July 27, 1993
by Dr. Doug Magann
[Editor's note: This is the fourth in a series on the Mobile County Public School System by former superintendent Dr. Doug Magann.]
Over the years, I have come to see the superintendency as somewhat akin to a marriage between an individual (the superintendent) and a Board that, in theory, represents a community. There are many parallels that I hope will become apparent, although the analogy is not a perfect one.
In the late fall of 1990, I was beginning to think seriously about exploring a job change. I had been in Gainesville, Florida for nearly ten years and had been both very happy and reasonably successful. But in this business, one knows that ten years is far beyond the average stay for a superintendent of a major school district, and one's effectiveness begins to diminish at some point. When that occurs, usually it is better for both the community and the individual to make a change. Such was the case as 1991 began.
I saw the advertisement for the superintendency of Mobile County in one of the trade journals and noticed that the Board had contracted with a professional search firm to help them in the selection process. "Headhunters" are matchmakers. They work with school boards to understand the needs of the school district and the community, and then carry out a recruitment/screening process designed to match candidate talents and strengths with those needs.
I do not recall whether I contacted the search firm or whether they contacted me, and it is of no consequence. I do remember meeting with representatives of the search firm on two occasions; once in New Orleans in late February and later in Atlanta in mid April. The initial meeting was one of mutual exploration, and the latter was a screening interview.
In New Orleans, I listened to the representatives explain that Mobile was going to be a very big challenge, and that it might not be "do-able." When headhunters use such phrases, they usually do it for two reasons: they believe it, and they want to see how big the ego is of the person they are talking with. Lesser egos bolt at such utterances, and experienced superintendents recognize the "red flag" and give it serious attention. While in New Orleans, I also took the opportunity to discuss the job with one of my closest personal and professional friends (another superintendent) who happened to be from Mobile. I got another variation of the same theme.
In the weeks that followed, I began to explore some other opportunities, but did not dismiss the Mobile situation. One weekend, in mid March, my wife and I decided to drive to Mobile and visit for a few days because we had never been there. The visit was a pleasant one. I remember eating a late dinner at a restaurant on Airport Blvd. during which we engaged our waiter in discussion about his hometown. This young Black man was a student at the University of South Alabama and a graduate of the Mobile County School System. He was an outstanding ambassador for the community, and probably has a great future with the Chamber of Commerce.
We interviewed others in the community as the weekend progressed. They had no idea who we were and their answers were refreshingly candid. Most recognized the problems with the schools, but each expressed confidence that things were going to improve dramatically with the arrival of new leadership. They all wanted things to be better. This was true not only in the urban area, but in the outlying communities as well.
I remember thinking that all of the pieces seemed to be in place to permit really positive changes to occur: the obvious industrial base, the friendliness and gentility of the people, the upbeat outlook of those we talked with, the location of the city, the reported attitude and philosophy of the Board, the romance associated with the second wave of emergence of the "New South."
When the list was narrowed to three candidates, the Board visited the systems of those three individuals. This is standard procedure and is to allow the Board to talk with persons in those communities in order to test their (the Board's) perceptions of the candidate against the actual experiences of the people with whom the candidate has worked.
All of the Board members except Dr. Joseph Mitchell, who had a conflict, came to Gainesville on May 22nd. Dr. Mitchell came in early June. I had asked Jeanne Andrews, the School Board President, who they wanted to talk with and had given her a list of names for them to choose from and contact. The final list included both friend and foe.
The four Board members met with these people throughout the first day. The next day they spent the morning with my staff before returning to Mobile in the afternoon. The Board talked with a group of strong, candid personalities who respected me and each other. They were all professionals and they were conditioned to "tell it like it is." According to reports I received, the four Board members were "in love" when they left and wanted to take the entire staff back to Mobile. Dr. Mitchell came on June 10th and talked with many of the same people.
Three of the candidates were invited back to Mobile to "meet the community" during the third week of May. Following that round of interviews, I began to receive daily calls from Andrews who wanted to make sure that I was still interested. Sometimes, I received calls both day and night.
On June 12, 1991, the Board met and appointed me as superintendent subject to contract negotiations, which they turned over to the Board attorney, Bob Campbell. Campbell, Andrews and I spent a great deal of time on the telephone and the fax machines over the next few days. Actually, we had little difficulty reaching agreement. I had provided the search firm with a copy of my Gainesville contract for them to share with the Board in order to avoid an awkward situation in the event that we reached a point of negotiation.
A contract is like a pre-nuptial agreement. Neither party wants any surprises, so they try to write out the important (crucial) understandings upon which the relationship is to be based. My contract contained 22 substantive sections. Most addressed remuneration, vacation, relocation expenses, etc. But several sections spelled out the rules we were to abide by in our relationship.
My contract read, in part, as follows:
Section 11. The Board expects the Superintendent to enhance the quality of education and improve its cost effectiveness through whatever action he deems feasible, with Board approval as appropriate. This includes, but is not limited to, review and recommendations of the school district's curricula, personnel, personnel assignments, personnel evaluations and evaluation methods, with emphasis on in-service training to develop skills, configuration of schools, physical plant and other appropriate areas not mentioned here throughout the school district, including administration... The Board will adopt, at least annually, specific goals including, but not limited to, the goals set forth above....The Superintendent shall assign the administrative and supervisory staff in a manner which, in his judgement, best serves the public schools of Mobile County, Alabama. The responsibility for selection and/or promotion of personnel shall be vested in the Superintendent and his staff, subject to approval of the Board. It is understood that the Board may reject a personnel recommendation of the Superintendent for stated good and just cause.
[This is the separation of powers section. It is intended to clarify the Board's policy making responsibilities and the Superintendent's administrative/management role. It takes the Board out of day-to-day personnel matters, requires the adoption of goals and objectives for the system to guide the Superintendent and his staff, and states to the world that the ship has a captain. The Board began to ignore this within the first month of my tenure.]
Section 12. The Board, individually and/or collectively, will promptly refer all criticism, complaints, and suggestions called to its attention to the Superintendent for study and recommendation.
[This section is intended to minimize tendencies and opportunities for micro- manangement of the school system. If it is abided by, the administration has time to resolve most of the problems that occur in a school system as they develop. In the event that a "problem" cannot be readily solved, this section provides opportunities for the Superintendent to inform the Board/public of the situation and its causes, and to have open discussion.]
Section 14. Prior to the anniversary date of this contract each year during the term hereof, the Board shall review with the Superintendent his progress and performance related to the position description of the Superintendent and the goals and objectives of the Board for the year in question... The Board and the Superintendent shall meet in closed executive session during the month of July of each year that the contract remains in force for the purpose of evaluating the performance of the Superintendent and for the purpose of acknowledging the achievement of the Board's goals. Such annual review of the Superintendent's job performance shall include utilization of a formal evaluation instrument which may be mutually agreed upon by the Board and the Superintendent, but if agreement is not reached, then by the Board unilaterally. In the event that the Board determines that the performance of the Superintendent is not satisfactory, it shall formally advise the Superintendent of the specific incidences of unsatisfactory performance. The Superintendent shall be entitled to make written reaction or response to the evaluation. The Board and the Superintendent will devise a performance improvement plan which shall govern the procedures and time frame for the correction of any unsatisfactory performance.
[This is the "fair play" language. Formal evaluations will occur at scheduled times and, if dissatisfaction with performance exists, there will be discussion of it by all parties. Further, if and when such dissatisfaction exists, this section prescribes how improvement will be achieved. The Board totally ignored this section.]
I remember two interesting additions that the Board wanted to add to the language I had provided. One had to do with the insertion of a phrase in the "reporting section" of the contract. This section is standard language and says that the superintendent will make periodic reports to the Board regarding "progress toward goals and objectives" established by the Board. N.Q.Adams wanted the phrase "upon request of the Board" added. I questioned the language and was told that Mr. Adams liked short Board meetings and did not want to be bothered with a lot of reports unless he asked for them. The other Board members agreed.
The second addition was very unusual. I considered it a curiosity at the time, and was told that it was there for "political purposes." The section said that, if I left before the end of one year, I would pay for the next Superintendent search plus some other penalties. I had never seen language like this before and could not imagine leaving any place within a year of arrival, although the thought crossed my mind that they knew some things about Mobile they had neglected to share with me.
The purpose of a courtship, at least in theory, is to get to know each other as well as possible before committing to a marriage. Having been through these things several times, and having had the benefit of the experiences of others, I take the courtship period very seriously. I think that it is a time to be completely honest with one another and, if the relationship is not going to work, call the whole thing off at that point.
I asked Andrews a lot of pointed questions during the selection process. And I made every effort to make sure that the Board saw all of my "scars and warts" before we started talking about matrimony. The Board must have had similar concerns because it sent its own investigator to Gainesville to "check the dowry" before the ceremony.
On July 1, 1991, the Board approved the contract on a 5-0 vote. Andrews exclaimed "we got him!" as she hugged other Board members after the meeting. Warren announced that "her horse had come in."
Andrews had pressed me to begin work on August 1. This was cutting it pretty close and, in retrospect, I probably should have given myself a little more time to make the move, although I shudder to think what would have happened had I not been around to head off some of the personnel allocation decisions that were about to be made.
Even under the best courtship conditions, newly married couples learn a great deal about each other after the ceremony when they begin living together full- time. This is particularly so in school board-superintendent marriages. School boards have the advantage going into the relationship because they can "check behind" superintendents in their previous work environments. Superintendents, on the other hand, usually have to take Boards at face value and explore the individual personalities and group dynamics after formalizing the relationship.
During those first few days, I met with the staff when I could work it in. Andrews had scheduled me to be on display all over town everyday, and every program chairman of every civic club in the county wanted to be the first to have the new superintendent meet with his or her group. The first few weeks were devoted, almost entirely, to ceremony. Substantive matters had to be addressed between ceremonies.
Getting to know the staff is the single most important aspect of assuming a superintendency. They are the folks who keep the thing running while the Superintendent is out spouting educational philosophy, getting "input" from the community and doing other ceremonial things. If they do not understand the agenda or if the Superintendent does not understand what they can and cannot carry out, the whole enterprise will fall on its face in short order.
Barton Academy, the administrative headquarters of the district, was a legend long before my arrival in Mobile. Andrews and "Sugar" Warren, one of her colleagues on the Board, expressed a strong desire to "clean out the place" during their visit in Gainesville. In fact, at one point, they wanted me to bring my entire staff from Gainesville and replace everybody, while they "sat in lounge chairs on the lawn sipping drinks and watching the incumbents being thrown out of the windows." Later, I learned that these discussions were moot anyway and represented "wishful thinking" at best. In Alabama, everyone except superintendents attains tenure in the position he/she holds, and it is virtually impossible to fire anyone unless they are caught redhanded in some immoral or criminal act. Further, none of the central staff had been evaluated in five years, including the former superintendent.
I discovered a couple of other things about the staff immediately. First, they had not met as a staff for several months. I found it hard to imagine how the system could operate when the "generals" were not coordinating their efforts. It wasn't.
Second, almost without exception, they disliked each other. Apparently, there had been so many palace intrigues over the years that everyone was bitter and battlescarred. Not only was there little or no collaboration or coordination, no one wanted any. They preferred to play "gotcha" with each other instead of working together to do things for teachers and kids.
As it turned out, no one was really in charge of, or responsible for, anything. Every decision was being made by committee. When something went wrong, it was impossible to find anyone who had been at the committee meeting the day the decision was made. Apparently, the school system was being run by empty rooms!
School was to begin in less than 30 days and many of the schools had not even been staffed. There were 16 vacant administrative positions, at the school level, and an untold number of teacher vacancies. Apparently, someone had decided to wait until the new superintendent (who knew absolutely no one) arrived to let him make the decisions.
I pulled the staff together to get some recommendations for the administrative vacancies--especially for the principalships. I discovered in short order that the "selection system" in Mobile was based on who you knew, rather than what you could do and what you believed about teachers and children. This "good old boy/girl" system of personnel management is not necessarily a bad one. Certainly, getting to know people you are considering for important positions (like a principalship) is better than flying blind and accidentally sentencing an innocent faculty to purgatory. But "knowing" people should not be the only criterion for selection, as it appeared to be in Mobile.
During those first couple of weeks I was aghast to learn that it had been standard operating procedure for the central staff to select and assign Assistant Principals and teachers to the various schools. The Principals had little or no voice in the matter of who their lieutenants were to be! This, of course, negated any semblance of "accountability" on the part of the Principals.
Apparently, this "system" had evolved out of necessity. Only high school principals worked during the summer months. Selections and assignments of staff occurred over the summer when most of the principals were not employed and could not participate in the process.
Now this may not seem very significant to the casual observer, but personnel selection is, without doubt, the single most important aspect of a successful school. Effective schools are more like families than factories. They are not made up of interchangeable parts. Rather, they are close knit little micro- societies in which the members share a common mission, and that mission revolves around the children being served. When a "square peg" is put into a "round hole" inside such a family, the entire enterprise suffers. Principals know this, but they were (are) virtually excluded from the selection process by a shortsighted system that precluded them from carrying out their most important function over the summer.
I initiated a new personnel procedure. In effect, it said that principals would make the final decisions about personnel assigned to their buildings whenever and wherever possible, even if it had to be in the ten days before school actually started. In some few instances, principals cannot make the final decision because Board policies and State laws eclipse their decision making authority, but this happens in relatively few instances.
The "new procedure" provided that the central staff would screen applicants to make sure that they met State certification requirements and refer several candidates for each vacancy to school principals for the final decisions. The Central staff would also monitor compliance with various commitments dealing with racial ratios, program needs, etc.
This change, while it did not destroy the "good old boy" system, did shift its locus significantly. Barton Academy no longer controlled the process. The change was not met with great enthusiasm inside the Personnel Department. Dr. William Hanebuth, Executive Director of the Mobile County Education Association (MCEA), did not care for it either. At first, I failed to understand his opposition, but I later learned that he and some of the staff in the Personnel Division had a rather cozy little relationship that often determined who went where and when. Only the principals agreed that the change was a good idea.
Beyond the staffing and related procedural problems, I learned that the school system was really bankrupt. The Board and staff had been involved in an anguishing and counterproductive budget reduction process for most of the spring and summer of 1991 before I arrived. There was no rhyme or reason to their approach, and they had succeeded in alienating virtually all of the employees and the community (or at least that part of it that was paying any attention to what was going on). The irony of their machinations was that they were not even dealing with the root problems, and they were about to plunge the system into actual bankruptcy.
The system was reeling from a State declared proration during the spring of 1991. Mobile had been caught in this situation in the early 1980s and had been forced to borrow funds which previous Boards had been working to repay ever since. With the 1991 proration, the total operating debt escalated to nearly $20 million.
Shortly after my arrival, I was told of this debt, and told that the banks had informed the Board they were not going to go any higher. In August, 1991, there were already rumors that another proration was going to be declared in October for the new year. The State law had not contemplated what would happen if school districts could NOT borrow any additional funds.
Putting the proration issue aside for a moment, the Board had unwittingly compounded its dilemma by hiring 100 teachers ($2 million) more during the 1990- 91 year than it had in the budget. How, the average citizen might ask, could this happen? It is a reasonable question and I asked the same thing. The answer is both sad and revealing.
Remember that a committee was making staffing decisions. Pressures were being brought on the Board every week by Dr. Hanebuth with regard to oversized classes, and another group, SEAC (Special Education Action Committee), was constantly filing, or threatening to file, complaints about special education programs and staffing with the U.S. Office of Civil Rights. No one was comparing the revenues with the expenditures. The Board and the committee kept adding teachers to address these concerns and no one was keeping score. Further, the person responsible for making enrollment projections for the system had left in early August, 1991.
Some schools were projected to have substantial increases which, of course, increased their staffing allocations considerably, and no one could explain the projections, including the principals. Many of the affected schools had principals who were known to be close friends of the departed employee, and some began to suspect that he may have left them with certain "benefits." It is a sad commentary but personal favors sometimes are a dynamic in public school systems, and this explains why some schools actually are "better" than others. We set about making some adjustments in the last ten days before schools opened.
These adjustments led to the now infamous "Martin Case." I discovered that another Alabama law forbade the reassignment of tenured teaching personnel after the beginning of school. Of all of the laws that hamstring Alabama school systems, this one has to be the most insane, particularly as it applies to large districts. Students and their families move during the year, and particularly over the summer months. It is virtually impossible to predict with anything resembling complete accuracy the location of students when school opens in the fall. When the State precludes local districts from making adjustments as these changes occur, it guarantees both inequities among schools and budget overruns. Both of these had been routine occurrences in Mobile for as long as anyone could remember.
It can be argued that one only begins to "really" know one's spouse (and his/her family) after the honeymoon is over. I came to know the School Board in much the same way that a newlywed comes to know his/her spouse--by living together. But, in this case, it was like trying to learn the "five faces of Eve." While it is unreasonable to expect five people to have identical philosophies and tastes, it was somewhat unusual to find warring factions acting as immaturely and irresponsibly as some of my five "spouses" did routinely. I do not believe that the majority of the Board members ever understood that they were supposed to be governing the largest institution in the community.
N.Q. Adams is, and has been for a long time, a banker. He has been included in the traditional Mobile power structure for most of his adult life. And now he is one of its representatives on the School Board. He sees School Board service as something expected of him by his peers in return for his success and the honors bestowed upon him.
Adams is a "nice" man. It is hard to dislike someone who resembles W.C. Fields. Nevertheless, Adams can be, and often is, dangerous when it comes to school matters. At age 67, he prefers fishing and hunting to doing Board homework, and he frequently nods off during Board meetings and briefing sessions when his attention and experience are sorely needed. He thus abdicates his responsibility for leadership of the school system to others who may or may not support his philosophy, whatever that may be.
But beyond his apparent apathy about most school matters and its unintended consequences, he has a side that makes him truly dangerous to the community in certain situations: apparently he cannot bring himself to vote with the Black members of the Board against two white women, even when he agrees with them. This is "old Mobile" at its worst, and it has no place in the complex world of public school politics today.
Dr. Joseph Mitchell is an educator by training. He is an Assistant Professor of Behavioral Studies at The University of South Alabama. Further, he is a Black male who is both highly intelligent and very angry; traits often found together in the human species.
It is not difficult to understand Mitchell's anger. He is frequently treated as a non-person by the majority of the Board. He has the ability to grasp the essence of an issue before the others and usually offers a reasonable solution, although couching it in rhetoric that often alienates one or more of his colleagues. This, in turn, causes other Board members to reject his reasonable solution at a purely emotional level, and to the detriment of the school system and the children being served.
On the other hand, much of Mitchell's behavior may be for effect. I could never make up my mind. It could be that he deliberately works at being outrageous sometimes; that he plays "bad cop" to another's "good cop" in order to move things along at the margins. Whether he intends to do it or not, that is the way it frequently works. Often, the majority of the Board is willing to go along with almost anything, so long as it is not what Mitchell appears to want.
Marion "Sugar" Warren is not a "blueblood" like Adams, but she married well. She represents the replacement generation for the Adams' people. Together they make quite a pair. Warren relies, unnecessarily, on School Board President Jeanne Andrews to tell her what to do in almost every situation. During Andrews' 1992 re-election campaign, Warren was heard to say on several occasions that she "didn't know what she would do if Jeanne was not re-elected." That, probably, was joking on fact.
Warren does not like Mitchell. This dislike is not something new and is not attributable to recent events. It has existed since I have known her. It is a petty, childlike attitude that is born, I think, from a resentment of Mitchell because he is an intelligent and articulate Black male who refuses to "stay in his place." Mitchell, of course, does nothing to help this in his behavior toward her. It is usually difficult to sort out who started what, when the sparks start flying.
Hazel Fournier is the daughter of a working class, proud Black family. Her mother was a domestic who put her children through school and imbued them with a set of fundamental values that, in my experience, are unshakeable. She is intelligent, courageous, fair and, what is even more important, she has a wisdom born of considerable experience working with people.
Fournier is not given to either emotional outbursts or pettiness. Generally, she keeps the welfare of the children in the front of her mind, and casts her votes accordingly. She is one of the best "educational statespersons" with whom I have ever worked. This is not to say that we agreed on every issue. We did not. But when we disagreed, Fournier usually had reasons to support her position which I respected.
Fournier trusted Andrews and wanted to make a bi-racial Board work for the community. She was willing to accept the back seat to Andrews even though she and practically everyone else knew that she was far more qualified to lead the School Board than Andrews. She was willing to play the role of "peacemaker" in order to move the community beyond the racial gridlock that existed when she retired from the school system. But Andrews never understood the dynamics of the situation and betrayed the trust; her duplicity spoke much louder than her words.
Andrews is from Des Moine, Iowa. She is from a working class family, like most of us. She was married out of high school and played the role of mother and wife for many years while her husband enjoyed a career in commercial real estate development. At some point, she decided to make a career of her own and began to attend college. Her tenacity in the pursuit of her career goals has to be admired. She has been described to me as a "carpetbagger" and that description may be more appropriate than I was once willing to admit.
My initial impression was one of a fairly liberal (at least on social matters) person who truly had the children of Mobile County at the head of her agenda. She talks a good game. Andrews entertained me with an equity philosophy throughout the courtship period, but her husband did not appear to share her professed ideals. These apparent differences are not completely unheard of in a marriage, but, like Columbo used to say, "it's the little things that bother me."
After several times with them as a couple, I began to note her actions and inactions from a different perspective. I came to realize that she was "representing" only her district when it came to matters of importance. The suburban part of her district had a lot more in common with those of Warren and Adams than it did with those of Fournier and Mitchell, and the votes were being cast along those lines unless they were of no real consequence and helped nurture the public image she wanted to cultivate.
Andrews is not a stupid person. Cunning and manipulative, but not stupid. Generally speaking, she knows exactly what she is doing. She likes being "the boss lady" and she will do almost anything to preserve the status that she believes comes with that role. This might not be all bad for the community, if she knew what she was doing or would take the time to learn. Neither is the case.
When she was threatened with the specter of not being elected in the fall of 1992, she was willing to do whatever appeared necessary to achieve her goal. And this was not the first time that she had manifested this degree of commitment to achieve her objectives, nor would it be the last.
In April, Andrews did a 180 degree turnaround on a key capital outlay financing bill (The Cafeteria Bill put forth by Senator Ann Bedsole) that none of us understood at the time. Some have noted that the "big money" for Andrews' election campaign did not come in until after the white majority of the Board voted to suspend me October 5th and found this a bit unusual, since there were less than 30 days left before the election. And after October 5th and months of job hunting, Ms. Andrews was successful in securing a position in a program run by Mobile United (which is directed by Warren's cousin, Gigi Armbrect).
Andrews likes sitting at the head table. She enjoys rubbing elbows with the rich and famous. She thrives on the attention that public life brings as well as some of the "side benefits" that accrue to people in the ruling class. While she was not born to that class in Mobile, there are other ways to attain "associate membership."
(Next Article in the Series)
-- July 27, 1993