Hiring and Firing
February 22, 1994
by Paul R. Cherney
[Editor's note: This 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, concludes with this issue. The series is taken from a report prepared by Paul R. Cherney as part of Mobile United Civic Index Project]
During the month of December 1991 the issue of "Accountability" -- that Barton Academy was the problem in securing public support for the schools -- was reinforced over the contending view that the problem extended much further, was an inadequate explanation for Mobile and Alabama being at the bottom nationally in public support for K-12 education.
Under an editorial headed "Mobile School Officials Spurn Expert Advice," the Mobile Press Register expressed strong agreement with an anonymous letter received from a business man who identified himself as a member of the Chamber of Commerce's Loaned Executive Committee and complained that the committee had been trying since 1987 to implement the recommendations of the Arthur Andersen management review of the public schools but that officials at Barton Academy were "reluctant to allow the committee complete access to the financial records...", these officials controlled the committee process so as to block "candid feedback by the committee to the school board," and in general were "extremely defensive" about possible "financial mismanagement."
The editorial began with the statement "Evidence continues to mount that the Mobile County Public School System's accountability -- and credibility -- levels are lower than the ocean floor and will probably remain that way until the system is purged of arrogance and self-protection." The editorial went on in 14 paragraphs to underscore each complaint in the anonymous letter concluding that "school officials were hoping to use the expert advisory committee as either a rubber stamp for its own financial manipulations or that they were playing for time in hopes that funds would be provided before there was any cooperation in the study of accountability. The superintendent was implicated because he "gave a speech to the committee on his first impressions about the financial status of the schools system...did not address any of the findings of the committee. No further communication has been made."
A response by the school board president to "the unsigned and unsubstantiated" accusations was printed without comment. She explained that the real problem was "the lack of a computerized accounting system." The installation of a modernized communication and accounting system had been the prime recommendation of the Arthur Andersen management review in 1987. Rather than putting all effort to secure funds to implement this recommendation "the schools are being used as a scapegoat to take the heat off other problems...The future of our children is too important to be wasting time over turf fights and political games."
Others serving on the Chamber of Commerce committee stated that they had nothing to do with the anonymous letter and did not agree with it.
However, the letter did have support among many within the business leadership. As one commented, relating particularly to the superintendent: "If Dr. Magann had pledged to make Barton Academy as lean as he could, squeeze every dollar until it screams, and give the public the best educational system in the South in exchange for their tax dollars, he would have more support than he does right now. Instead he shamed the public for letting the school system get into the shape it is in now." (December 17, 1991 minutes of the Mobile United Government Committee)
Of much concern to those business leaders striving to bring new industry to Mobile was the image Alabama projected world wide of poor schools and a poorly educated work force. By his vigorous contention that these were the problems that needed to be addressed, not Barton Academy, the new superintendent was alienating many within the business community.
In January 1992 another editorial in the Mobile Register noted that "1991 was the year we ran out of excuses for decades of neglecting our public schools...The emergency funding by the generosity of Mobile city and county governments is like a Band-Aid to a severed artery...Our legislative delegation must take the lead..." This was the last editorial -- for a long while -- to focus on the larger issue, rather than putting the onus on Barton Academy, the school board and/or the superintendent. Also, there were no more stories on the impact of the school crisis on teachers, the children and families.
The month of February, 1992 was marked by heightened activity on the school crisis as the contenders made their moves. Two issues emerged briefly, were addressed with emotion and rhetoric, then dropped from sight. The issues were:
The head of the teachers' union, in a letter to the editor, was critical of the school board for firing a teacher who refused to be re-assigned to another school after the beginning of a school year, and was suing: "The board could have tested this aspect of the tenure law with little or no expense. Instead three commissioners have chosen to spend thousands of dollars on lawyers and legal expenses to move in a direction of...futility...They had only to review court decisions against previous school boards who tried to prove points at taxpayers' expenses."
On the "home rule" issue -- which came up when a bill was introduced in the Legislature, but not passed -- a businessman wrote to the newspaper denouncing the "preposterous proposal...that taxpayers sanction the self-indulgent and unproductive extravagances...which adds to the fiscal obesity of...the people down at the white antiquity on Government Street..." The letter reflected sentiments of many within the business community.
During this same week, several school happenings made news. A bus caught fire carrying 62 students to elementary school. No one was injured, but the incident brought to public view the fact that this was one of 44 used buses bought from Colorado in 1984. Damaged beyond repair, it will be kept for salvage for difficult-to-get parts.
Parents were signing up children to enroll in magnet schools. With the first one established in 1988, the number had now reached seven, where offerings included advanced academics and communication skills, mathematic and science, visual and performing arts. Quality of education in these schools, with the aim of achieving a 50-50 black/white enrollment, was approaching that of Mobile's best private schools. Additional public schools were in line for upgrading as funds became available.
In Montgomery, several thousand parents, students and teachers demonstrated outside the Statehouse on the opening day of the Alabama State Legislature. "We have tremendous frustration," said the state PTA president, "in the last session, the needs of public schools were not addressed. The first thing the legislators did was to raise their pay, then spent the rest of the session debating dog-racing."
By the last week of February Mobile's schools were back in crisis because revenue had not come up to expectations. There was threat that the system would have to close down before the end of the school year. While giving attention to these short-term considerations, the superintendent was also pushing ahead to install system-wide computerization, urgently needed to provide accountability and overall efficiency in school operations.
For this he was attacked in a 15-paragraph newspaper editorial. Noting that he "came to Mobile last year with a truckload of credentials as an administrator in education and he has been very impressive with his determination to solve the many problems confronting our public schools," it went on to criticize him for his lack of "communication skills...for proposing new spending plans perceived by the taxpayers as frills...in trying to make Barton Academy...even more of a Taj Mahal..."
During the same week in February 1992 business leaders associated with the A+ effort to upgrade the public schools of Alabama collaborated with Barton Academy in a training session for Leadership Mobile.
Since 1973 Leadership Mobile has aimed to "identify emerging community leaders and enhance their capacity to lead." To prepare the 36 members of the Class of 1992 for their field work, they were instructed by established community leaders in the areas of education, taxation, law & justice, race relations, Naval Station Mobile & community planning, Prichard & Mobile leaderships.
The experience of the leadership trainees within the Mobile Public Schools in 1992 extended over one day. All morning each trainee served in a classroom assisting in the teaching and the paperwork. In the afternoon they shared with each other what they had observed in 12 elementary schools, 10 middle schools and 8 high schools. Next, they had a session with all administrative heads from Barton Academy, followed by one hour alone with the superintendent.
This training session was rated by those knowlegable of Leadership Mobile over the years as one of the best ever.
From their hands-on experience in an actual classroom they were unanimous in their admiration for the "capability and dedication" of the teachers, but frustrated with the conditions they observed "between a few schools of high quality and many of very poor quality." "Overlooked in all the public criticism," they observed, "are outstanding teachers across the board and many bright children." Their criticism was directed at "too much micro-management coming out of Barton," "Too many different categories and sub-categories of children with special needs," and "Teachers over-burdened with non-teaching duties and paper work."
In their session with the administrative heads they were very aggressive at first in their questioning: "Money! Money! Money! is all we hear. How about addressing those things you can do without money..." As the discussions proceeded, their reactions became more thoughtful.
In their caucus following the session with the superintendent, they agreed he was "a model of a strong leader...He has no real authority -- cannot determine budgets, cannot hire or fire. He has no power of position except his vision, and ability to communicate it...a revolution of new thinking is getting underway."
By mid-spring 1992, forces were polarizing around the two perspectives on where the responsibility lay for the public school crisis. One pointed the finger at Barton Academy, the other at the State of Alabama.
While the anti-Barton contender had been building their case over several years, the superintendent now became the spokesman for the opposition. He maintained that school reform had to grow from the bottom up, and not by directives from above. He projected a vision of quality education to be attained through local community initiatives. The main obstacle, in his view, were State controls that stifled such initiatives.
In support of this view were teachers, parents and those closest to what was going on in the classroom. Subsequent public opinion polls indicated that the superintendent's message was beginning to impact the general community.
In opposition were many businessmen concerned about the costs of realizing the superintendent's vision, some State legislators, and an indeterminate number of people who were against giving quality education to black children.
They formed a volatile mix of economics, racism and power politics. It is worth repeating that, at this time, Mobile had no established procedure or institutional capability for open, public debate to bring consensus out of these contending points of view.
A series of events, beginning in April 1992, brought to a head the conflict in perspectives on the school crisis. The focus became centered on legislative action to pass a "local bill" to enable Mobile County to hold a referendum on raising taxes to increase school funding.
There were different strategies favored by members of the House, the Senate and the School Board. The one which seemed most politically feasible to the House, known as the "sales tax swap bill," would put the tax question to the City voters in terms of increasing property tax and to those in the County a sales tax increase.
That bill passed the House, as did one favored by the School Board which called for:
A 15.5 mill property tax increase over the existing 17.5 mills. The argument was that the current property tax was so low, a straightforward appeal was most likely to get a favorable vote. Strategy was to be based on presenting the School Facility Survey just completed and to continue the superintendent taking the "show on the road" begun in 1991, visiting each school and appealing to parents of those children attending. Ground work had been done that indicated at least 20,000 parents and other school supporters could be enlisted. The appeal to be made would address the specific deficits in each school building, how they would be corrected, and identify the ways in which the school system has improved and is making progress.
The rules of the Alabama Legislature permit one senator to kill a local bill, and at least one did in this instance. The Senate bill that replaced the House bills, subsequently passed by the House, proposed to take the decision making away from the elected authority in the local community, and put it directly into the hands of the voters. First called the "Cafeteria Bill," and then the "Accountability Bill." It proposed: a 29 mill property tax increase if all nine specified tax increases were approved. They were for:
(1) construction of permanent class-rooms to replace the 473 portables
(2) to construct and equip additional classrooms
(3) purchase of library books replace-ment
(4) purchase of computers
(5) to install and equip science laboratories
(6) to improve security and student safety
(7) purchase new buses
(8) to pay off the school debt
(9) more funds for operations
Pressure was put upon the school board and the superintendent to shift their support from the 15.5 mills to the 29 mills strategies to secure public support. This the school board did when it became "the only thing we have." The superintendent made one public statement, when asked for his views by a newspaper reporter on June 5, 1992. He expressed serious doubts about the soundness of this approach to the long-term funding needs of Mobile's public schools. He questioned, also, strategies which did not secure the participation of the public and commented "instead of representing the people of Mobile County their (the senators) attitude seems to be they are the rulers."
The next day a senator was given front page publicity in the Mobile Register, with a large headline projecting his call to "GET RID OF MAGANN." For the next three-and-a-half months, although the superintendent made no further public statement on the matter, what he said in response to a newspaper reporter's questions on June 5 was recalled in subsequent news articles and editorials.
In a referendum held September 22, 1992 the people of Mobile County voted against every one of the nine school needs, and the property tax increases required to meet them. Legislators blamed the superintendent for the referendum defeat.
On October 5, 1992 the school board, in a 3 to 2 vote "following a heated meeting," suspended the superintendent "with pay pending the outcome of dismissal hearings in 90 days." Among others, the Board listed reasons for the action against the superintendent as improper use of school funds, general mismanagement of the system and insubordination.
The firing occurred in the same context as the hiring -- a state of war!
"War has been declared upon Barton Academy by the state legislators, who themselves are largely to blame for the school crisis," noted a newspaper editorial before the hiring.
The school board recruited a man well known for his love of battle. "Mobile's rough-and-tumble political fast-ball won't be anything new, or for that matter intimidating...He will sting a few people as he battles for kids," wrote a newspaper reporter at the time of hiring.
He came with the self-confidence earned by many years of proud achievement. The school system where he was superintendent just before Mobile, was featured in a Public Broadcasting film, "Educational Reform," in 1992 as one of the best in the nation.
Within the first month upon his arrival he took on the warring legislators with an opening salvo: "The Alabama Legislature cannot act as a super school board." He presented a vision and called for openness in community discourse to debate it. Open debate on the issues never occurred.
The war intensified, but now he became the enemy, superceding Barton Academy. Open warfare held off until he had been here four months. But behind the scenes, within the first month, messages began traveling through the political grapevine. At first it was "He is going too fast," then "He's been taken over by Barton Academy," next "He's a big spender," to "He's arrogant," to "He's a public relation's disaster" and finally, "He's incompetent."
In June the major newspaper, in a 14-paragraph editorial "Led the charge" for his ouster. When the school board did not comply within a week, another editorial carried the attack to them. Legislators added to the pressure upon the board. A senator got front page publicity for directing the school board to fire the superintendent.
The superintendent fought back with vigor. What his enemies called "arrogance," his supporters saw as "the courage of a leader to stand up for what he knows is right!" Public opinion polls rated him ahead of the School Board, and well ahead of the legislators.
The three months of hearings on his termination proved to be a damaging spectacle, with no real winners. While the superintendent "won his case in court," and a financial settlement, he suffered incalculable damage to a renowned career.
The children in the public schools lost an aggressive advocate.
For those who won the battle to oust him, it was a costly victory. To the taxpayers of Mobile County it amounted to almost half a million dollars.
Community decision making in this period of Mobile's history, does not seem to be a process that invites citizen involvement and builds consensus. What has been demonstrated is manipulation and control, from behind the scenes, by a powerful few. Public respect for Mobile's leadership is at a low point. Putting the "spotlight on leadership" just before the August 1993 city elections, the Mobile Register did a round up of public opinions. Reflecting the general outlook: "The way we debate issues is to point fingers and call each other names." "It's an extremely thankless job to run a real reform campaign. Mobile politics does not attract that kind of person and that kind of person would not be successful."
Among the capable, talented and committed people arrayed on both sides in this situation, the process appears to have brought out the worst in everybody.
What Mobile was left with from the experience was a School Board that for many months imposed white majority rule on a black minority.
But race is but one of several arenas of conflict. There are angry and frustrated divisons between those who are closest to what is going on in the classrooms and those who are far removed -- between those who have the most knowledge about the education of children but little power, and those who have power but little knowledge.
Paul R. Cherney is a retired as planning director of United Way and was the first staff coordinator of Leadership Mobile (1973-1981).
-- February 22, 1994