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January 25, 1994

A Case Illustration of Community Decision Making:

The Hiring and Firing of a Public School Superintendent, Mobile Alabama, 1991-1993
--Part 1 of 3

by Paul R. Cherney

[Editor's Note: Last year, while The Harbinger was publishing former school superintendent Dr. Doug Magann's essays on the Mobile County Public School System, we became aware that Paul R. Cherney, coordinator of Mobile United Civic Index Project, was writing an analysis on decision-making in Mobile using the hiring and subsequent firing of Magann as a case study.

The Civic Index Project was initiated by Mobile United in 1989 with the objective to: "Determine how decisions are made, how citizens interact with one another and with government; and how problems in the community are confronted...The fundamental issue is the recognition that needs in the community are acknowledged, confronted and resolved in ways that involve citizens and build consensus."

The Harbinger contacted Mr. Cherney to express an interest to print the report when it is completed, so our readers can obtain another perspective on the firing of Dr. Magann. The goal is to allow us to become more informed about Mobile, especially in regards to how decisions affecting our community are made.

Except minor modifications to change the format of the report for newspaper publication, the entire report will be published in a 3-part series beginning with this issue.]

Introduction

The Mobile County Public Schools have had six superintendents in the past twenty years. Five took early retirement or were terminated. Controversy surrounds the recent appointment of the sixth.

The Mobile County Board of School Commissioners was established in 1826, in the forefront of the public school movement of the United States. For a hundred years the public schools of Mobile were among the best. For the past several decades they have been in turmoil.

The same crisis has extended across the state and throughout the nation. The experience that Mobile has been going through "to find the right superintendent" is shared by other U.S. communities. The average tenure now for a school superintendent in a large school system such as Mobile's is two years.

The 1991-1993 hiring and firing of the Mobile schools superintedent was more turbulent than any previously. It brought to the surface problems that for years have remained unrecognized and unresolved.

For that reason, it has been selected for a case illustration that may illuminate why the public schools in this community have remained so long in crisis. Obviously, the problems extend far beyond the performance of one superintendent. What has gone wrong? A review of community decision making in this one case may provide clues, in the larger context, for putting things right.

The specific circumstances of this superintendent's hiring, the issues that came to the fore, how they were dealt with, and his termination have been carefully researched. The findings have been circulated to over forty knowledgable people. About half responded with additions and corrections. During the period May-December 1993 this case illustration had gone through several revisions.

While it is difficult to achieve a consensus on the complex issues and questions that arise from this one case, every effort has been made to do so, with detachment and objectivity.

The case is still open for corrections and additions.

Paul R. Cherney
Coordinator, Civic Index Project
Mobile United
January 1, 1994

I. The Controlling Power of Decisions Made in the Distant Past

"Ideology, a systematic body of beliefs about the structure and working of society that includes a program of practical politics based on a comprehensive theory of human nature and requiring a protracted social struggle to enact."

The New Encyclopaedia Brittannica

In 1826, when the Mobile County Board of School Commissioners was formed, this community was in the vanguard of the public school movement of America. Known as the "Athens of the South," Mobile was open to the world, receptive to immigrants from Europe and the North, responsive to the concept projected in the Declaration of Independence that "All men are created equal." There was a large free black population, "who not only existed but prospered." They maintained their own schools, assisted by the Mobile County Board of School Commissioners. These schools included blacks in slavery [Mobile, The Life and Times of a Great Southern City by Melton McLaurin and Michael Thomason, 1981.]

In contrast, there was often expressed disdain for education among the plantation families, whose influence became increasingly dominant after Alabama's admission to the Union in 1819. "They put their trust in rearing, riding, and riches, more than in reading, writing and arithmetic." [Poor But Proud, Alabama's Poor Whites by Wayne Flynt, 1989.]

One of the first acts of the Alabama Department of Education, when established in 1854, was to abolish public schooling for blacks and prohibit the education of slaves. Wherever the ideology of White Supremacy prevails, quality education continues to be withheld from black children.

One hundred years after public policy in Alabama was to deny education to blacks, a descendent of slaves won the historic 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision to end racial segregation in all public schools of the nation. The ideology of Black Civic Rights was forged by many black leaders in the long battle to defeat White Supremacy.

The public schools of Alabama remain a battlefield. When the U.S. Supreme Court suppressed the ideology of White Supremacy, it went underground and came to the fore in public support for symbols of reverence for the Confederacy, such as flying the Battle Flag over the Alabama State Capitol. But more damaging to the progress of Alabama, it came to the fore to block efforts to build tax- supported quality education for all children.

II. Today's Many Decision Makers

The public schools comprise the largest business in the Mobile community with 100,000 "customers," 6,700 staff, and a monthly payroll of $12 million. The school system operates the largest prepared food service in the community, a transportation system larger than the Mobile Transit Authority, and land management of 23,000 acres, including 94 school campuses.

To administer this large and complex business, the CEO has limited authority. The job of the superintendent has been reduced to preparing the budget, recommending policies to the Board, and "managing the day-to-day operations."

The School Board has full powers to manage the system except the raising of tax funds. However, it is generally considered to be an arm of the Alabama Legislature from which it receives its authority. Mobile's public schools still retain a special status under the Alabama State Constitution of 1901. The only advantage now is to protect Mobile School lands from being taken over by the state.

The State Legislature has the authority but falls short on responsibility. In Alabama, education has long been classified as a "non-essential function of State government."

The Federal judiciary has made rulings with regard to religion that have cut the heart out of the value system that marked the public schools of America from their inception. Other rulings have put the main burden upon the schools to resolve the nation's racial problems. The Congress and the Federal bureaucracy have intervened in ways to undermind local initiatives. Federal-government mandates micro-manage school administration down to the assignment and utilization of room space.

Decisions about public schools flow, also, from the private sector -- the business leadership, the media, the legal profession, the teachers union and, to a lessor extent, parents, students and the general public.

III. Barton Academy - Culprit or Scapegoat?

The public perception dominant in the spring of 1991 was that the Mobile public schools were "the pits" and it was all the fault of the central administration housed in the historic building known as Barton Academy.

Members of the Mobile Delegation to the Alabama State Legislature furthered this image. After the "proration ax fell, chopping $7 million from the 1990-91 budget of the Mobile public schools...with the system standing to lose another $8 million in 1991-92," some legislators threatened "even more drastic action if Barton Academy doesn't come to grips with its problems and change perceptions."

The school board president responded: "We have a lot of laws that hold our hands. These drastically limit what we can do."

The Mobile Register commented in an editorial: "it is ironic that state legislators...in declaring war on Barton Academy are themselves largely to blame for the crisis in our schools."

Obscured in the debate was the progress made by the school system since a federal court ordered racial integration in 1969. First it was to absorb the shock of combining two school systems that had remained separate and unequal for over a 100 years. School staff coped with the many problems of classroom disorder, discipline, hostile and uncooperative parents, absenteeism and school drop out.

Teachers carried on under these conditions to try to make progress in building quality instruction in the classroom. Other stresses included charges of incompetency leveled at teachers and administrators.

Some teachers, both black and white, were at a disadvantage when suddenly integrated and needed catch-up help. Instead, they became the brunt of adversarial debate between State legislators and the teachers' union on "minimum competency testing." Many teachers saw the drive for testing to be thinly disguised racism. For nine years a powerful member of the school board conducted a campaign to ferret out "incompetent teachers," until he went to prison for corruption in 1986.

In 1974, Mobile's financial support for schools was one of the highest among Alabama's communities. Ten years later it was among the lowest, reflecting the damage caused by the turmoil of this period.

Two evaluations of the Mobile public schools were made in 1983 and in 1986 by different teams of knowledgable professionals from outside the community.

Among the 1983 findings: while achievement tests of black students were consistently lower in all grades than those of white students, "in the early years their scores were near or above the normative mean." Decline began in middle school and continued in high school.

One implemented recommendation from this study -- an in-service training program to re-educate the staff at all levels was producing results, amply confirmed by parents and others interested enough to observe in classrooms.

Several fully integrated schools, elementary and middle schools, were rated outstanding in 1983, which lead to the recommendation that "The district undertake a comprehensive study of the learning environment in these schools" and extend these elements of success throughout the system. Unfortunately, these recommendations, for lack of funding, were never implemented.

The 1986 study came after the witch hunt by the powerful school board member (and much damage to school properties in 1979 by Hurricane Frederic). The key observation: "The Mobile County School System has been the victim of circumstances caused by personality conflicts, philosophical differences and natural disasters. These have led to negative attitudes in the community and to deficit financing."

While there had not been advances in overall test scores during the prior decade, several parts of the system had emerged as outstanding: five magnet schools had come on line since 1988, one creative innercity school with parent outreach, test scores in five high schools were above the national average.

From 1971 to 1991 the number of disadvantaged children increased from one- third to almost half the student enrollment. Most of these students lived in single parent, female-headed households.

The reality in 1991 was that the school system presented a mix of both "the pits" and quality education. Teachers were caught between a rising tide of children from homes lacking in learning stimulus on the one hand, rigid and destructive financial controls on the other.

Despite many efforts to bring these facts to light, legislators continued to project a negative image of school management and classroom instruction.

The anger of the general public to being forced, through their children, to face up to the racial divisions of society and at the same time see the moral values of religion taken out of the classroom, was intense. The most visible places to direct their anger were at Barton Academy and in the voting booth.

A matter of great frustration among teachers, shared with parents, was the paper work that took one-third of a teacher's time away from classroom instruction. Although this was the consequence of state-federal control of 80 percent of school funding, Barton Academy was blamed.

To the average citizen, the most visible evidence of administrative incompetence were the conditions of most of the 92 schools with leaky roofs, crumbling walls, lack of amenities even down to toilet paper, along with crowded classrooms and continuing problems of discipline. Unaware that the sources of much of the dilemma were in the controls exercised by the federal courts and the state legislature, the total fault was laid upon Barton Academy.

Civic pride was affronted by nation-wide publicity about Alabama being at the bottom in spending to educate its children, and Mobile at the bottom in Alabama. The image this projected to the world made it impossible to bring quality industry to Mobile. Again, Barton Academy was seen as the "burr under the saddle."

The problems within central administration were seen by community leaders largely in terms of personalities, rigid and incompetent people whose tenure protected them from being replaced. Largely ignored was the structural problem: for several decades the system had not permitted any CEO to be a strong and unifying authority.

Few community leaders recognized the importance to this large and complex organization of a modernized communication system.

IV. Comparison Of The Mobile System With Public Schools Nationwide

Reports about the problems dogging school systems throughout the United States indicated that Mobile's schools might be doing better than many.

The 1991 report of the National Assessment of Education Progress -- a longitudinal study covering two decades of national sampling -- stated that children in public schools of the nation were not doing much better than in 1971. The only positive indication was that some of the ground lost in the 1970's was regained in the 1980's. There was little improvement in basic reading skills.

From their reading children could get the gist of material but they did not read analytically or frequently. Most high school seniors read 10 pages or fewer a day, at home and at school combined. They wrote and spoke poorly. Half of them could not handle even moderately challenging math problems. Their memory for the events that had shaped American history was fair, but they did not understand the significance and connections of those events.

"It scares me what the report shows about our kids' work habits," commented one member of the National Assessment Board, according to the Washington Post in January, 1991. "Seventy-one percent of our children do one hour or less of homework each day. It takes time and hard work to learn. They are not motivated to invest in either." "Compared with some other countries our children fall behind each year," commented another. "Why? Because our schools promote little active learning, reading, writing, science experiments, presentations in class. Our teachers are lecturing -- teaching the way they were taught."

The Hiring and the Firing

Phase I. A Unified Board Recruits A Superintendent: "The Best Available"

In November 1990 two new members were elected to the Mobile County Board of School Commissioners. Both were highly trained professional educators; one was on a college faculty, the other was a seasoned teacher and administrator recently retired from the Mobile County public schools. Both were black.

They joined three well-regarded white community leaders, including two who were parents of children attending the public schools, and a banker. One of the parents was board president.

The unanimous decision of this Board, early in 1991, was to recruit the most capable and outstanding school superintendent available anywhere in the nation.

A nation-wide search produced 72 applicants representing 32 states. Eight candidates became finalists. They were interviewed in public meetings. A selection was made from the top three candidates. Before that happened, two withdrew. "School board members were privately saying Magann was their choice days before."

The new superintendent had been recognized by a national panel as one of the top 100 executive educators in the United States, in 1987 and again in 1990. In announcing his appointment the school board president commented "Until we find out where the legislature is going to land on the budget, we are sitting in a state of limbo."

Reassuring words on this score came from community leaders back where the new superintendent had previously administered a school system: "He'll help pull you out of your fiscal problem, I don't doubt that for a moment. But your school board will have to determine who's boss." "He worked harmoniously with the Board for several years, survived a few more, staying ten altogether -- a duration that qualified him as our system's long-term superintendent." "He is very intelligent, very capable, scrupulously honest -- even his enemies agree on that." "He is blunt, abrassive and arrogant. Those who admire him -- and they are the majority, say he has the courage to be straightforward, to tell it like it is."

A news reporter, after talking to many knowledgable people, summed it up: "Mobile's rough-and-tumble game of political fastball won't be anything new...or...for that matter, intimidating to the new superintendent. He will sting a few people as he battles for kids. But he has the reputation of always landing on his feet."

Phase Two: The "Miracle Man" and "The Vision"

Upon being sworn in on August 1, 1991, the new superintendent was hailed as the "Miracle Man" who would "fix a problem-ridden educational system," and he responded by telling the people they would "see changes in 30 days."

With the aid of two outside consultants, one a professional educator with experience in funding and budgeting and the other in technology and systems, a concise diagnosis was prepared. The superintendent then presented his vision to the community of what Mobile's schools could be and the first steps in that direction.

The Diagnosis

1. The school system is heavily in debt: "You can't keep going to the bank and borrowing money." Much of the financial problem is beyond the control of the system -- in the economy, the way taxes are levied by the state, state government rules and regulations, and the way property is assessed.

2. There is a leadership void at Barton Academy. Administrators "are not all pulling in the same direction...They don't see what they should be pulling in the same direction for...Some are trying to think in the long-term, others are making decisions based on what they think needs to be done at the time." There is no management plan in place to coordinate central administration.

3. Large segments of the school system are operating 20 years behind the times. There is urgent need to introduce 21st century technology into the communication system linking the 92 schools and central administration and, just as important, use the new technology in the classroom.

4. With expenditures per pupil $1,800 a year below the average for states in the Southeast U.S., Mobile's schools are "woefully under funded" to accomplish necessary reforms.

5. "The biggest handicap" is that Mobile's schools are "trapped within a state-wide system that urgently needs reform."

6. All of this has produced a "credibility gap with the public."

7. The notable bright spot is that, inspite of "being beat on and openly criticized day in and day out, there is a pretty sound instruction program in our schools...the direct result of having teachers who are dedicated and hardworking."

The Vision

"The most important thing we must do is to get everybody working together...looking beyond the present crisis...decentralize administration... eliminate lock-step management...free up the classroom teacher, build up esprit- de-corps, encourage creativity and initiative...move from a static to a dynamic school environment...focus upon the development of human resources..produce the synergism that comes from management, teachers, parents and community...all working together."

First Steps Toward Realizing the Vision

1. Recognize that the Public Schools are a big business, the largest in Mobile County. To be operated efficiently and effectively, sound administrative practices must prevail. This means "the legislative delegation cannot operate as a super-school board...the school board cannot act as a personnel department." There must be a clear division between the board's job of making policies and the administrator's responsibility to carry them out. "If a private business had to operate under the rules and regulations of the school systems of Alabama, it would be bankrupt in 30 days!"

2. Eliminate tenure. Alabama law provides that all school personnel get tenure after 3 years of employment. Personnel should be retrained and/or promoted on the basis of performance. "The issue of teacher tenure is an unwinnable political war in 1991, but we have got to get away from managers having tenure."

3. Purchase and implement a modern computer system to decentralize the accounting and financial management systems, relieve the burden of paperwork on the classroom teacher, and implement new and creative ways of classroom instruction.

4. Inventory the conditions of 94 buildings, comprising 5,528,440 square feet. Approximately 60 percent of this space is in structures built before 1945 when building codes had not yet been adopted. Many buildings are in flagrant violation. The lag in school construction over the years has resulted in 437 temporary classrooms, that cause the overburdening of cafeteria, library, toilet and other facilities.

5. Open up communications between the public, government officials and the school system. "This openness has not occured in a long time. Let's open up this whole situation and let everybody have a look at it."

The Superintendent estimated that it would take $46 million in local operating funds to bring the Mobile schools up to the level of funding of other metropolitan areas of the State.

As a minimum financial base on which to build reforms, the superintendent submitted his first budget: $154.4 million general fund. (The total annual budget at this time was $220 million. The difference between that and the $154.4 general fund may be accounted for by federal funds, all of which are ear-marked for specified purposes.) "What we have is a financial hemorrhage. This budget does not fix the hemorrhage...just puts on a tourniquet. Still remaining is a $12 million bank loan, on which the schools are paying each year $1.3 million in interest. The schools were forced into the loan because of the $9 million shortfall from the State in 1990-91, plus a $4 million loan carried over from the State's shortfall in 1989-90, plus $2 million for salary adjustments due to teachers, that had been left out of the budget the previous year."

In an editorial, the Mobile Register commented "The moral here is that we can either start paying now or else pay more later."

Initiating The Momentum

Moving quickly in several directions to fulfill his promises of progress within 30 days, the new superintendent acted upon issues identified in his diagnosis.

He proposed to the administrators at Barton Academy "a new way of looking at administration...with common sense and not putting appearance before substance...Avoid the collision between principles and politics...Rules and regulations exist to enhance the teaching mission...never to impede or handicap it...never to trample upon people. We in central administration are here to help teachers...and the bottom line is the student and his family."

In a capital outlay workshop for the school commissioners, he outlined a plan to address the construction needs of the system, and proposed a $400-500 million bond issue. In initiating this line of thinking, he recognized that it is the community that will ultimately decide but asked the school board members to tell him if they didn't want him to move in this direction. "They did not say stop," reported the Mobile Register.

In an editorial the next day, the Mobile Register commented, "We are going to have to rely on a great deal more political courage than was demonstrated in the past...to get our public schools on the road to excellence. Typically, even the school board members were mute...when asked if they wanted to move in the direction of the ambitious plans outlined...The new superintendent will need a great deal more backing than that."

It was not only the school board that was hestitant. The directness in facing core issues -- legislative micromanagement of local school operations, school employees tenure, and the proposed immediate rise in local operating funds of $46 million as well as a bond issue for school construction -- were causing uneasiness among sectors of community leadership. Messages were beginning to come down through the community grape vine: "He's going too fast!"

Uneasiness was further heightened by the superintendent's challenge issued directly to the citizens of Mobile to act upon the conditions of school facilities: "Let's get outraged. It is disgraceful. We ought to be ashamed. Let's do something about leaking roofs, broken toilets, outdated science laboratories, broken floor tiles..."

During October and early November, 1991, the superintendent made presentations to 11 schools, in an effort sponsored by school reform Mobile 2000. The plan to "take the show on the road" in a series of public meetings at various schools, using illustrated presentations, hardly got off the ground. It was stopped by the "wrecking ball" of state budget proration which came crashing down for a second time in one year upon Mobile's schools.


Paul R. Cherney is retired as planning director of United Way and was the first staff coordinator of Leadership Mobile (1973-1981).

(Part Two of the Series)

-- January 25, 1994


The Harbinger is a biweekly newspaper published through the effort of The Harbinger, which consists of area faculty, staff and students, and members of the Mobile community. The Harbinger is a non-profit education foundation. The views expressed here are the responsibility of The Harbinger. Contributions to The Harbinger are tax exempt to the full extent of the law and create no liability for the contributor.