A judge has issued a permanent injunction upholding the state of Alabama's takeover of the Birmingham City School System and prohibiting board members from firing their superintendent.
"We can get focused now. Focused back on teaching and learning," Superintendent Craig Witherspoon said after the ruling.
To many it seemed that focus had been lost as several members of the Birmingham School Board worked to fire Witherspoon and push back against the state takeover of the system. In a 36-page filing a judge ruled those things should stop.
"That will enable us now to move forward in a much more productive way," acting chief financial officer, Ed Richardson, said.
In the ruling Judge Houston Brown had some harsh words for board president Edward Maddox and his allies, calling Maddox's conduct malicious, accusing him of micromanagement and saying he put the district's accreditation in jeopardy.
"[It] rescues the school system from a tyranny of five school board members who in my judgment did not have the best interest of the kids at heart," Witherspoon's attorney, U.W. Clemon said.
Clemon says the ruling will force the board members to stay in their lane. He says if they don't there could be some serious consequences.
"It's very simple. They go to jail. That's the sanction. That's the punishment for violating a court order, contempt of court," Clemon said.
Both Witherspoon and Richardson believe the board will follow the court order and both are positive better days are ahead for the school system.
"I think by this time next year you'll see substantial improvements in the operations of the Birmingham City Schools," Richardson said.
Advanced Ed, which has been handling Birminghan's request for district-wide accreditation, has put that request on hold because of the recent court proceedings. The company's CEO said Monday evening that today's ruling in favor of the state and Witherspoon is good news. The school district has until October 1 to explain how it and the state will work together to move the district forward.
Also in the ruling, Judge Brown concluded that Maddox does not live in the city limits. The judge said although Maddox owns and rents a duplex in the city, he actually lives in Trussville and that would mean he is not eligible to serve on the board. Maddox says he has filed his taxes from the Birmingham address and he believes this issue is a personal attack on him.
The two lawsuits were part of a months-long battle for control of the school system. It started in spring when the board failed to meet a budget deadline outlining to the state how they could operate with one month's surplus.
When the board refused to pass a state-designed financial plan, the state announced they would take over the system in order to bring it into compliance with Alabama law. Just a few weeks later, the BOE voted to buy out Supt. Witherspoon's contract and replace him with Samuetta Drew.
This move was challenged and ultimately overturned by the state because of the financial aspect of firing Witherspoon. The morning after the vote, Witherspoon reported for work, only to find that the locks on his office had been changed.
Witherspoon's attorney, U.W. Clemon, filed a temporary injunction on his behalf to help him regain his position. Soon after, Clemon and the state filed the lawsuits against the board.
After several days of hearings two weeks ago, Judge Brown asked for final arguments by last Wednesday.
Attorney Andrew Allen, who has assisted Witherspoon's attorney U.W. Clemon in the case, released this statement:
"It is an unequivocal victory for not just superintendent Craig Witherspoon, but also for both the children of the Birmingham Public School system as well as the citizens of the city of Birmingham. An additional significant finding of this opinion is the affirmation of the state school Superintendent's authority to do what he did in furtherance of physical stability in the school system. The ruling was also incredibly supportive of the actions and work that Superintendent Witherspoon has engaged in since beginning the school system."
State Superintendent Bice released this statement:
"We are pleased that the Court has affirmed the role, authority, and responsibility of the State Board of Education through the State Superintendent over the public schools in the State of Alabama. As we move forward and prepare for the start of the school year, our objectives remain unchanged -- to complete a review of the governance structure of the local board, including the implications related to accreditation, and to restore the system to a sound financial status. Overarching these considerations is the importance of student learning and success, as stated in Birmingham's strategic plan."
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