3 things to watch out for in Birmingham’s new school board

This week, the Birmingham City Education Council welcomes six new members, a mix of former educators, business professionals and education advocates. With more than half of the new board of directors and additional federal funding of $ 185 million for pandemic relief, the new board will have a lot more money to solve problems in schools in Birmingham City than previous advice. These issues still include COVID-19 treatment and loss of classroom learning as well as student mental health.

The school board works with the superintendent and oversees the $ 160 million budget. Its members are often the first point of contact for parents, teachers and students with problems or concerns. Here’s what incoming, outgoing and outgoing board members told WBHM they were watching from the newly elected school board.

New perspectives

There are only three returning members to the school board, but the outgoing member Mickey millsap from District 5 said he thinks it’s a good thing.

“I just think there’s a lot of baggage that gets carried from one jurisdiction to another,” Millsap said. “For such a large group to get a fresh start and build a relationship with what is yet a brand new superintendent, I think this is a great opportunity for the district. “

Birmingham’s current superintendent Marc Sullivan started acting in May 2020. Millsap said that when asking Sullivan about the new board members, he had only good things to say.

“I just asked him, ‘Did you have a chance to meet the new group? And I wonder what is your opinion? And he said, ‘It’s a breath of fresh air.’ He said, “What a group that’s ready to roll up their sleeves, get down to business,” Millsap said.

A new board member eager to get to work is Neonta Williams. She is the first black woman to be elected to the District Two School Board, which includes Robinson Elementary School and Huffman College. She said it was bittersweet to be the first in 2021, but the portrayal is important.

“I am here and I am delighted for the students and families who will be able to see someone like me,” said Williams. “Ninety-seven percent of the students at Birmingham City School are African Americans. “

Part of Williams’ perspective comes from her work as the founder of Black Alabamians for Education, a non-profit organization that advocates for school choice among families of color. In recent years, the Birmingham School Board has not been keen to approve charter schools, but Williams is hoping the board can have more conversations.

“Most of our board members – as we should be – defend the traditional public school system,” Williams said. “I think we should also know everything that is going on in other spaces of education or the world, because that is what creates innovation.”

Another of William’s goals is to have more transparency between the board of directors and the community.

“We have a lot of challenges ahead of us. We are inheriting decisions that other board members have made before us, ”said Williams. “But all of us, our faith is strong. And so we can come together collectively and work together and make the right decisions for students and families.

Relationship of the Supervisory Board with the Superintendent

Something current and past board members recommend is that the public observe how the board and the superintendent interact. Outgoing board member Millsap said he believes most of the board’s job is to oversee the superintendent, so it’s important that the relationship is in harmony.

“They have a real opportunity for the first time in a long time to build consistency, leadership and messaging and all of those things,” Millsap said.

Birmingham has had six superintendents in seven years, which is why Millsap said it was important for the new board to maintain consistency.

“If you’re a teacher in a classroom and every six months there’s a new curriculum… At some point you give up and say, ‘I’m just going to teach. I don’t care about any of that, ”Millsap said. “But if you build consistency, you build that culture from the top.”

Another thing to watch out for is the way the board members treat each other. Sometimes board meetings can be heated, which is why Millsap said he would closely monitor the behavior of the new board.

“Do people work professionally with each other? Do they treat each other with respect? When a staff member comes to sit in front of the board on something controversial, does the board treat them with dignity and respect and don’t yell at them, argue with them and does he risk lowering them? I’ve seen a lot of it in my four years, and it was really uncomfortable for me, ”Millsap said.

Returning board member Marie boehm says she believes this new group will be adaptable.

“In general, the tone of this group is very positive. Professionalism is positive, ”said Boehm. “While there have been times in the past where board members have clashed with each other or with staff, I don’t see this happening as frequently, or maybe not at all. And I think there is a commitment to working behind the scenes to iron out our differences where possible and not air dirty laundry in public. “

Former Warden James Sullivan will soon represent District 5 and has expressed a willingness to collaborate and is committed to having cordial board meetings.

“If there is a group of people, you run the risk of having people with different agendas,” Sullivan said. “I think the most important thing we need to do is take a step back and realize what our role is. We’re doing this for the kids. And although we represent different districts globally, it is to improve our school system.

Things won’t change overnight

Boehm has already spent four years on the school board and while she is excited to work with new members, she also knows that this work is a lot of work.

“They are so excited, and I remember being exactly the way they were and thinking that with me, my energy and everything I bring, we’re going to be able to fix the school system year round. next, ”Boehm said. noted. “It will take longer and we need to know that as a community and as a group the work we do is not easy. The challenges our students face are very important.

At the end of his term, Millsap will join the Education Board’s advocacy group. Breakthrough in Birmingham. He said his tenure on the school board taught him some hard truths.

“I think there are structural issues inherent in the way we run public school districts that make bold change really difficult,” Millsap said.

Schools in the city of Birmingham have historically been underfunded and underfunded and even with the extra money from the Federal Pandemic Relief Program, the district still faces big issues such as the effects of COVID- 19 on students, learning loss, student mental health, declining attendance and other systemic issues.

“If people just gave them patience, you’re not going to change things overnight,” Millsap said. “It’s a complex set of things that needs to happen, you just need to make even small gains. And I just hope people give this board the chance to have time to learn and let them see what they can do over a few years, not a few months.

The new board of directors will be sworn in on October 26.

Kyra Miles is a member of the Report for America body that reports on education for WBHM.

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