE: We cannot tolerate and will not tolerate one state superintendent coming in and just...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Right. Right. Right.

MOORE: ...stepping on our rights as if we as black citizens, the majority of this city, do not matter.

CARSEN: William Muhammad, head of the Committee to Develop Birmingham, also takes issue with State Superintendent Bice and the interference with local board members.

WILLIAM MUHAMMAD: He didn't put him in place. We put him in place. And he is disrespecting us. He is being patronizing and racist.

CARSEN: There are other serious allegations against the board, including improper awarding of contracts and violations of open meetings laws. Board member and army veteran Tyrone Belcher doesn't deny the infighting has been bitter, but he thinks the state is overstepping its bounds.

TYRONE BELCHER: I've been in two wars, but I ain't never seen anything like this down here.

CARSEN: No charges or lawsuits have been filed by either side, but that could change soon. For NPR News, I'm Dan Carsen in Birmingham, Alabama. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dan Carsen