February 9, 1993
by Edmund Tsang
On September 24, 1992, eleven days before Dr. Douglas Magann was suspended by a 3-1-1 vote of the Mobile County Board of School Commissioners, Hazel Fournier, vice president of the school board, received a call from "a reputable citizen in the community" who broke news to her that Jeanne Andrews, president of the board, had three votes to terminate Magann. The caller also lobbied her to vote with the majority, according to Fournier. In an interview with The Harbinger in early October, 1992, Fournier said she would not identify the caller at that time, but said "if I have to get on a witness stand, then I would disclose his name."
Fournier said she is going to keep her commitment about not revealing the name of the person who made that controversial phone call on September 24. "Had I been put on the witness stand, I would do that. I had not been put on the witness stand," Fournier said, referring to the settlement that ended the termination hearing of Magann. Fournier was to be called as a witness, and Magann said she would be asked to identify the caller.
Fournier was perturbed by the call on September 24. "I told him that I have a problem, and my problem is that what you are telling me, I should be getting from my school board president, and I have not heard from her," said Fournier. "I told the gentleman, 'You should not be telling me this.'"
The next day, Fournier said Andrews told her that "she was upset that this gentleman had called me because he was dipping into business that was not his." Between September 25 and October 5 Andrews and Fournier had met a number of times, including social and official occasions, but Andrews never brought up the subject of firing Magann, Fournier said. She charged that the three white board members, Andrews, N.Q. Adams and "Sugar" Warren, had met without informing the two African-American members, Fournier and Dr. Joseph Mitchell, to engineer Magann's firing, "Mrs. Andrews did not answer me when I asked them questions at the board meeting on October 5. Had she done that, she could have said that on such and such dates I informed you of the matter," Fournier said. "When the motion was made on October 5, the motion had four parts. You have to decide on the law firm, on the accounting firm, you have to decide the replacement for the superintendent, and you have to decide a 90-day suspension as opposed to, say, 60 days or 30 days. To me, that says that there was some pre-planning. This is a flagrant misrepresentation of the intent of the objectives of the school board, which has five members."
Mitchell also said he was left out of the decision-making process. According to the Mobile Register on October 6, Andrews and Warren said "attempts were made to reach Mitchell...." Referring to that news account, Mitchell said, "my office takes messages. I have a computerized system that takes messages and holds them for me. I have an answering machine at home that would take up to 30 messages, telling me when they came. Also between the time of the meeting was set and the time of the meeting, my house has not moved. They have people who deliver information and materials from the school board on a regular basis to me to my house, as they have done so in the past."
Fournier was asked if Richard Dorman, a local attorney, was the caller on September 24. "I won't confirm or deny," said Fournier.
Dorman, in a telephone interview, said he was the caller, but that he "was not lobbying Mrs. Fournier." Dorman said he gave his opinion and "asked her to evaluate the situation. I was not asking on behalf of the school commissioners." Dorman was asked how he knew Andrews had three votes to oust Magann. Dorman said he "didn't know any such thing. I didn't know all the facts myself. My recollection is that I probably have said, that she probably had the votes or enough votes. I got that from the general impression I had after talking to a lot of people in the community." In reply to a question on who were the people he had talked to, Dorman said he was representing the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce in the effort to promote the Cafeteria Bill, and "had talked to various school board members and to many other people."
Efforts to reach Andrews for comment were unsuccessful by press time; Andrews was in Montgomery for the opening of the Alabama legislative session.
Fournier and Mitcell abstained in the vote for settling with Magann. In many of the 3-2 votes during Magann's termination hearing, Fournier and Mitchell also casted the minority votes. Fournier said she abstained because she "felt Magann should have gone back to work and earn his way. I know our schools can't afford it, but I don't want to be a party to continue the hearing and waste taxpayers money. I don't want to stand in the way of settlement."
Mitchell said there were two reasons why he abstaned. "One, the board hasn't proven its case, so the superintendent was still under contract and he should earn his salary," said Mitchell. "Two, if I had voted yes or no, it meant that I am saying there is a need to settle. The board hasn't proven its case."
Both Fournier and Mitchell said there was no validity to the 43 charges. When asked if they learned anything from the hearing, Fournier said: "There were a few surprises, and they reinforce my view that meetings had taken place without me. A legislator had testified meetings had taken place with consultants in a restaurant about removal of people. This board member had no knowledge."
"I learned that reasons do not work with people who have a predisposition to do whatever they want because they have the power," said Mitchell. "The three board members decided to terminate the superintendent, so they use the power of the school board, the financial and human resources of the board, to try to get rid of Magann. Then they decide to settle, again they use the resources of the school system to pay for the settlement. I guess in all likelihood in the future, they will continue to use the majority vote and the power to the detriment of the schools."
Fournier said she isn't sure if the school board can work together again after the divisive move to terminate Magann. "Trust among the commissioners has been eroded, and continues to be eroding," said Fournier. "The way a board works is to find compromise on what's best for the chldren. During the hearing, there was no mention of the needs of our children when our public officials testified, but only about emotions and subjective feelings."
Fournier said she also does not feel the school board can ever regain the public's trust. "I don't think this school system can do it. The public must speak out to let the school board know what it should be, how to act in a professional manner," said Fourier. "Otherwise, silence gives consent."
Mitchell said the next big challenge facing him as a school commissioner is in finding a replacement for the ousted superintendent. "We need a superintendent for all the children, not just maintaining the status quo. We need a professional," said Mitchell. "Magann is such a professional. There is not a single person in Barton Academy who has the qualities to lead the Mobile County school system, to provide information to the school board so it can make sound decisions, and to help the board reach consensus."
-- February 9, 1993