The Harbinger Home Page
Noted Articles
Hiring and Firing
February 8, 1994

A Case Illustration of Community Decision Making:

The Hiring and Firing of a Public School Superintendent, Mobile Alabama, 1991-1993
--Part 2 of 3

by Paul R. Cherney

[Editor's note: This is the second part of a series which is based on a report using the hiring and firing of former school superintendent Dr. Doug Magann as a case study to look at decison making in Mobile. The series is taken from a report prepared by Paul R. Cherney as part of Mobile United Civic Index Project

III. The "Wrecking Ball" of Proration

The vision of August was shattered in October by what some perceived as the wrecking ball of proration. In its repeated destructiveness, proration was seen by others as a series of cannonades by the State of Alabama in its continuing war against the public schools of Mobile. It was seen, also, by many to be a war with racial overtones. A 1989 study by the University of South Alabama Department of Sociology & Anthropology indicated that 60 percent of whites in Mobile retain traditional racist attitudes. It is a fair assumption that the rate is higher in other parts of the State.

"Already reeling from an $8 million cut in last year's funding announced by the governor toward the end of the last school year, it is cut $7.2 million out of a few month's expenditures...Then came the kicker -- the banks notified the school system they wouldn't loan more money unless there was a new source of revenue to assure the loan would be paid," reported Mobile Register in fall, 1991.

Who was responsible for the destruction? No one could be found who actually had pointed the guns and lit the fuse. The State Superintendent of Education said it wasn't just Mobile. Many other Alabama communities also were under the gun. "Schools may have to closer earlier in the year," he said, "they will have to start laying off faculty...If school doors don't open, the football team doesn't kick off."

The Governor indignantly denied he had anything to do with it. It was the Alabama Constitution. He had no choice. However, he downplayed the severity of the problem, according to the Mobile Register. "He plans to appoint accountants to examine the financial conditions of school systems."

Legislators said that proration was something over which they had no control. "The state administrative offices changed the budget projects. They have to declare prorations based on the changed budget projections."

The Speaker of the House said "Local governments should take action. Maybe if they shut those schools down a little bit, it would help boost taxpayer support for increased school revenue at the local level...Let the mama's and papa's march on City Hall."

The Origin of Proration

The Alabama Constitution of 1901, as did previous Constitutions, limits the power of local school districts to levy taxes. That power rests with the State Legislature.

In 1932 and 1933 the Alabama Legislature amended the Constitution to require a balanced budget and classified education as a "non-essential function of state government." This has produced periodic cut backs when revenues fall below expectations. Declared "essential" and not subject to proration are operations of the governor's office, compensation for legislators, judges, and teachers.

In 1956, to circumvent the Federal law requiring racial integration of public schools, the Alabama Legislature amended the Constitution to remove any obligation by the State to establish public schools or equalize educational opportunity. Known as Amendment III, it was struck down in its entirety by the ruling of Judge Gene Reese, Circuit Court of Montgomery, in 1991.

The Legislature has enacted no new tax for schools since 1971, relying entirely upon the growth in receipts from income tax and sales tax. The "Lid Bill," enacted in 1978, further restricts any recourse to property tax.

Among the many ill effects of proration and unstable funding is the earmarking of taxes to protect selected programs from the budget cuts. Over 80 percent of revenues are restricted in this way, as compared to less than 30 percent in any other state. When proration strikes, only school employees with tenure have job protection. This has resulted in Alabama having rigid tenure laws that extend job protection far beyond any university and most other states.

None have suffered more from the actions of the Alabama Legislature over the decades than children. Of the actual expended by Alabama for education, the K-12 education's share has fallen from 83.07 percent in 1940 to 57.18 percent in 1990-1991. No segment of the education system is more vulnerable to the shock of prorated state revenues than elementary and secondary education -- nor more limited in power to raise local revenues.

Fall Out From The October 1991 Proration

While local governments have limited means to raise revenue, both the County Commission and the Mayor of Mobile responded with an offer to jointly help with the short term problem, pay off the portion of the $15 million schools debt that has accumulated in the current year -- "if the Legislators will take leadership and put into place a long-term solution."

An expert on business management at the University of South Alabama, meeting with members of the Mobile delegation to the Legislature, laid out some specific suggestions for both short-term and long-term solutions.

There were many other meetings between legislators and community leaders. A month later, "the pot was still simmering," according to the Mobile Register, and "elected officials were trying to find a way to salvage the school system while at the same time saving their political careers."

Legislators were responding to a constituency who put the blame on Barton Academy, commented one observer, because "many resent an education system that was forcibly desegregated...This argument removes our personal responsibility for both electing the right people and funding our system correctly...We have been victimized by the conditions of our public schools."

"We've got a bum rap," one legislator reacted. "I don't think any of us are getting the proper credit for how hard we are working to find a solution." Actually, a five-member ad hoc committee of the House had been working since July 1991 to bring additional money to Mobile's school system. Eventually the effect of their work was realized in funds from a new cigarette tax and transfer of some sales tax revenue from Mobile County and the City of Mobile.

To bring in the views of those most directly affected by the crisis -- the parents of 67,844 students and the 3,679 teachers -- there were feature stories in the Press-Register. Reflecting teachers' outlook:. "I really wonder how much our legislators care...I know what they are saying but I don't see any action...Until the system collapses, I'll roll up my sleeves and work a little harder...I didn't enter this profession to get rich, but because children are the most important thing...They come to me and say 'I want to learn,' and I say 'You will learn!'"

Mobile Register also reported on parents' reactions: "I find the negative remarks of legislators to be depressing. I am very impressed with the intelligence, competence and dedication of the teachers who have taught my three children...I think the present school board is very well qualified and hard- working."

At this time Mobile had no means of bringing all these views and ideas into public discussion that could achieve consensus and focus upon solutions.

If the debate had followed the traditional pattern, things would have ended with the situation unchanged, the crisis tapering off to an unhappy condition that people would again learn to live with.

What happened now had never occurred before. There was a forceful and determined confrontation on the issue of state control over local public schools.

The gauntlet was thrown down by the school superintendent when he said the schools have enough money for one month and then, if the legislature did not act, the schools would close. "Nobody's bluffing."

Phase IV. Confrontation: From Issues to Personalities

The issues underlying the school crisis had not changed in several years. From the perspective of the most vocal legislators representing Mobile, the issue was Barton Academy "not coming to grips with its problems." That created the bad image that caused constituents to oppose raising school taxes. The issue was "accountability."

To others the issue, extending beyond Mobile, was that "No state spends less per capita on its K-12 school children than Alabama. This obscures a more serious funding problem, the wide variation which exists in local funding. In 1988, the wealthiest school system in the State received $9.15 per average student per day while the poorest got only 80 cents. However, the best funded school systems in Alabama are being provided a 'cheap education' compared to other states, and the lowest are grossly substandard,' Ira W. Harvey of the University of Alabama-Birmingham wrote in "Financing Elementary and Secondary Education (Alabama Issues, 1990).

In several meetings with the Legislators, the superintendent adamantly refused to accept their characterization of Barton Academy. "Excuse me, but when we're dealing with something so big and we're so far behind, it's not the result of malfeasance on the part of the people running the show. They're the victims."

For their part, the legislators complained, "We need information from the school system before we can make a decision on the solution. We have been asking for information from school officials for months, and have not yet received it." To which the superintendent replied, "I'm of the opinion I'm not being asked for information. I'm being given excuses for not doing something." To underscore the system's inability to afford a modern information system, it took 14 pounds of laboriously produced documents to fully respond to all the legislators' questions.

The confrontation went on in this kind of heated exchange, in the process of which much was revealed about some legislators' views of their role in resolving the crisis. It was not a leadership role, and did not extend beyond reflecting the views of constituents. Also, responsibility did not extend to the problem state-wide or to correcting past decisions of the Legislature that have resulted in the school crisis continuing for years.

It appeared, also, that the negative attitudes of constituents toward the public schools made "running against Barton Academy" good political strategy. Taking a true leadership role in helping to improve the public schools might risk the displeasure of enough constituents to end a political career.

The following episodes illustrate the dynamics, and the ups and downs of community decision making. Both occured in December 1991.

Episode I

In a historic first, a joint leadership agreement was reached by the Mobile County Commission, the City of Mobile and the Mobile County Board of School Commissioners to deal with the short-term funding problem and "keep the schools afloat for another year." In dollar terms, the County's input was $2.05 million, the City $2.1 million and the School Board $3 million from the sale of land.

In a joint resolution it was agreed that "this is nothing more than a temporary crisis response..." The three boards agreed to "work together with the Mobile Legislative Delegation to develop a plan of action to adequately fund the school system in the future."

The resolution recognized that "The schools' management information system is inadequate. The credibility of the school system cannot be restored until financial facts of the system are readily and regularly available to the community at large in an understood format, depicting budget information for every cost center (school)."

It was further recognized that the "school board and the superintendent wish to develop and adopt long range (3-5 years) plans...which require adequate information as a base...a modern management information system is a prerequisite...funding to implement this necessary prerequisite has not been available..."

Two things recognized as essential first steps to long-range planning: (1) school systems computerization and (2) a school by school needs assessment.

Episode II

A week later, in the first discussion by the school board on how to approach the school by school needs assessment that some initial thoughts were expressed "that it should be comprehensive and detailed with the best expertise available...that would come up with what an ideal elementary and high school should look like...then see how Mobile County schools stack up with a price tag...The decision would then need to be made if all children are entitled to the same quality facility...It would be a base for determining accountability."

To obtain the best expertise to do the assessment, a newspaper reporter asked the superintendent what it would cost. He replied "About $600- $800,000." Where could this money come from? The possibility was suggested that it could come from a special $600,000 trust fund dating back to a 1983 sale of school land and not from the operating budget. The school board voted to advertise and solicit proposals from architects and engineers to undertake the survey.

In this preliminary discussion, what was estimated as a realistic cost for a survey done with the best expertise came to approximately one-third of one percent of the annual operating budget -- not unreasonable for an industrial corporation of comparable size. However, it precipitated an explosion of emotional reactions to news reporters, from legislators, county and city officials: "They came to us with tears in their eyes and we helped them and we were deceived."..."I said I would support new taxes for the school systems, and I feel I've been betrayed." ..."When you are financially stable, you can afford to go first class. When you're not, you learn to be innovative."

The historic joint leadership effort mounted the week before almost fell apart. However, an innovative effort by a school board member resulted in another historic first. He persuaded an outstanding Mobile architect to organize and head a 13-member volunteer task force -- of professionals in design and construction -- to undertake the survey.

Completed in April, 1992, the panel rendered a written report, School Facilities Survey, on the conditions of Mobile's 92 public school buildings. Commenting that the findings "make grim reading," the chairman observed that "Currently, 10,000 students are in substandard classrooms...Most of the buildings, constructed before the enactment of building codes, are in flagrant violation...Of the 5.5 million square feet of buildings, most are in need of renovation now...The 473 temporary classrooms need to be replaced."

The recommendation called for the expenditure of $240 million for renovations and $160 million for the contruction of 17 new schools.

While this was an outstanding demonstration of volunteer effort and appeared to realize a saving of $600-800,000, the end result was based upon limited observation and estimate rather than a detailed look at each school. Providing such detail to parents of the children in each school, along with funding plans to correct deficiencies, was a basic strategy being proposed by the superintendent to secure grassroots support for a local tax increase.

The series on community decision making, using the hiring and firing of former superintendent Dr. Doug Magann as a case study, concludes in the next issue. Paul R. Cherney is a retired planning director of United Way and was the first staff coordinator of Leadership Mobile (1973-1981).

-- February 8, 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.