August 24, 1993
by Dr. Doug Magann
[Editor's note: This is the sixth in a series on the Mobile County Public School System written by former school superintendent Dr. Doug Magann. This continues from the last installment on the staff of Barton Academy.]
Anna Clausen had been with the school system nearly 30 years when I came to Mobile. She had come up through the ranks and served under a number of superintendents. She had applied for the superintendency, as had Paul Sousa, the current Superintendent. Unlike Sousa, she stopped campaigning for it when the Board made its decision to hire me.
Clausen is a highly intelligent person with a lot of focus. She is a fighter and, although she had become somewhat hardened and embittered over the years like many of the others who worked at Barton Academy, she refused to give up on people (or at least most of them). She places children and teachers first, and will move heaven and earth to make improvements for them. For the most part, we hit it off from day one.
Clausen caught the vision of what could be and was re-energized. She was former Washington Redskin's coach George Allen's dream come true: a veteran with a renewed mission who wanted to play on a championship team one more time.
Jimmy Knight was the "new" kid on the block. He had been brought to the district office only a couple of years before I came. Although he had been in the system for a number of years, he had relatively little experience at the district level.
But I liked Knight almost immediately. He has an endearing sense of humor and he does not take himself too seriously. What I liked most about him was his value system. He puts people first, and usually refuses to engage in the pettiness that pervades the school system. I was not going to have to worry about people getting a fair shake and a level playing field in the areas he administered. This was crucial because his areas included attendance zones and Special Education; two functions that can explode every day, and usually do.
While Knight had virtually no experience in Special Education, he turned out to be a pleasant surprise from a management standpoint. He will work 14 hours a day in order to get the job done and he is a good manager of people. Within the year, he and his staff were able to get a handle on a $20 million Special Education program that was totally out of control. The results were both fiscal accountability and better service to disadvantaged children.
This was not accomplished without considerable pain and anguish. When I came to the district, the coordinator of Special Education had been in that position for many years. She had both a grievance and a suit pending against the district for sexual discrimination because she had never been promoted to Director level. All of the Directors were males and very few of them had nearly as much responsibility as she did. She had a good case.
Further, her department was understaffed at the supervisory level. Complaints about the Special Education program poured in by the hour (no exaggeration). Like many in the system, the coordinator for Special Education had quietly retired on the job. She had been beaten into submission. She reasoned that, if the Board refused to treat her equally and provide adequate staff to get the job done, she was not going to kill herself for the cause. She was frustrated. Knight was frustrated. Parents and teachers were frustrated, and the new superintendent was becoming very angry about what he saw happening to children.
Late one afternoon in early October, 1991, in an unusual show of frustration, I told her that "this is the worst Special Education program I have ever seen or heard tell of. How could you let this happen?" It was probably the most brutal thing I have ever said to a professional employee and I regretted it immediately. She was a proud woman and was not a slouch by nature. That much I already knew about her, but I was very angry about what I was seeing.
She closed my office door and said to me, with tears in her eyes, "Do you have a minute, and may I tell you a few things about me and this program?" I shall never forget the next few minutes. She told me that I was the first Superintendent in 17 years to even take an interest in the Special Education program; that it had been an appendage to the system which no one cared about; that she had never been allowed to attend state or national Special Education conferences to see how other districts did things or talk with professional peers about common problems. If I had any remaining doubts about her "victim" status, they were removed that afternoon.
The coordinator for Special Education was eligible for retirement and I suspected that she might retire at the end of the year if the discrimination issue could be resolved to her satisfaction, i.e., she was given Director status. Knight agreed. And, there was the possibility that she might "renew" and become a positive contributor to the mission. The fact was that we really did not know what she could do because no one had ever given her any encouragement to perform. We decided to recommend that her position be upgraded and expanded to include supervision of Psychological Testing, and that several Resource Teachers be added to the department to handle the evaluation and placement backlogs. Under these conditions, we could begin to fairly evaluate her performance.
Knight and I both knew that we were skating on very thin ice with the Special Education program. The U.S. Office of Civil Rights (OCR) was receiving so many complaints against the Mobile School system that it had to assign a full time staff person to handle them. We were on a first name basis with a lot of people in Atlanta. We also knew that the coordinator for Special Education would win her discrimination suit if it ever got to court. The evidence in her favor was overwhelming.
I took the recommendation to the Board as an action item in November. I knew that several Board members did not like her personally, but I also knew there were no legitimate reasons to reject the recommendation. Besides, we had to do something with the situation or be sued on several fronts simultaneously. I was taking my stand on the "separation of powers" portion of my contract which said that I had the right to select and promote personnel and that the Board must state good and just causes to reject my recommendation.
When I made the recommendation, the Board promptly went into executive session. In Alabama, executive sessions are permitted to protect "the good name and character" of individuals under discussion. They actually serve to protect the individuals in the sessions who, invariably engage in character assassinations that would produce civil suits by the dozens if the statements were made in public. Executive sessions for personnel items should be forbidden. If discussions of personnel qualifications were held in public, they would be civilized and focused on relevant issues. Behind closed doors, the meaner side of human nature is allowed to surface and roam around the room at will.
The Board attorney, Knight and I attempted to explain the situation and the rationale behind the recommendation to the Board. We were in agreement that no grounds existed to terminate the coordinator for Special Education, that she would likely win the discrimination suit, that she did not have sufficient help to do the job properly, and that something had to be done immediately to ward off aggressive OCR action against the district.
Several of the Board members could not get past the personality issue. In the end, they wanted to think about it for two weeks. I agreed to postpone the recommendation until the next meeting.
During the following two weeks, the situation continued to deteriorate. Knight was drowning. OCR was beating down the front door. The State Department of Education got into the act and began to make threatening noises, and students and teachers continued to suffer all over the county.
When I took the item back to the Board, they once more went into executive session and the majority told me not to bring the item back again. They were not going to officially reject the recommendation. Instead, they were going to "table" it indefinitely. I tried to explain that such action would place us in gridlock with respect to solving the problems in Special Education, but they did not care. An employee had dared to sue the Board and accuse them of discrimination. They were not about to appear to give in!
I knew then that our marriage was in trouble. The Board had flagrantly violated a major tenet of the contract. They knew it and they had done it deliberately. They refused to focus on the issues confronting the district and had made it clear that they intended to continue to deal in personalities. When we reconvened the regular meeting, I passed a note around the table during the closing minutes asking the Board members to meet with me privately afterwards. In retrospect, I should have said what I had to say while we were in executive session, but others were there and I was too angry and upset to do it.
All of the Board members, except N.Q. Adams, met with me in the Treasurer's office following the meeting. Adams and I had talked briefly before he left. I told the four that I did not think our marriage was going to work because I could not manage the system effectively if the Board insisted on making personnel decisions. I think all four were genuinely shocked at my reaction. They really saw nothing wrong with violating the contract language, the employees' rights, or federal and state laws! It was to be business as usual. School Board President Jeanne Andrews' only reaction was: "Will you stay long enough to help us get the money?" She had missed the entire point. In retrospect, so had I.
Kathy Dean, of the Mobile Press-Register, burst in the door about that time and was very angry about the "secret meeting." She wanted to know what we were talking about and, of course, everyone gave her a different story. She knew she was being lied to but must have found it hilarious, upon reflection. These people were so inept that they couldn't even lie well. It was like little kids caught with their hands in the cookie jar! Her lead story the next day was about the secret gathering, rather than everything that had gone on in the Board meeting. Bill Hearin, publisher of the paper, ran a blistering editorial entitled "School Leadership Keeps Alienating Public's Support."
Both Dean and Hearin were reacting to the violation of the open meeting law, and they had good reason. It was a mistake to meet with the Board in that way. And in typical Mobile fashion, the press compounded the mistake by mis-reporting and misinterpreting another important action item on the Board agenda. In the long run, that development turned out to be far more important.
Dean was upset about the closed door session and that became the focus of her lead story. Her second story reported, in part, Board approval to go forward with solicitations of "Requests for Proposals" (RFPs) to perform a facilities study on the school system. The Legislative delegation (and everyone else in town) wanted to know exactly how any additional capital outlay money would be spent and where. We could not be specific because no one had ever performed a detailed analysis of existing facilities. Our intent was to solicit proposals from architectural and engineering firms about how to approach the task and estimates of the cost.
When asked, at the conclusion of the meeting, what I thought the cost might be, I made a serious tactical error. I was still very much upset about the executive session and its implications, which had ended only moments earlier, and I remember thinking: How honest and candid should I be here? I decided that complete honesty and candor had gotten me this far, why change now? I replied that the cost could run between $600,000-$800,000, but that we wanted to find out and that was why we were asking for proposals.
I had already had some preliminary conversations with various facilities professionals and they had given me some ball park estimates of the time involved with such a study. We did not even have drawings for many of the older buildings and maintenance records were practically non-existent. There were over 900 buildings on some 100 sites in the system and an estimated 5 million square feet under roof. This was no small undertaking, but someone had to gather some baseline data in order to describe the magnitude of the problem to the public and answer legitimate questions.
Hearin inferred, from Dean's report, that I had recommended a $700,000 expenditure for "consultants" and blasted the Board in an editorial. I had not used the term "consultant" in my presentation to the Board, but Hearin and the community are particularly sensitive to any use of outside help (except volunteers) because of the history of past excesses and criminal activities resulting from collusion between contractors and previous Board members. One can easily understand their sensitivities, but those things happened years before I came and with different people on the Board. The net effect of their continued paranoia about the use of outside professional help has been to wrap the system in a time cocoon and produce woefully inadequate facilities for children and teachers.
Hearin was never able to grasp the difference between the capital budget of the system and the operating budget. We had some discretionary money in the capital budget and a little more in sight the next year due to retirement of some old bonds. The facilities study, if the Board eventually approved it, would be a capital expenditure. The operating budget was where the crises kept occuring and state law forbids the use of restricted capital funds for operating purposes. He was incensed that we would even consider another "study" when the system was on the verge of bankruptcy.
State Senator Ann Bedsole took Hearin's inference as fact and joined the parade blasting me and the Board. The irony of this was that Bedsole and Hearin had been the most vocal people demanding specific information about proposed capital expenditures.
The Board spent most of the next week defending itself on the non-issue of "approving a $700,000 expenditure for consultants" while, at the same time, telling the community that the school system was broke. Dr. Joseph Mitchell observed that none of this would have occurred had the Board taken the time to discuss the item thoroughly during the meeting to help the public understand the recommendation. He was absolutely right then and many times thereafter, but that was not the way things were done in Mobile.
The coordinator for Special Education went ahead with her suit and the Board settled quietly with her for about $25,000 in back pay. She agreed to retire. I remember thinking: what a wasteful and stupid expenditure of money. It was spring before we were able to get people into "acting" positions in Special Education. They are still "acting" and I am told that the State now wants to disallow payment for the positions because they are not permanent and some of the "acting" incumbents do not have the degrees required by the State. But they have done yeoman's work in bringing the program around and reducing the drain on the general fund by about $2 million a year!
Constance (Connie) Aune was the Staff Attorney. She had been employed about four years before my arrival when the legal workload reached crisis stage, as it had in most school districts. School law has become so complicated in the past decade or so that the staff attorney is one of the busiest employees in school systems. Everything has legal implications. And Alabama has managed to make a bad situation even worse with its labyrinth of vaguely worded statutes, Constitutional Amendments, and volumes of case law.
Aune is a good lawyer, but a little truculent. Perhaps that is a product of her former life as a trial lawyer. As the year wore on, she mellowed and became a valuable and valued member of the Cabinet staff. I wanted her to become a teacher of the rest of us. To the degree that she could help us understand the law, we could keep ourselves out of the ditches most of the time. And I wanted the staff to overcome their near total dependency on her and begin to think for themselves. The convenience of having her around had become a liability in some respects. No one did anything without checking first with her to see if they were about to violate some obscure law. This slowed the entire decision making apparatus down to a snail's pace and, in effect, made her the final authority on nearly every educational decision being made. She was almost as uncomfortable with this as I was, and her experience and expertise needed to be put to use in other, more important ways, e.g., drafting legislation and policies for the Board, reviewing special contracts, handling personnel actions before the Board, etc.
Bob Campbell was the Board Attorney. Campbell is a product of the Philadelphia "Main Line" who went to school in Alabama and stayed. He is a trial attorney who prides himself on teacher dismissal cases and his involvement with the "Birdie Mae Davis" desegregation case, with which he had been involved for many years.
Trial attorneys, by nature, are both combative and competitive. They like to fight. This is not good for school districts. The only consolation is that they hate to lose. Campbell hates to lose more than most. He is very competitive in all aspects of his life. When he loses, or comes close to losing, he is prone to find a scapegoat. When Aune was hired by the Board, she became a convenient target. This was not lost on her because she, too, is a proud and competitive person. Their relationship, while usually civilized, presented some unique challenges for the new Superintendent.
After a period of time, Campbell struck me as insecure. He tends to live in the past rather than the present and future. This is a phenomenon that overtakes us all sooner or later, but Campbell is a relatively young man and it seemed to me that he was requesting some kind of recognition or acknowledgement of his talents by constantly relating past conquests of one sort or another. He had a compulsive need to tell others how important he was and how he had repeatedly "saved" the district, the community, etc. by deploying his professional expertise. Often, what should have been two or three minute conversations stretched into 20-30 minute ones because he had to tell me about how busy he was or what he had accomplished that morning in another non-school case. When I called him to ask what I considered a rather straight-forward question, I usually had to entertain digression to "Birdie Mae" whether it had anything to do with my question or not.
Campbell can also be petty and unnecessarily judgmental. He is prone to make snide remarks about people at very inappropriate times. I shall never forget a Board meeting dealing with the budget when he came in late and wrote a note to me on the back of one of my worksheets about a staff member. The note was cryptic: "You need to talk to one of your staff about being rude." When Campbell put the note under my nose again, I wrote back: "Who, What?" He answered: "I have spoken to Barbara Shaw three times and she has not spoken back." I could not believe it! The morning had been particularly hectic for all of us and he expected Shaw to drop everything and treat him like a total stranger. I found the note recently while going through some files. I still have trouble believing it.
Barbara Shaw had been hired about eleven months before I arrived. She had been recruited from the outside to help with media relations because she had experience in that field. She, like Ratcliffe some years before, was "a fish out of water." Shaw is a competent person, but the politics and attitudes of Barton Academy nearly swallowed her during those first few months. She is a quiet idealist with a lot of integrity who has cultivated the detached exterior required of a reporter. She is also from Cleveland, of Slavic stock, and candid. None of these characteristics endeared her to the "genteel" vipers she found at Barton Academy.
After her honeymoon period (which probably lasted 24 hours), whenever anything less than a positive story appeared in print or on the air, it was blamed on her. Apparently, she was expected to put a positive "spin" on even the most negative news coming out of the system. And there was a lot of negative news. How one puts a positive "spin" on proration is something I have never understood. Some Board members expressed the sentiment that it was her job to make the Board "look good" regardless of what happened. Given the composition of the Board, that may have been Mission Impossible.
Eugene (Gene) Tysowsky came with me from Gainesville. We had worked together for four years there, and I had developed a keen respect for his talents in dealing with people. The Board knew that he was part of the package when they hired me. In fact, they wanted me to bring a few more of the staff along with him. They knew what he made in Gainesville, and they approved a similar salary package before anything was finalized. This would be irrelevant except for the fact that School Board Commissioner "Sugar" Warren made a comment about his salary on my evaluation form. She was the one who made the motion to hire him and led a 5-0 vote.
Tysowsky, like Shaw, is of Slavic stock. He grew up in the streets of the North and has considerable experience in integrated, urban settings. And like Shaw and Ratcliffe, he is not an educator by training. His background is political science and he spent the first part of his career in municipal government. He is sensitive to the public and understands that we are there to serve and make things better for people, rather than rule them. He was to head up the Community Relations function. He knew me well enough to anticipate my reactions in most situations. Part of his value to the organization was to represent me and interpret me to the various publics, both within and without, including the news media.
Like Jimmy Knight, Tysowsky's value system is solid. He will not deal from the bottom of the deck no matter what the situation. He lives by his word. That is of considerable value to any Superintendent and especially in a school system like Mobile.
Tysowsky had engineered a $100 million capital bond referendum in Gainesville. He knew how to do it and he would have pulled it off in Mobile, had we been given the chance. He has great political instincts and knows how to package information to the public while maintaining his integrity. His objective is to help people understand issues. He is not good at presenting half truths and outright lies. As with Shaw, this did not serve him well in Mobile.
Bill Hanebuth has been with the Mobile County Education Association (MCEA) for nearly 20 years. He is a native of Michigan and was trained as a labor organizer in the auto industry model of that state. Michigan is known in the world of labor relations as one of, if not the, toughest labor environments in the country.
Hanebuth has created a very comfortable niche for himself in Mobile. He has convinced a substantial number of teachers that their livelihoods are endangered by an arbitrary and capricious School Board, and that he alone stands between them and the unemployment lines. Unfortunately, previous Boards and administrations have aided him in this task. The problem I had with Hanebuth is that he has been content to feather his own nest within these conditions rather than try to improve them. It is not in his best interest to improve them. Rather, it is in his personal best interest to have them continue.
Hanebuth does not represent the classroom teachers of Mobile County. He does not work for them. That is, the teachers do not pay his salary directly. Hanebuth works for the Alabama Education Association (AEA) which is an affiliate of the National Education Association (NEA). He is employed by, and receives directions from, Paul Hubbert, the statewide leader of the AEA and a man who was nearly elected Governor of Alabama in 1990. Hanebuth's mission is to maintain membership and promote the political agendas of Hubbert, the AEA, and the NEA.
Fear is the primary motivator for membership. Hanebuth had convinced many of the teachers that they had to join the MCEA in order to protect themselves against the Board and against the public. The AEA provides (as a part of membership) a liability insurance policy to protect teachers from "suit happy" parents and others. He neglects to tell them that the Board carries a policy on all employees that does essentially the same thing. I mentioned this fact in my address to the employees in September, 1992, and Hanebuth had an apoplectic fit. This may have had something to do with his decision to join ranks with School Board President Jeanne Andrews and seek my termination. Early reports indicated that many teachers began to question the $300 a year dues that "bought them the insurance policy".
In the Spring of 1992, Hubbert and Hanebuth wanted to create a major crisis in Alabama public education. They believed, and they may have been right, that only such a crisis would produce the necessary political environment for increased funding.
Hanebuth had proposed, following a budget hearing at Murphy High School, that the Board go to Montgomery and meet with Hubbert and others to discuss funding for the new year. He explained to me after the meeting and away from the press, what they had in mind. Hanebuth urged me and the Board to inflate the revenue estimates for 1992-93 and deliberately create a situation which would have virtually guaranteed bankruptcy in the fall. My response was carried in the Mobile Press/Register the next day as : Magann told Hanebuth that "he was full of it." The quote was close to my actual comment, and appropriate for a family newspaper. Hanebuth was quoted as saying that he had not realized how "arrogant" I was.
The Board members were trapped into going because they felt that the public expected them to explore every possibility before making the draconian budget cuts that were ahead. I opposed the meeting, but four of the Board members decided to go anyway. Dr. Joseph Mitchell refused.
The rest, or most of the rest, is history. The Press-Register sued the School Board for holding a "closed" meeting with Hubbert, and the Board pleaded guilty and promised not to do it again. It was interesting to me that the plea agreement developed about twenty minutes before the trial. The Board had subpoenaed Hubbert and Hanebuth to testify about the "discussions" that had occurred. Such testimony would have been insightful for the public, but, of course, it never happened.
It is truly sad that the teachers in Mobile County have not had union leadership working to make things better for them and their students over the years. There is a considerable difference between "representing" teachers in individual conflict cases by writing reams of letters, and working to help the members understand the forces that are making their lives miserable. If they ever understood those forces, they might just organize and act to change them. But, again, it is not in the interest of the union leadership for that to occur.
The community would have been better served had the teachers and parents banded together and taken a stand years ago. As it is, many schools are in deplorable physical condition, classes are tragically overcrowded, teachers have to subsidize instructional materials from their own pockets, textbooks are outdated or non-existent, salary schedules are well below even the regional averages, and many young teachers leave as soon as they can. And the current generation of school children will be cycled into the same castes as their parents.
Most teachers care, but they do not understand the forces and they are not organized to take the necessary action to change things. In large measure, the union leadership is to blame for the continued existence of these conditions because they, like some others in the community, benefit from them.
I have spent most of my adult life studying and trying to improve organizations. I have come to understand that organizations, like societies, have distinct cultures. Some are healthy, others are sick. I tend to think about organizations and their underlying cultures in terms of the observed behaviors of their members.
School systems, and all other human organizations, are about values - and only about values. Even a casual study of them can enable one to catch sight of the guiding belief systems: What is believed about people? About children? About the mission? Does the organization value other people, their unique talents, and the contributions they can make, or are they interchangeable parts who enjoy temporary security at the whims of the directors? Does it value individual learning, development and excellence, or only getting the "job" done as quickly and cheaply as possible? Does it believe that everyone wants to excel at what they are doing, or that they have to be forced to be productive? Is the assumption that people want to make things "better" rather than "worse"? Does the organization consciously look for the potential in people rather than their weaknesses? Is the organization based on integrity, honor and courage, or some other set of values? Is the environment relatively anxiety free, or obsessed with fear and insecurity? Does the organization strive to promote good will and mutual support among team members, or is it based on rivalry and jealousy? Are people encouraged to enjoy their work and have fun at it, or is it simple drudgery? Is every person capable of learning? Etc.
Whether explicit or implicit, employees quickly grasp the underlying value system of the organization by the ways they are treated. If the "official" value system is explicit and the real rules of the organization are inconsistent with it, the employees soon recognize the hypocrisy, and either comply with it or leave. If the values are implicit, it takes a little longer to ferret them out, but the results are the same. Employees either come to embrace them enthusiastically (and consider themselves lucky to have stumbled into the job), acquiesce to them, or leave. Unfortunately, when the value system is found to be intolerable, the more competent and assertive individuals are usually the ones who seek another environment - leaving behind trapped, mostly passive people of marginal competence.
Healthy organizations have a synergy capable of magnificent achievements. In the public sector, those achievements produce public good. Sick organizations infect everything they come into contact with and, in the public sector, they never die. When dealing with a "sick" one, the trick is to treat it into a healthy state, much as a physician would treat a patient, before the infection spreads.
Actually, something much worse than simple inefficiencies existed at Barton. A spiritual malignancy had taken hold as the result of years of unwarranted irrational attacks by enemies of the public schools. Many of the people at Barton had developed a "siege mentality" that generated behaviors that were, at once, defensive, antagonistic, dysfunctional and self-destructive. We had a self-fulfilling prophecy: as they were attacked, they behaved exactly as they were predicted to behave, and those behaviors induced animosities that confirmed the predictions and led to subsequent attacks. A vicious cycle!
The prevailing philosophy was one of "Cover your a** and find someone to blame whenever a serious screwup occurs." It was pathological, but understandable after a while in the environment. I had never seen the likes of it.
At some point, I was forced to ask myself: Are there other Mobiles? Is this an isolated case or do similar conditions exist in other school systems? If there are many more like Mobile, perhaps it is best that the public schools be dismantled, as some have argued.
But, that thought passes quickly because a total dismantlement would be the institutional equivalent of a nuclear attack. There would be nothing left, and there is nothing to replace the schools. What would be done with the 42 million children in America for whom the public schools provide an important custodial function? Even the most ardent critics seem to understand this reality.
But there are others. And they suffer from the same combination of prolonged apathetic neglect by the many coupled with spurts of misguided zealous tinkering by the powerful few that produced the situation in Mobile. You cannot change the culture of an institution overnight any more than you can change the culture of a nation overnight. There are no quick fixes; no magic bullets. To effect such changes, one must put into place the necessary prerequisite conditions and allow the institution time to re-establish equilibrium.
Continuing the patient analogy, the physician must stop the bleeding, administer appropriate medications to kill the infection, and provide sufficient nourishment and rest over time to allow recovery to occur. Hearin, Howard Bronson (the current publisher of the Press-Register), the Legislative Delegation, and many in the business community wanted to put a band aide on a hemorrhage or prescribe an aspirin for a brain tumor and declare the patient "cured."
I spent 14 months trying to get people to trust and appreciate each other, play on the same team, understand that they were there to help others, take a few risks, have hope, develop the people around them, and try to improve schooling for children. I believe that significant progress had been made toward those objectives. I also believe that the progress was reversed in one action by a majority of the Board at the insistence of a newspaper publisher and a couple of State legislators.
When Paul Sousa assumed the role of "Acting Superintendent," his first pronouncement was that the organization was "going back to October, 1991," before the changes. The traditional value system was reinstalled and reinforced with one move.
(Next Article in the Series)
-- August 24, 1993