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January 12, 1993

Fear and Loathing:

The Trial of the School Superintendent

by A.T. DeGuire and Edmund Tsang

December 14, 1992 at 9 a.m., the Mobile County School Board opened its hearing for the termination and cancellation of Superintendent Douglas Magann's contract, which ends on July 31, 1995. Magann was hired on July 31, 1991 by an unanimous vote of the School Board of Commissioners.

The fractious atmosphere of recent School Board meetings did not take long to set in that day. Robert Campbell, the Board's attorney, presided at the meeting, to which William Kimbrough, Magann's lawyer, objected. It was only the first of many objections he raised, not many of which were sustained, since Campbell ran the hearing.

School Commissioners Dr. Joseph Mitchell and Mrs. Hazel Fournier both protested the chairmanship. Mrs. Fournier said that Campbell was guilty of sharing information with School Board President Jeanne Andrews and the other members without including her and Dr. Mitchell.

Serious divisions among Board members are acknowledged in its new release about this meeting, which is described as being "...initiated and approved by a three-member a Special Board meeting on October 5, 1992." Later, the press release states "James Wood has been retained to represent the majority of the Board."

At the tumultuous October meeting, Mitchell and Fournier, the two African- Americans on the school board, charged that the three white members, Andrews, N.Q. Adams and "Sugar" Warren, excluded them in a meeting to plan the suspension of Magann and the hiring of an attorney and an accounting firm to begin termination proceedings against the school superintendent. Fournier voted against and Mitchell abstained on the vote against Magann.

Mitchell said that he had not voted to suspend Magann, and still had not been privy to information known and discussed by other members. He suggested the present hearing was "out of order." On a motion to dismiss, Mitchell and Fournier voted "Yes," and Adams, Andrews and Warren voted "No."

Dr. Mitchell, in replying to censure or correction from Wood or Campbell, said he was uncertain of proper responses since both were, in effect, his employees. His remarks underlined the rather bizarre situation the majority board had created; that is, the school board attorney acting as judge, the majority board as the jury with Wood as its counsel, and the minority board defending the school superintendent in a trial in which the result, even though the hearing has not ended, is all but decided: 3-to-2 against Magann

Furthermore, upon cross-examination of the first witness called, Richard Duke of Smith Dukes & Buckalew, it was learned that the accounting firm hired by the majority board for the termination procedure was hired by Andrews to report to attorney Wood and not to the Board.

Magann's attorney Kimbrough asked that Andrews should recuse herself from this hearing because she had publicly pre-judged his client, and had said a mistake was made in hiring Magann in July, 1991. Campbell over-ruled, and took a poll of the Board asking each member if they could be impartial. All affirmed!

[In statements made to the Mobile Press Register, Andrews said Magann's failure to support the "Cafeteria" bill, which was defeated by a 2-to1 vote last September and which would have raised additional funding for the beleaguered school system, is just one reason he should no longer be the superintendent. Fournier told The Harbinger that Andrews had apologized to her for a phone call that Fournier received on September 24, in which the caller told Fournier that Andrews had three votes to terminate Magann and requested that Fournier support the majority. Fournier said she told the caller that "You should not be telling me this" because she had not heard from Board President Andrews, and she said that Andrews apologized at a later meeting for the man "because he was dipping into business that was not his." Fournier added that Andrews had never told her of the move to terminate Magann until October 5, when she was asked to cast her vote on the resolution to suspend and begin termination hearing against Magann, even though Andrews had many occasions to inform her.]

There are 41 charges against Dr. Magann. He has denied 14 and admitted one, and said that each of the remaining 26 charges "is vague and does not adequately advise [him] as to what it is he is to defend against and therefore, he would respectfully request that if the Board intends to pursue this charge, that he be given additional information." Magann admitted that he had disclosed to the public the Board's evaluation of his performance because the public has a right to know and the non-disclosure of personnel matters is to protect the privacy of an employee, not the Board.

The Board and Magann plan to call 114 witnesses: Attorney Wood has called 28 witnesses and Kimbrough has called 86 witnesses. After questioning by Wood, Kimbrough does his cross-examination, and the witness then must answer additional questions from Mitchell and Fournier. After five days of hearing in the first week, the Mobile County Board of School Commissioners voted to postpone the termination hearing until January 15, with Fourner and Mitchell abstaining from voting. In a later press release, the date for continuing the hearing was pushed back to January 19.

The majority board had little comment or questioning, particularly Adams, who either slept through it all, or gave a good impression of it. Occasionally, he would open his eyes and look around. The bright lights seemed to bother him a lot.

"Sugar" Warren asked for recognition after testimony of Richard Dukes on the financial matters he had been directed to examine. After cross-examiantion by Kimbrough and Edward Turner, an attorney working with Kimbrough, and after further questioning by Mitchell and Fournier, Warren said, "As a former bank teller, I am interested in this matter -- but I don't understand it. Did you say this money from the Reagency Trust Fund was moved, or not?" Dukes was explaining what he felt about the accounting technique, Accounts Receivable entry, used to reflect a loan from the trust fund to the General Fund to cover an overdraft, but Warren appeared still in the dark.

The Mobile daily reported on December 24 that attorney Wood had submitted an invoice for $6,761 in October and for $7,667 in November for his work for the majority board. At the rate in which the hearing proceeded last week, where 3 or 4 witnesses appeared each day, this hearing might well go another seven full months, bringing attorneys Wood and Campbell a tidy sum. Magann most likely would appeal the eventual 3-2 ruling to the federal court, saying he was not given a fair due-process hearing.

You know it's a serious offense when you are charged for being "rude" in a city in which its citizens were last year voted as the most "polite" in the nation.

Among the witnesses called by the majority board last week to testify against Magann were three politicians -- State Senators Steve Windom and Ann Bedsole, and Rep. Taylor Harper -- who all said they were offended by Magann's rudeness. The three members of the majority board also said, in their evaluation of the school superintendent's performance, that they find Magann "rude."

Not all witnesses last week described Magann as "rude." Gene Tysowsky, school system's spokesman, said he believed Magann conducted himself "professionally" with the state legislators, especially considering how they treated Magann. "Actually I thought he was extremely well-tempered given some of the things I have seen and heard," he said.

The two members of the minority board also gave Magann good evaluations last year, finding the school superintendent to be a professional.

Magann has been said to be such a belligerent, boorish, obnoxious, arrogant and imperious person that the school board commissioners should perhaps be investigated as to why they made a contract with such a monster in the first place. Or, what caused the man to change so radically in so short a time in the "polite" society of Mobile from the competent, experienced person that was hired?

You can still learn a thing or two in this fear and loathing trial of the school superintendent:

One, the school board held a secret meeting in spring, 1992 that violated the state's Sunshine Law. According to the Mobile Press-Register, school commissioner Adams said he invited the five school board members to his home where they discussed supporting the 15.5 mill tax proposed by Magann to raise funds for the bankrupt Mobile County School System. This offense, however, pales in comparison to the secret meeting(s) that the majority board certainly must have held, in which they excluded the two minority members, to engineer Magann's termination.

Two, according to the testimony of Gene Tysowsky, spokesman for the school system, the school board had originally planned to ask voters for a 15.5 mill increase in property tax to raise the needed funding for the public schools, but changed its mind after spring break to support the nine-part referendum that could have increased property taxes by up to 29 mills a year for ten years.

Three, two charges against Magann are that he "discouraged local school personnel and local school boosters support for passage of the school accountability referendum after board had agreed to support the legislation" and that he "discouraged employee support for the passage of the school accountability referendum." According to the Mobile Register, Dr. Wayne Teague, state Superintendent of Education, testified that he directed Magann to warn school employees against supporting the Education Accountability Act during school hours because attorneys for the state Department of Education advised him that such activities put the school system at risk of being sued. Teague said he had received word that school system employees were soliciting support for the bill while at work.

Four, the majority board is setting itself up for charges of violating fair due-process of Magann in the eventual and probable 3-2 vote against him by employing vague and general charges. Example: It charged that Magann "failed to diligently follow board policy in support of the accountability referendum." In a written reply to the Board supplied by the attorneys for Magann, the document states that "Dr. Magann denies this allegation and demands strict proof thereof. Dr. Magann respectfully requests that the board furnish to him a copy of the 'board policy in support of the accountability referendum' referred to...and the date that the board passed such policy and informed Dr. Magann of the board's support of such referendum. Dr. Magann asserts that he took all reasonable actions consistent with the board's positions short of lying to the public about specific aspects of the bill when direct questions were put to him by persons with whom he came in contact."

-- January 12, 1993

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