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Tested by circumstance, one school superintendent candidate stood …

The chairRoy S. Johnson

Maybe it wasn’t fair. Four seemingly decent people showed up in Birmingham this week to sit before the Birmingham City Schools board and state their case for becoming the next school superintendent. They came to answer questions, to showcase their passion for education, their leadership qualities and their vision for reviving a beleaguered school system.

They came to pitch themselves for a gig some find loathsome and fruitless, but others deem to be a beacon of opportunity in a rising city in dire need of higher quality public schools. They knew they’d be tested, and not just by the phalanx of school board members sitting on nine very hot seats. But also by the rabble of passionate “stakeholders,” as they’re respectfully called, who, frankly and clearly did not want them here. Because they’re not from here.

Still, Dr. Garrett L. Brundage, Dr. Ronnie A. Dotson, Dr. Lisa N. Herring and Dr.

Dr. BrundageRoy S. Johnson

Regina D. Thompson all showed up in Birmingham. Showed up to be grilled and scrutinized. Show up to be tested.

But not like this.

The bomb threat

At 11:10 a.m. on Tuesday, Herring, chief academic officer for Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville Ky., was still settling into the leather seat poised before the board inside BCS headquarters downtown.

Dr. HerringRoy S. Johnson

She spoke confidently and emphatically, saying she wanted to make the BCS the “best school district in the nation” before answering the first few inquiries from a list of 14 questions the board had prepared–questions about on strategic planning, management style, budget experience and, perhaps most important, managing relationships with the board, teachers, parents, elected officials, business leaders and all others who claim a stake in our schools. Just a couple of hours before, Brundage, an assistant superintendent at the Rockdale County Public Schools just outside Atlanta, was in the same chair, spouting, somewhat nervously at first, his own thoughts. A few hours later, Dr. Thompson sat there, too, speaking confidently and comfortably, using the same language as the others, the language of educators, peppered with words like curriculum, collaboration, conflict, and community.
And data, lots of data.

But at 11:10, a security guard quietly ambled into the board room and told everyone we had to go. Some knucklehead had called with a threat to bomb the building.

From bad to criminal

This hiring process had already dissolved into can’t-make-this-up as board members publicly feuded, the interim superintendent went to court, and community leaders, district employees, parents and, of course, spotlight seekers running for school board seats this August, all railed that none of the original five finalists put forth by the Alabama Association of School Boards last week as best qualified among the 38 people who completed the application process was from the BCS or the state of Alabama. But in that instant, at 11:10 a.m. can’t-make-this-up became criminal, pathetic and shameful.

And all too real for a city with a legacy of violent bombing tragedies. In that instant, four seemingly decent people suddenly knew what they were getting into. One of them, Dr. Dotson, decided it was all too much and, with sincere regret, pulled himself from the process before he was scheduled to take the seat[1], citing the potential danger to his family and, sadly, a belief that as a white man, he would “never be accepted” as Birmingham’s school superintendent.

And he was probably right. In about an hour- after the dogs sniffed, and police gave us the all-clear to return to the building–Herring sat in the chair again. Understandably, she was a little rattled at the start, as was just about anyone who came back into the board room.

Showing resolve

But she regained her footing and spoke thoroughly and thoughtfully on the touchstone subjects: student achievement and learning (“students are more than just a test that defines achievement; learning is lifelong”); resolving conflict (especially with board members: “I wouldn’t be here if I thought I could not deal with that.”); leadership (“Great leaders want to be coached and be even better.”); and the state of a system with a few schools deemed failing by the state (Herring refused to utter the term, calling them “at promise” instead) and where one in three third-graders are not reading at grade level. (“I see great opportunity in the BCS, but I am concerned about our numbers.”).

Dr. ThompsonRoy S. Johnson

But then, in responding to a question about the depth of her commitment to being Birmingham’s superintendent, she also displayed kind of resolve and resiliency that, fair or not, set her apart.

“Well, we’re here,” she said. “We didn’t break for lunch because we were hungry.”

It was a deft acknowledgment of the bomb threat that lifted the uneasy, heavy air in the room and drew a relieving laugh from board members.

“I hoped you’d laugh,” she said, then added: “I had the full intention of returning to this seat and fulfilling this process.”

Herring then closed her education playbook and began sharing her personal journey.

“I try to deal with challenging situations with grace and courage,” she said. “I thank my parents for that.

“I’ve experienced issues of race that touched me personally. But I had to move beyond the issue and seek first to understand. That was not easy. I think that is what you’re going to need in superintendent, someone meets challenges and seeks to understand. That doesn’t mean I don’t go home and collapse, but I do get back up again.”

Near the end of her presentation several board members lauded her display of fortitude and afterward, she embraced each of them with a comforting hug. I am not an expert on education, so I do not proport to be.

Yet after listening to Brundage, Herring, and Thompson yesterday, I believe the BOE will place the city’s schools in capable hands–hands that not only understand the intricacies of education, of managing a large, urban school system, and of navigating the every-day treacherous nature of working with a school board with a reputation for overmanaging the leaders they hire, principals that demand autonomy, teachers sometimes entrenched in their ways, students whose skills and dreams run the gamut, and a volatile, fractious “community” that includes some (or, at least one) willing to stoop to the depths of criminality. But hands that also understand the magnitude of the task ahead. Each of the three finalists who took that seat before the board on Tuesday showed they are qualified for the task – however you want to measure it.

Most important they all proved they want to be here, where some want them here or not.

Chatter on charter schools

Each of them talked data, collaboration, evaluating teacher and principals, managing budgets and resolving conflicts. They even weathered the third-rail question of the day, from board member Sherman Collins regarding charter schools, the hottest of hot buttons among parents, teachers, administrators–oh, just about everyone–affiliated with the school system. Brundage said charter schools allow flexibility in hiring someone who is an expert in their field but not an educator to be hired for their specific expertise in their field. Herring said, “If they’re legal, they’re inevitable…We have to be ready to compete [with them].”

Thompson, whose interview lasted less than an hour, the shortest of the three, said: “They have their place, and [as superintendent] I am the person who is the gatekeeper to keep them in their place.”

On Friday, the BOE will meet to vote to narrow the field to two–most likely, Dr. Lisa Herring, plus one.

Fair or not.

Watch Dr. Lisa Herring talk about how the bomb threat affected her:


  1. ^ decided it was all too much and, with sincere regret, pulled himself from the process before he was scheduled to take the seat (

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