June 29, 1993
by Dr. Doug Magann
[Editor's note: This is the second in a series on the Mobile County Public School System written by former school superintendent Doug Magann.]
School Board President Jeanne Andrews and the Chamber of Commerce, through Mobile United, had scheduled a series of "Meet the Superintendent" sessions around the county before I arrived. These began in late September or early October. However, there were several dozen "community meetings" that occurred before these. Some of the most memorable were with the Chamber committees, the Legislative Delegation (or parts of it), the Junior League, and with a group called Forward Mobile. The people who make up these groups consider themselves the avowed, if not anointed, leadership of Mobile, and there is an incestuous overlap in the membership. They are the people who "make things happen in Mobile," or so they have convinced themselves.
Before saying more about these groups and my experiences with them, I want to stipulate that there are many good people who belong to one or more of these organizations. One must always try to avoid tarring the innocent with the brush intended for the guilty. Still, it is often impossible to distinguish between those who initiated something and those who either carried it out or simply tagged along for the ride. One is reminded of Edmund Burke's admonition 250 years ago: "All that is required for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing." In the last analysis, everyone must accept part of the responsibility for the results. With the understanding that I am speaking, for the most part, from generalized perceptions, I shall continue.
The early meetings with these organizations were filled with pledges of support, expressions of concern about the school system, and unbounded enthusiasm. Everyone appeared to want to work together to improve things. But it was in these meetings that I first began to encounter the "it can't be this complicated" attitude.
As I attempted to explain the problems that I was uncovering on a daily basis, in the middle of the ongoing fiscal crisis, eyes would glaze over and interest would sharply wane. They wanted me to simply "fix the damn thing," but they were not interested in hearing about what it would take to fix it. Later, this attitude evolved into one of "fix it, but don't make any changes -- especially if they cost money. Use volunteers."
The tradition of volunteerism that exists in Mobile County is at once admirable and maddening. If channeled appropriately, the willingness of people to volunteer in the schools can add a very valuable dimension to the opportunities provided for children. But there are some problems that just do not lend themselves to volunteer solutions. Financing the school system is one of them.
I remember some of the volunteer "solutions" offered up during one of the many fiscal crises of 1991-92. One of the more memorable suggestions was to put high school students on the median of Airport Boulevard (a major east-west arterial in Mobile) during the 5 o'clock rush hour with tin cans, and have them solicit money from passing motorists. The person making the suggestion was quite serious and was convinced that we would collect enough money in a couple of days to take care of our crisis!
Mobile also is home to one of the strongest entrepreneurial spirits in the Western hemisphere, and this came forth during our crises. An untold number of local entrepreneurs came forth with schemes to help both themselves and the school system during these crises. Some wanted us to sell tee-shirts to students, others wanted to donate a share of the profits if all of the teachers would stop by for a beer after hours, several advertised that they would give the school system $100 for every car sold during a certain period, some would organize walk-a-thons (for a price), and on and on. (One of the local supermarket chains is particularly creative at capitalizing on school crises. The tragic burning of Leinkauf School is the most recent example.)
The Mobile public school system costs $1 million per student-day to operate, even as inadequately as it does. Every volunteer "helper" wanted to give us his/her idea and let us carry it out. And they were offended to the point of anger when we declined. Thus, the volunteer mentality of the community turned into a liability rather than an asset because it was naive and misplaced.
I came to understand these phenomena better in connection with some other attitudes prevalent among the community leaders. They held a peculiar notion that the public schools were "charities" and should be treated like the United Way or the Salvation Army. The people who worked for the public school charity should be grateful for any and all "donations" from the public, which would come from an occasional campaign drive designed and sanctioned by the "movers and shakers." That every American child has a birthright to an adequately funded public education was a foreign concept to them.
These "community leaders" have no sense of ownership of the public schools, and they have no sense of responsibility for them. They have no personal investment in them. Their children and grandchildren attend private and parochial schools. The public schools are for the children of the plantation workers. This became excruciatingly clear when Board member "Sugar" Warren, in the midst of one of our budget crises, enrolled her two children in private schools. Actions really do speak louder than words.
The non-public school issue deserves some comment. The non-public school enrollment in Mobile County is approximately 12 percent. This is about the national average. From this perspective, Mobile is no different than any other major American community. What makes Mobile unique is not the size of the non- public school enrollment, but "who" the children are that attend those schools and the influence that their parents and grandparents wield over the lives of those who remain in the public schools.
It was no accident that Walter Hovell, Chairman of Forward Mobile, had arranged to have Andrews and me meet with Foward Mobile on my second day in office. It was the first of several interesting meetings. Forward Mobile is composed of some 30 or so "businessmen" in the community. They are the CEOs, the corporate plant managers, the local company owners, and the landed gentry of Mobile. The group had pulled away from the Chamber of Commerce (although most, if not all, were still members) because they were outnumbered by the small businessmen and found it difficult to get their political agendas through the larger organization.
In the beginning, I really saw these men as allies. They were intelligent, experienced, and sophisticated managers for the most part. Surely, I thought, they see what I see and know that it has to be corrected, if for no other reason than their own long term self interest. Further, they must know what is involved in trying to turn around a large human organization. After all, they are managers, too. They were sophisticated enough to know how to play the political games that were required to bring about the necessary changes and they had considerable discretionary resources at their command in the way of various political action funds. If these men told the elected officials to fix things, it would probably happen.
They said all of the right things and nodded agreement in all of the right places as we discussed the problems (or at least most of them did). But they wanted the image problem corrected immediately. Word was getting out about the school situation and no one wanted to invest in Mobile. These people, of course, benefit first and most from such investments.
Now, the religion of "economic development" is not necessarily a bad one. All ships rise on an incoming tide, as the saying goes. If job-producing industries can be attracted to a community, everyone usually benefits (albeit, some more than others). But the kind of industry and the types of jobs are important. If the industry is environmentally clean and the jobs are more than minimum wage level, and of sufficient numbers, then a good case can be made for aggressive recruitment.
As time went on, it became painfully clear to me that these were not the companies being targeted. The men in these meetings were interested in other things: no competition for those highly skilled, highly trained workers already in the community; how much and what kind of power would be consumed by a new industry; what land would be developed; and how much money would the newcomer need to borrow from the banks? A quality school system serving all of the children was pretty far down the list of priorities. The appearance of one was a different matter.
The insidious nature of past economic development activity in Mobile is this: most of the "new" jobs have been created at a substantial cost to the general community. The various Industrial Development Boards (IDBs) have mortgaged the community and its children for years into the future, and few citizens even knew that it was happening. Collectively, these boards have waived nearly $6 million per year in school taxes to certain favored members of the business community.
Who are these people? How do they come to be on these boards and exercise this power over the rest of us? Who gave them the right to make decisions that impact the quality of educational opportunities available to our children? To whom are they accountable?
Well, the list is interesting. These were some of the same people sitting around the table of Forward Mobile. On the city board are Walter Hovell (President of Mobile Gas), Bruce Jones (Vice President of Alabama Power), Clarence Ball (Ball Healthcare Services), Walter Bell (MONY Financial Services), David Cooper (Cooper/Smith Stevedoring), Lowell Friedman (Creola Investment Corporation), Robert Guthans (Midstream Fuel Services), Thomas Hinds (First Alabama Bank), W.V. McRaney (Paper Products of Mobile), Frank Schmidt (SouthTrust Bank), Norvelle Smith (Smith's Bakery), and Leonard Wyatt (AmSouth Bank). N.Q. Adams, to my astonishment, had been on the Industrial Development Board for years, and continued to serve on it until the spring of 1992.
The County Board is much more efficient. It only takes three members to carry on business: David Wright (Central Bank of the South and current President of the Chamber of Commerce), James Mostellar, and Jacque Pate.
No one seems to know how these people came to be appointed to these boards or to whom they report. But they and their predecessors have managed to wreak havoc on the school system while "developing the economy" of Mobile. A partial listing of the school waivers is illustrative:
|M & T Chemical Co.||$258,636|
Beyond these IDB waivers, the Medical Clinic Board waived another $168,835 per year for the Springhill Memorial Hospital and Medical Complex. No one seems to know much about this group either.
These amounts are waived EACH YEAR! What was the cost of each job generated by the location of these companies, or their expansions, in the community? Who really receives the benefits of the tax breaks?
And then there are the timber taxes. I shall never forget an evening in Semmes, Alabama during the fall of 1991. I was addressing one of the "Meet the Superintendent" gatherings and talking about the need for increased revenue for the schools. I had noted in my comments that Alabama had the lowest timber taxes of any contiguous state, and that Mobile County exacerbated the problem with its taxing policies. A father on the front row posed a question about the side effects of raising taxes on timberland. He had been told that, if timber taxes went up, he and many of his neighbors would likely lose their jobs at one of the local paper companies.
How does one respond to such an absurdity? I looked back at him, knowing full well that he was serious and that he probably had been led to believe that, and asked these questions in return:
Do you own a pickup truck?
Yes, a Ford.
Is it a new truck?
I bought it last year.
Is it possible that part of the money you paid for the truck goes to support the public schools in Dearborn, Michigan (or wherever the truck was made)?
While he thought about that, I turned to his wife and asked:
Will you, by chance, be serving Hershey Chocolate Kisses in your home during the upcoming holiday season?
Yes, the children love them.
Is it possible that some of the money you will pay for that candy will go to support the public schools of Hershey, Pennsylvania?
Why, I asked, do we in Alabama refuse to let the rest of the world reciprocate and help pay for our schools? We pay for their schools every time we purchase a product made somewhere in this country. The schools in Michigan and Pennsylvania and Florida and everywhere are funded from the taxes levied in those communities. When we buy a new truck or a candy bar or take our families to Disney World, a portion of those taxes are passed along to us in the price. That is how the system works.
There exists a fundamental ignorance about taxes and taxation among the residents of Mobile County (and probably all of Alabama). It is not that the people are stupid. They have never been helped to understand these issues, and I became convinced that it was by design.
The following week, I had the same discussion with some people in Bayou La Batre. The next day I was advised by some at the Chamber that it was not a good time to be discussing the topic and "stirring the community pot." When I got a good look at the "tax reform" package under consideration by the Legislature a few months later, I understood their concerns.
How will people ever come to understand that, if the timber taxes were increased threefold tomorrow, the price of a roll of tissue paper might go up 1/4 cent worldwide next year? Who benefits from the status quo? Who is making the rules?
On another occasion, I addressed a group calling themselves "The Young Doctors of Mobile." Most were under 40 and several had children who were either school aged or about to be. Most of their children were attending non-public schools, or soon would be. A "user fee" philosophy was repeatedly put forth, i.e., let the parents of the children attending the public schools pay for them the same way we do. Non-parents should not have to pay anything to support the public schools. These were highly educated men and I could not believe my ears. The hypocrisy was enough to drive me to my legendary abrasiveness.
Finally, I asked one doctor where he had gone to school? In Texas. I asked him how much tuition he had paid? About $400 (that's right, four hundred) per semester. His response elicited comments from others who were offended because they had paid as much as $450-$600 per semester. I asked the group if they had any idea of the actual cost of a year of medical school and who paid the rest? Blank stares. The last time I looked at the figures, the average per student cost for medical school was about $20-25,000 per year.
These young men had received more public educational assistance during medical school alone than most Americans get in a lifetime. They had never made the connection that they were the greatest beneficiaries of publically funded schools in the country. I asked them how many would have been there that evening had their philosophy been in place when they were going through school? The question had a sobering effect.
I met the banking syndicate shortly after my arrival in Mobile. Charles Ratcliffe, associate superintendent for business and finance, appeared in my office one afternoon and began to "enlighten" me about the fiscal realities. I was incredulous and asked him if the Board were aware of the situation? He assured me that he had tried to explain it to them, that he felt sure N.Q. Adams understood, but was uncertain about the others. He suggested that we meet with the bankers.
Actually, when the rumors of another proration began to leak out, the bankers contacted us. Bankers are an interesting group. Conservative and private by nature, they are not as involved in the day-to-day politics of a community as one might think. They fancy themselves as dealing only with "big picture" problems. This is all right until some minor detail is overlooked and that detail threatens to bring down the "big picture." Such was the case in Mobile. The school situation was threatening to undermine the investment portfolios of several major banking institutions. Beyond that fact, there are such things as bank examiners and regulators who have a way of coming into banks and evaluating their outstanding loans. A $15 million loan to the school system that no one could figure out how to repay would not bode well for the careers of certain local bank officials.
The bankers, once aroused, turned their attention to the Legislative Delegation and the other elected officials in the county. They realized that the School Board was powerless to do anything about the situation so they decided to become politically active. In essence, they agreed to work with all of the parties and extend the loan if, and only if, two conditions were met: first, the city and county fathers had to come up with a short-term solution to the immediate school funding crisis and, second, the Delegation had to come up with a long-term solution to prevent this sort of thing from happening again in the future.
The city and county "found" $2.1 million each over the next couple of weeks and the School Board consummated a land sale that had been in the making for two years. These three sources, together, made up the $7.0 million lost on October 1, 1991. The County actually gave only $500,000 in new money. It had already committed $1.5 million to the School system for capital construction before the crisis. The capital money was "re-directed" and the projects it was supposed to fund were postponed again. No one ever mentioned this, and the School Board was later blamed for reneging on commitments to various school communities.
When it appeared that the Delegation was going to be unable to agree on any long term solution in March, 1992, the banking syndicate decided to put a little pressure on them by renewing only half of the school loan when it came due in March. This action created a new crisis and the distinct possibility of closing the schools following the spring break. Again, the schools were the pawns.
The action (or in-action) of the banking syndicate brought forth the wrath of several legislators immediately. Taylor Harper, Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, was particularly angry and publically accused the bankers of doing exactly what they were doing. In the midst of this complex game, The Peoples' Bank called one afternoon and made an extraordinary offer. They were prepared to loan the system $2.0 million to assure that the system had enough money to make it through to the end of the student year (June). (That evening, I discovered that the Peoples' Bank had held a press conference earlier in the day and had announced that it was "saving the school system" by making this loan.)
Don Bryan, President of Peoples' Bank, called me back on Monday and wanted to know when we were to get together to work out the details. I told him that we really needed $3 million to make the payroll and asked him where he had gotten the $2 million figure. He could not remember. I also asked him about what he had in mind to secure the proposed loan. He wanted to talk about the land that the School Board "owned."
Later in the week, Bryan, Jimmy Newell (Board Chairman of Peoples'), Ratcliffe, Andrews and I got together to discuss collateral for the loan. Bryan and Newell had the same misconception about the 16th Section lands that I had discovered among the other bankers. They thought that the School Board owned the lands and could dispose of them at will. In fact, the Board holds the land "in trust" for the State of Alabama. The Board is permitted to use the revenues produced from the land (timber sales, mineral rights, etc.), but if they are ever sold, the Mobile Board must split the proceeds with all of the other school districts in the state. This means that Mobile would get about 10 percent of the proceeds because it has about 10 percent of the student population. Newell and Bryan found this little bit of news somewhat sobering and left to think things over.
Their departure that day was humorous, if nothing else. Opportunists that they are, they had brought the media with them in order to get full credit for "saving" the schools, again. But with this additional information about the 16th section lands, they were going to have to check with their directors before going ahead with the loan. What to say to the media outside the door?
Newell and Bryan had not been concerned about collateral until we explained the 16th Section business to them. I think that they were drooling over the possibility of getting hold of the land. If they had that as collateral, they would probably care less about whether or not the system defaulted on the loan. The land was much more valuable, anyway. But now, some new type of collateral had to be found. The Delegation provided the necessary creativity by designating the revenue from a new cigarette tax to be used only for the repayment of loans made "between that date and May 1, 1992." This clever little piece of language precluded using the cigarette tax for any purpose other than repayment of the Peoples' loan. Of course, this was never explained to the public either.
The syndicate members were furious, and let it be known that they were not of a mind to make the remaining $4 million loan needed to keep the system operating through the summer months. We had just been through a standoff between the bankers, the Delegation, the City and the County, and the schools were the losers again. The public was confused and angry at who? Who else? The School Board.
The Delegation had passed two other bills during the session that dealt with school revenue. The bills required the City and the County to give the School Board $1.2 million a year each for 10 years. These funds were to be used to repay existing bank loans, i.e., the syndicate. The County's portion of this was enough to move the banks to loan the remaining $4 million (to go with the $8 million we already owed them and the $3 million to Peoples') bringing the total back to the $15 million level where we started the year. Nothing had changed except that the banks were now secured, the members of the Delegation were running around saying that they had given the schools the operating money they needed and that the Cafeteria Bill, then under consideration, would take care of the capital needs. More smoke and mirrors.
The school system still had a $7 million hole in the next year's budget. No one wanted to talk about that little problem, but the Tenure Law was about to force discussion because the teachers had to be notified before the last day of school. It was another case of the "It can't be that complicated" syndrome. However, this time the bankers were beginning to understand that it could be, and was, that complicated.
When the School Board had to "terminate" some 700 probationary teachers in order to provide additional time for negotiations, the whole thing hit the fan. Bill Hanebuth, president of the Mobile County Education Association, was not a happy camper. I know that his telephone lines must have been in a state of meltdown for several weeks, and there was absolutely nothing he could do to correct the situation other than (1) convince the Board to inflate the revenue estimates and plunge the system into real bankruptcy in the Fall or (2) convince some third party to come up with $7 million. By then, the Board was beginning to realize that this was not a game and that the $7 million hole in the budget had to be dealt with. And, no third party (or combination of parties) rushed forward with $7 million either.
What did happen was interesting and insightful. The City, with Mayor Mike Dow's "leadership," was bullied into coughing up a $4 million "gift" that would be used during the next year (92-93). In return, the Delegation would rescind the $1.2 million per year mandate for the City. Not a bad trade. The $4 million, along with some $3.5 million in budget reductions, would balance the budget for 92-93. The school system had been pulled back from the edge one more time, the public was more confused than ever, and the mayor was a local hero again.
But now, the system had a $4-5 million hole in the budget for the 93-94 year. Most of that hole is still there in spite of some intervening variables that have come into play, e.g., some additional money from the State by way of proration adjustments etc. The Peoples' loan has been repaid in full and the cigarette tax is now available for other purposes, including the syndicate loans. Some minor amount of "new money" will be available to the system next year from these sources, but it will not be noticeable in the classrooms around the county and probably will have to be used to guarantee State pay increases to locally funded teachers above the State allocation (if there are any left).
The current negative image of the Mobile school system has a long and complex history. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the school system was considered to be one of the more progressive ones in the south, even in the country. But between 1970 and 1985, the system was racked by costly (and unnecessary) desegregation court battles, corruption on the part of some staff and Board members, natural disasters (Hurricane Frederick), and just plain incompetence in some cases.
I am told that the Birdie Mae Davis (BMD) desegregation suit is the longest standing case of that nature in America at some 27 years of duration. It is still open and the hostilities that it has produced defy the imagination. I am convinced that nearly everything controversial that has happened or been done in Mobile for 25 years has been blamed on the BMD decision. It served as a scapegoat justification in many instances when the controversial actions had nothing to do with the case.
In 1988, the school district entered into a consent decree in an effort to close the case. The decree called for the creation of magnet schools, the renovation of numerous historically Black schools, additional staffing at inner- city schools, and various other actions. All of this was to occur during a period of decline in statewide financial support, while the district was paying substantial fines for past misuses of federal money and making court ordered payments to current and former minority employees for past discriminatory treatment.
As the district struggled to honor its court commitments, other needs were necessarily deferred. Average class sizes increased, maintenance repair requests were ignored, worn capital equipment was not replaced, etc. Most of the burden fell upon the predominantly white schools in the suburban fringe and in the rural areas. And many middle class whites who assumed their children would gain admission to the new magnet schools became even more disenchanted when the lottery process failed to select their numbers. By 1991, the polarization along racial and urban-rural lines was complete.
There are thousands of wonderful, caring, and hard working people in Mobile County, and I have had the distinct pleasure of meeting many of them. It is sad that they have not taken control of their community and installed their value system in their government. In some ways, it is a reflection of our times. We all live complicated, busy lives. There simply is not enough time to become personally involved with every important community issue. In the rush of daily events, we abdicate our responsibilities or, more precisely, we delegate them to our "representatives" who we trust to look after our best interests. Most of us are so busy "trying to make ends meet" we cannot keep up with everything around us.
This is particularly true in Mobile, where wages have been deliberately depressed by certain special interests. The working poor expend all of their time and energy just trying to survive, and have neither the time nor the will to watch the "hen house" on a regular basis. It is an intentionally designed community of victims. It is the last great plantation.
What is so insidious about the situation in Mobile is this: the Fourth Estate is part of the ruling class. The responsibility of the press is to help us understand the events and issues of our times by objectively reporting facts as they occur. When the press begins to selectively report, or slant the reports in one direction or another, those who control the press have not only abandoned their responsibility, they have stolen our right to control our lives. They have denied us our right to express our collective will because we are either kept in the dark about important developments or provided partial (and often slanted) understandings of them.
In Mobile, this is a routine occurrence. Many in the community recognize it, and the local paper is often the butt of jokes. Some found it an amusing commentary that the Auburn University Library, in a cost-cutting move, decided to drop its subscription to the state's second largest newspaper.
Since World War II, the Mobile Press/Register had been owned and controlled by one man: William Hearin. His influence on the community between 1945 and 1992 would take volumes to describe. A few years before my arrival, he sold the paper to the Newhouse News Service with a contract stipulation, according to him, that he would remain in control for life, or as long as he wished.
When I met him, he was in his 80s, but very lively and very alert. He is a likable man and physically reminded me a bit of my father. Hearin is catholic, and had the reputation among the public school people of being biased against the public schools. I did not find him that way. Perhaps he had experienced a change of heart in his waning years, but he seemed genuinely interested in helping the local school situation improve. Some of the more cynical members of the community felt that he should help the system because he had done so much over the years to tear it down.
Hearin had an incredible need to know everything that was happening, or about to happen, in the community. Due to his advanced age and a hip replacement, he required every public official to come to his office and brief him on every development before his reporters covered the stories. If he did not approve of the proposed action, whatever it might be, he so informed the visitor, warned him of the position the paper would take, and suggested that the proposed action be reconsidered. If officials failed to provide the advance approval opportunities, they did so at their own peril. Hearin did not like surprises. This was his plantation and he did not intend to give up his control of it.
Still, he had come to grips with the fact that the condition of the public schools was hurting business. He had purchased controlling interest in the Mobile Gas Company with the proceeds of the newspaper sale. Mobile Gas had rights to most of the natural gas field that resides under Mobile Bay (one of the largest in North America, I am told). Economic development, on a heretofore unprecedented scale, was now in order from his perspective. Poor schools hindered such plans. Enlightened self interest required fixing things. More precisely, they needed to appear fixed to the outside world.
To be fair, Hearin also was concerned about the children. His concern may have been a little late in coming, but I believe that it was sincere and I appreciated it. He wanted to use the assumed "clout" of his newspaper to form and shape public opinion to provide a much needed tax increase. Several referenda had failed over the years and some thought that the failures were due, in large part, to the negative image of the public schools that Hearin had created in print. He believed this too, and he was obsessed with changing the "image."
He had consistently portrayed Barton Academy, the district's administrative headquarters, as being peopled by incompetent, uncaring (and sometimes dishonest) bureaucrats. In fact, it could be argued that Hearin and his editorial writer, Bill Sellers, had made careers of "Barton bashing." Further, they had convinced themselves and many readers that there were far too many people at Barton and that the facility was a Taj Mahal. All of this without having set foot in the building for at least twenty years.
Hearin informed me shortly after my arrival that I needed to reassign some of the people at Barton. (To his credit, he was one of the few people who declined to give me a list of specific candidates for such reassignments.) I think that I finally convinced him that the problem was not the number of people, but the way they were forced to carry on their work. There certainly were many inefficiencies, but they were the result of having virtually no modern technology or human systems in place to handle the workload.
Hearin's solution: Transfer some people out to other buildings anyway. They could still do what they were doing from the remote sites, and he could report that I had reduced the staff by such and such a number, thereby convincing the public that the new administration was "accountable." If we did enough of this for a long enough period of time, the public would change its attitude and support a tax increase. The fact that the physical dislocation of key clerical staff and administrators would have brought the system to its knees was lost on him, to say nothing of the problem of deliberate deception of the public.
Hearin was replaced as the publisher of the paper quite unexpectedly in late January or early February of 1992. I do not think that he was prepared for it, although he had been talking about "phasing down" his activities for some time. I remember meeting with him after the first announcement that some changes were in the offing. His version of the changes was that he was bringing in a "protege," who was the son of an old friend and fellow publisher, and that he would still be running things for quite some time. That is not what occurred several weeks later when Howard Bronson arrived in Mobile from Shreveport, La.
When Bronson entered the Mobile picture, Hearin all but disappeared. Bronson was anything but a protege. He took control and brought in his own people and reformatted the paper.
I first met Bronson at Barton Academy for lunch. School Board President Jeanne Andrews had invited him over after a Board meeting and Board Attorney Bob Campbell joined us. Bronson had been in town about 6-8 weeks, as I recall. He was patrician, cool, and aloof. He professed interest in and support for education. Campbell and I both noticed that he never said "public" education. He talked at length about the problems of the schools he had just left in Shreveport and of education in general. He did not seem terribly well informed, but this was a social call and no one wanted to get into anything heavy, especially since we had just come out of a Board meeting.
After about an hour and a half, he declined a tour of the facility and excused himself. Andrews, Campbell, and I were not impressed, and shared some of our reservations with each other for awhile before breaking for the day. I made some excuses for Bronson saying that I understood what it was like to come into a new community and try to learn about it in a short period of time. I knew his plate was full and thought there would be times ahead when we could talk and explain the situation further. That proved to be an invalid and costly assumption.
My relationships with publishers, editors, and editorial boards have been good ones over the years. I have worked with 6-7 major dailies for extended periods of time, and with numerous others on an occasional basis. I have never met anyone like Bronson and some of the people who now work for him.
Generally speaking, newspaper people are content to report the news, try to understand the issues and events they are reporting, analyze what they think they see happening, and share their opinions on editorial pages with readers who might be interested. They try neither to create news, nor to obscure it from the public to serve their own purposes. In short, they typically report what they think they see and let the chips fall where they may.
Anyone who has worked with the written language for any period of time knows that the way subjects of news stories are introduced creates a mindset in the reader. Headline writers and editors get paid for their expertise in doing this. Theoretically, they are supposed to use their expertise to improve the objectivity of the news story. This is considered to be the function of the Fourth Estate in a democracy and, usually, this is how it works. Publishers are supposed to be the guardians who make sure that it does work this way.
If and when a publisher abdicates that responsibility and becomes an overt and obvious crusader, no matter what the cause, everyone is at risk. This is particularly true today because radio news staffs are a thing of the past, and local TV news staffs have been so reduced in size as to make them sterile. For the most part, these phenomena are due to "down sizing" during the recession.
Various polls have shown for years that about 24 percent of us read a daily newspaper. About 3 percent read the editorial pages. Not so long ago, if the paper printed a story that contained a serious error, the damage was minimal because the other media correctly reported whatever the event happened to be. Today, that is rarely possible. Radio and TV get their "news" from the papers. And they broadcast it every hour as it was reported in the paper. A few stations will send someone over or call on the phone for a "soundbite" to go with the story, but there is very little first hand reporting taking place and little or no understanding of the issues being developed.
This is a dangerous situation even under the best conditions. It means that the perceptions and opinions of the public are being shaped by one source of information. If and when a newspaper abandons its responsibility to report fairly and completely and becomes a crusader, no matter how "good" the cause, our form of government is put at risk. This had been a problem during the Hearin era, but Bronson has taken it to the level of an art form and, apparently, with the blessing of his bosses at Newhouse.
In July, 1992, a meeting was held at the Chamber of Commerce to discuss the "Cafeteria Bill." My recollection of those in attendance is as follows: John Hope (Chair), Richard Dorman, Preston Bolt, Mayor Mike Dow, Hap Myers, Mobile County Commissioner Sam Jones, Jeanne Andrews, Bob Campbell, Howard Bronson, a female Chamber staff member, me, and State Senator Ann Bedsole joined the meeting 20 or 30 minutes after the start. At the second half of the meeting I was encouraged to speak up and share my reservation on the "Cafeteria Bill." I went through a partial list of concerns, pausing at times to see if the lawyers present shared them. They did. Campbell jumped in a couple of times and expressed some concerns that the bill would likely have a negative impact on settlement of the Birdie Mae Davis desegregation case.
During the discussion of our concerns, and the agreement of others with them, Bronson made the most incredible statement I have ever heard from a representative of the press. After listening to everything, he said: "Well, we can't tell the people that because this thing won't have a chance." And he didn't.
Ignorance and democracy don't mix. The people must have information and develop understandings of issues in order to effectively govern themselves. When Bronson decided not to print stories dealing with the concerns about the "Cafeteria Bill," he violated every journalistic cannon in the book. And he continues to violate them on other issues. It is sad, but true, that citizens of Mobile have to subscribe to the Birmingham paper in order to find out what the Mobile delegation is doing in Montgomery during the Legislative Session, unless Bronson personally takes issue with a particular bill and wants to mount opposition to it.
The lack of information and/or the provision of slanted information is only part of the problem in Mobile and other communities today. There is also an abundance of mis-information. This is supplied, in large part, by well-meaning talk show hosts and their callers. My experience has been that most of the radio people honestly believe they are performing a service for the public with their talk shows. However, the reality is that the shows are a conduit for as much mis-information as they are for enlightenment.
Callers tend to make off-the-wall assertions about whatever the issue happens to be, and the hosts are frequently caught unprepared to respond with factual and clarifying information. Their responses frequently lend unintended credibility to the assertions of the caller. This is particularly true, if the host is inexperienced. When this happens, it creates enormous and unnecessary problems for public officials, and sets in motion a phenomenon that is not healthy for anyone in the community. When mis-information is broadcast in this fashion, and challenged later by responsible officials, the broadcasters become defensive and argue that the only solution is for the official to appear on their program the next day and clarify any "confusion" they (the broadcasters) may have caused.
It is hard to argue that the talk shows are all bad. Obviously they are responding to some audience or they would not have proliferated as they have. But their "community service" value is questionable. In too many cases, they solicit and transmit narrow interpretations of important events and issues for their entertainment value only. And the more controversial an issue can be made, the better.
Certainly, everyone has a right to their opinion and a right to express it, even over the airwaves as long as appropriate rules are observed. But human nature being as it is, when false and/or mean-spirited assertions are made and not contradicted at the time, many who hear them assume them to be true simply because they were not countered. Silence often condones, if not "confirms," such assertions. Apparently, for many of the callers, the talk show is their only source of information.
I had several discussions with radio people in Mobile (which must be the talk show capital of the world) on this general subject. They agreed that there were problems, but always ended up blaming me and other officials for not coming on their shows every week or so to "clear the air."
Their unstated position seemed to be that we worked for them. It was our responsibility to appear on their shows so that they could keep their jobs and, hopefully, increase their market shares. If we refused, they would make on-the- air statements like: "I have asked him repeatedly to appear on this show and refute these charges (explain the details, show us where we are wrong, present his side of the case, etc.), but he refuses to do it. I don't know why." Such irresponsible behavior is tantamount to broadcast terrorism, and it is rampant in many communities today.
One morning, I received a call from a friend who suggested that I tune into one of the local shows and listen to what was going on. I did and heard the 26- year-old host announce that he thought I was "arrogant" because I had declined to appear on his show several times. His comment went something as follows: "I've covered Magann as a reporter and he will give you a straight answer to virtually any question he is asked when you are talking to him. But he is somewhat arrogant. I've asked him to appear on this show several times and he has yet to do it."
My blood pressure went up 50 points (which is one reason I do not listen to the shows), and I reached for the phone myself. Fortunately, the next caller stopped me. She asked him if he thought I worked for him or the taxpayers, and pointed out that, as a taxpayer, she thought my time was better spent trying to straighten out the mess in the school system rather than entertaining his audience every morning.
He changed the subject, and I concluded that maybe a few reasonable people did tune in from time to time.
The Mobile Press/Register, under the leadership of both Hearin and Bronson, has a definite and fairly obvious bias toward Catholic schools. Old timers say that the continuity is attributable to Bill Sellers who has been the editorial page editor for years. Editorials routinely appear comparing the per pupil costs of the public school system with those of the parochial schools. Sellers (or Hearin or Bronson) invariably winds up concluding that the differential is the result of a "bloated and incompetent bureaucracy" at Barton Academy.
In fact, the cost differentials in Mobile and everywhere else are due to significant program differences. Non-public schools (parochial or private) are not required to offer the same program mix that public schools are required to provide. Non-public schools are not required to provide services to handicapped children or to impoverished, at-risk children, to provide vocational education programs, or to provide transportation to and from school, etc. All of these are very costly programs which non-public schools simply ignore. In fact, the public schools must provide services to educationally handicapped children on parochial campuses at public expense! And the cost of service to special education youngsters has been estimated to be six times that of regular students! Non- public schools provide only academic programs. These are by far the cheapest components. The real question should be: Why is the differential not greater?
The "bloated Barton bureaucracy" is a joke. Even by Alabama standards, the Mobile system is below the state average on administrative costs. There are individuals who "work" at Barton who are simply bad employees and they should be replaced, but they are relatively few and far between. There is waste and inefficiency in some quarters, but it is not the result of having too many people. Rather, it is the result of ignorance and downright stinginess. For years, the community has refused to provide the necessary funds to enable the system to train its people and give them the modern tools necessary to be efficient. Perhaps this attitude is the result of having been told the "Big Lie" by the press for so long.
My grandfather used to say that it was stupid to be "penny wise and dollar foolish." I did not fully understand what he meant until I got to Mobile. There is considerable waste in the system, but not of the variety generally understood by the public! Mobile's waste and inefficiency are built into the system. Sometimes, we have to spend money to save money. Businessmen understand this in their personal situations, but refuse to acknowledge that the same logic might apply to the public sector.
[The next issue: The "Cafeteria Bill" and what went on behind the scene.]
-- June 29, 1993