February 9, 1993
by Edmund Tsang
Dr. Douglas Magann was interviewed on February 1, the day he "resigned" as school superintendent of the Mobile County School System. As part of the settlement to end termination proceedings against Magann, he acccepted the terms of resignation.
HARBINGER: You said in a statement after the settlement was announced that "As the hearing progressed, I think all parties realized the nature of the testimony that was going to be brought forth by our witnesses and they did not want the testimony to become public. This prompted settlement talks." Could you tell us who these witnesses are and what are some of the questions that you were planning to ask them?
MAGANN: We had 18 more witnesses to call, including some staff of the school system. Ken Lembert is the treasurer of the school system and he was next one up. Mr. Lembert was prepared to testify that Mrs. Andrews knew all of the background information and the details with regards to consultants Thomas McConnell and James Bennett as early as late March and again in early April, but she chose to refuse to believe Lembert, and had intimated that Lembert was holding back information. That sort of came out in McFadden's testimony; we didn't know she had called McFadden during summer. But when Richard Dukes produced the same information that she had for the whole period, then the implication is that she knew better the whole way and she still brought that charge. I took that an an attempt of character assassination.
There was a rumor circulating back in late March and early April that the consultants were paid well over $100,000, which is not true. Mrs. Hazel Fournier was prepared to testify to that, that she had been told that. That whole issue, as I look back on it, was really a non-issue that was capitalized on by some of those folks who do not want to provide any fund for the school system. And they jumped on it and fanned it way out of proportion. What McConnell and Bennett were trying to do was to help us put in place a human system. Technology aside, you need professionals who know how to carry out their tasks. They were supposed to show them here's how you keep the books, here's how personnel works with finance, here's how special records ought to be kept. McConnell and Bennett found that the human system did not exist, and some staff are going to testify to that. That personnel division is operating kind of like a separate thing over there with no connection to finance, with little or no connection to the instructional division. The personnel system is really in bad shape. There are a number of things that go on in that system that are just "bush league," ought not to be happening in this day and age. There are occasionally cases of such bad judgements that you just wonder how in the world anybody could have done that. Those kinds of things are going to come out, which I think would have painted the picture just how bad certain aspects of things really are.
HARBINGER: Who else are you going to call as a witness?
MAGANN: [Paul] Sousa was going to be called as a witness, specifically to ask him about the charge dealing with the Christmas Party, since Sousa was the one who ran the Christmas party and took care of everything. But the charges were directed at me! (laughs) Several legislators were to be called, basically just to ask them if they share the opinions of Taylor Harper, Steve Windom and Ann Bedsole, and also about the Accountability Bill, because several legislators said they have some reservations about the bill, just as I had. We were going to call Mr. Bronson of the Mobile Press-Register. We want to ask him where he got his information, 'cause he sure didn't get the information from me or any of my representatives; where he got the information that led to the barrage of editorials.
Richard Dorman was going to be called. Dorman was the individual who contacted Mrs. Fournier that she alluded to several times. The question to Dorman is going to be: How did you knew about this before the two other board members did? What was his role in it? We were attempting to call the five board members. We fully expect three of them will attempt to decline the opportunity to testify.
HARBINGER: What kind of questions were you going to ask Mrs. Fournier?
MAGANN: Certainly about Dorman and how he's involved. About experiences that she personally had had with Mrs. Andrews over the last six and seven months, where Mrs. Andrews had misled her, and in some cases outright fabrications. The charges that had to do with the audit, for instance. The audit that was referred to was an audit of the school years 1987 to 1991, before I came here. The audit report hasn't even been released and they have not even turned over all the findings to the school personnel. Mrs. Andrews brought that up actually in my evaluation and I had no idea what she was talking about. She used the term, "the auditor was going to bring 44 charges against the school system. I said, "What are you talking about?" First of all, auditors do not use terminology like the term "charges." I asked her, "Are you sure those are the words that have been used?" And she said, "Absolutely. And the auditor wants to meet with each of the board members in USA next week, one at a time." And I said, "The auditor contacted you?", and made absoultely sure that's what she said. That was Thursday. On Friday Mrs. Fournier called the State's Examiner's Office, and she got an entirely different story. One, nobody said anything about charges. Two, Andrews called him instead of he called her."
HARBINGER: Mrs. Fournier has told us about that. [see "Now It Can Be Told" Vol. XI, No. 2, Oct. 1992.]
MAGANN: Well, then you know what I'm talking about. That, I think, is going to come out in the testimony. Mrs. Fournier had been told by Andrews back in April about McConnell and Bennett had been paid well over $100,000. That wasn't anywhere near the reality.
HARBINGER: In another part of the statement you said, "The board indicated at the time I was hired, that it wanted the system improved and I tried to achieve that goal. The majority of the board, encouraged by various and powerful forces in the community, apparently redefined the objective to 'fix it, but don't make any changes,' which is of course impossible." Could you explain what you mean by that?
MAGANN: The organization and the way it operates has such fundamental flaws in it. I'm talking about the record keeping, the coordination between the different divisions. You have to make some pretty serious changes to get to where the pieces fit, and get them working together. That meant in some cases reassignment of responsibilities. It meant the technology piece so that they can at least communicate with each other and have accurate information. It meant in some cases changing some people out. One example: we tried all year long to employ a certified public accountant to help Ratcliff [Charles Ratcliff, assistant superintendent for business affairs]. We tried on several occasions to find somebody who has experience with risk management to help us, as we were sued three, four times for stupid things that should never have occured. All of those require some money. When you start talking about putting the technology in or rearranging some people and changing the roles that they handle and that sort of thing, that flew straight in the face of the way the teacher union is set up. And when you start talking about money, that flew in the face of the people who don't want to provide any more money. Not just the legislators, but the people who stand behind the legislators, or behind some legislators because I don't want to paint a broad brush of the legislators. There are some powerful interests. A number of them are affiliated with the Chamber of Commerce; not every Chamber member but a great number of them. A few affiliated with the IDB (Industrial Development Board), which you have been writing about. They saw the changes that are beginning to occur and decided that would no longer do. One of the changes that we were desparately trying to do is to move the board meetings to 7 o'clock at night and take it out to the community so people can understand what's going on. And that's by design and not by accident that meetings are held at 10 o'clock in the morning in that tiny little room. We met with resistance with that. Mrs. Andrews was initially in favor of doing that, but she shifted gear and the issue was dead.
HARBINGER: The settlement involved Gene Tysowsky and Barbara Shaw. How and why in the world are they dragged into this?
MAGANN: I think they got dragged into this by association and promixity. On October the 5th, right after the Board acted on me, later that afternoon Gene and Barbara went to lunch. When they returned from lunch they found two envelopes on their chairs in which Sousa had re-assigned both of them. Gene initially was re-assigned to transportation and Barbara to maintenance. No one would talk with them that afternoon and wish they would just disappear, go away. Both of those individuals are non-tenured, which means under the rules in Alabama, they are subject to dismissal with 15 days' notice, period. No contest, no reason needs be given. When Sousa took that action on the 5th, it became clear to me that both of their livelihoods were in jeopardy simply because they were associated with me. I believe it then and I believe it now. So when the settlement talks began, I felt an obligation to them, to protect them so that they could have a reasonable amount of time to seek employment opportunities.
HARBINGER: Let me ask you about the tax bill to fund education. It came out during the testimony at your temination hearing that the board had originally supported your proposal in the beginning of 1992 for a straight 15.5 mills increase in property tax to fund the school system, but that the board changed its mind after Spring to support the cafeteria bill sponsored by the Mobile legislative delegation. Now, Dr. Semoon Change of USA said, after analyzing the results of last September's vote, that Mobile voters would support a straight 15 mill increase to fund the schools. My question is: In last Sunday's column by Bill Sellers of the Mobile Press, he said you wanted a "larger tax increase." Are there some proposals that were not reported and that the public doesn't know about?
MAGANN: I don't think Bill Sellers knows what he's talking about. He hadn't in most of his columns, and you can quote me on that. Bill Sellers had never, in my knowledge, talked to me about the Cafeteria Bill. And on the face of it, how can anybody argue that 15 mills is more than 29 mills? [If all nine parts of the Cafeteria were passed, it would raise property tax by 29 mills.]
HARBINGER: I thought you might have made other proposals that are not reported to the public.
MAGANN: That bill was probably the biggest piece of legislative disaster that I'd ever witnessed. I don't think the Cafeteria Bill was ever intended to pass, and I think there are some members of the Mobile legislative delegation who might be willing to say that, that the bill was never designed to be passed. It was put up as a red herring, a smoke screen, to satisfy the pressure group. It [the bill] was nonsense to anyone who had read the bill. It was totally unsaleable to the public. There were such gaping holes in it that, when people ask legitimate questions such as "Okay, if I support this bill, when is work going to be done on the school that my child attends?', there was no way to answer that question. If only parts of the bill passed and if someone from Semmes were to raise a question, "If item 2 passes, what works are going to be done in Semmes Elementary School and when?" There's no answer to that. That's the reason it failed, because it can't answer the obvious questions. It was set up so that it couldn't answer the obvious questions. If we talk about the 15- mill proposal, bonded for 20 years to raise the $350 million that we estimate it would raise, you could have set up a plan and I could say, "Your school is in Phase II and it will begin in 1995 and finish in 1997." I think had we been able to package it that way, the public would have supported the bill.
HARBINGER: A question on the IDB. You told Bill Patterson that when you were looking into the sums-in-lieu, the school system was awaiting bank loans to avoid bankruptcy. You said someone came to you and said if the school system pursues the sums-in-lieu, the loan might not go through. When Bill asked you who came to speak to you about that, you said, "some attorneys." Who are they?
MAGANN: I don't remember. You have David Wright, who's on the IDB and of course he is the president of one of the four major banks. N.Q. Adams was on or he's just stepped off it, and I think Frank Schmidt was either on it or going to be on it. The way the message was conveyed, as I recall it, was that we are sort of in a dependency position with the banking syndicate right now. A number of the folks who are going to be making the decision are also involved with the IDB. At that same time Taylor Harper was jumping up and down on the IDB issue and Taylor made a number of rash statements and accusations. Taylor really came out with a frontal assault on the banks. I think the message that people were trying to give me was: One, distance yourself from Taylor Harper, don't go over there in that camp with him, and Two, let's not push that IDB thing while the rest of this is going on. I do know Freda [Freda Roberts, Mobile County Revenue Commissioner] was apparently given the same instruction at about the same time to leave it alone. You know as well as I do that's how things work. It's much more subtle. Now I don't remember if there were lawyers involved. I don't remember who I might be referring to when I said that to Bill Patterson.
HARBINGER: Everyone has 20-20 hindsight. Would you have changed the approach if you were given another try?
MAGANN: I asked myself that question a bunch of times. We all do things different on hindsight. However, on the major issues I don't think I would. I think sometimes you get into a position where you just got to do the things that are right and pay the consequences for them. The system was bad and remains screwed up, and there are some changes that need to be made. I did not see then and do not see now how the system can be fixed unless those changes are made. And it's an attempt to make those changes that causes this. If you say, well, what would you have done differently? The way it was portrayed in the Mobile Press-Register, was that I attacked the legislators. In fact, that was not what happened. The people who were there know better. What happened in those meetings was that I was attacked and the school system was attacked with a bunch of unsubstantiated charges, fantasies that people would circulate. It got to the point where it's kind of like the Big Lie. You know, if you say it enough times and print it enough times, then pretty soon you have got three hundred and fifty thousand people believing that's they way it is. I don't know what else you could have done differently with that.
HARBINGER: Any word of advice to the public or the replacement on how to get the job done?
MAGANN: I think the public needs to take charge of the school system and its elected officials. The first thing is to demand that the board meetings occur at a time when people can be there and in places that people can get to. The school system was not being run for the convenience of the board members or the Mobile Press-Register. They need to pay attention to the largest institution, the largest spender of tax dollars in the community. The school system is dying of apathy. People don't know or don't care. They have to demand that those meetings be moved to another time and pay attention to it. For instance,those contracts with cable franchise, federal laws require several channels for public service, and in many communities those channels broadcast live meetings, not just school board meetings, but also county commission meetings and city council meetings. That wouldn't be a bad way to clue the public in about what goes on. That could be done easily without major cost to anyone. Just beam it out there and people can sit in their living-room at 7 o'clock at night and if they want to, can watch it. We tried to explore that possibility, but without a lot of luck.
HARBINGER: Can sums-in-lieu owed legally to the school system be collected?
MAGANN: I don't know. I don't think anybody had ever tried. Freda [Roberts] estimates it's about $6.5 million a year in school revenues that has been lost. I'm of the opinion, when those companies receive the exposure; just tell the facts, that such and such company is dodging half a million dollar a year. There would be inclination on the part of the company to do it, from a public relations standpoint if nothing else. There are a lot of people who don't want that list public even though it's supposed to be public. You have got that list public...
HARBINGER: There were obstacles to be overcome...
MAGANN: Freda got printouts, and I have got copies of it. It's incredible the way this is handled. There aren't any records, or records are kept under lock and key in the Chamber of Commerce. You have got this little group of people here who are giving away the county, and nobody sees it happen, and you don't know about it.
-- February 9, 1993