Tommy Bice impressed me the first time I met him. In fact, I think he impressed us all.
He was the first on the second of two panels at a townhall meeting that my organization, the Birmingham Association of Black Journalists, sponsored to discuss the academic “crisis” in Birmingham City Schools.
The first panel, including then Interim Superintendent Barbara Allen among other civic leaders, addressed the schools’ problems. They generally bemoaned the lack of academic excellence of the schools, the exodus of parents and students and test scores that failed to meet Annual Yearly Progress mandates.
On the second panel that was to address the solutions for the problems, Bice, then one of the state’s deputy superintendents, said something to this effect:
I sat here listening with great interest as you talked about the problems with Birmingham City Schools. Before I came here today, I took some time to pull some stats on a random sample of your schools. What I found was that the test scores and other measurements weren’t that bad when compared with other school systems in Alabama. I might give you a B or B-. Even one of your middle schools is a model school that teachers from around the country come to learn and see what they’re doing. So I was surprised to hear that things are as bad as you all are saying they are.
I think every jaw in the room hit the floor. What!?! We’re not as bad as we think we are?! And it took this white guy from the State of Alabama to tell us that?!?
Yes, in case some people didn’t notice, Bice is white. And to some people, that automatically means he’s up to no good, that he has some hidden agenda, and it’s not good for black folk.Maybe, if I had come of age 50 or 60 years ago, when Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan brutally enforced segregation and the evils of racial bigotry, I might be tempted to peer askance at him too. But I grew up in a very integrated “post-racial America,” so to speak, and I am more willing to consider the content of Bice’s character, based on my interactions with him, rather than the color of his skin.
A few years later, I ran into Bice again when ATT&T Alabama released its first African American history calendar in 2011. He excitedly introduced me to a woman on his staff who’d developed a companion classroom curriculum for teachers so they could use the calendar as a social studies teaching tool.
Several months later, I talked to him again by phone in a candid conversation about ways to combat negative perceptions about the city’s schools. I recall that, after the townhall meeting, more than a few journalists with PR hustles on the side gave their card to Superintendent Allen, saying they could help her get the word out about the positives of Birmingham City Schools.
Bice again repeated what he said at that meeting. But he also confessed he knew a little more than what he had let on. He was very familiar with urban schools, especially since he was a principal of Farifield’s alternative school. What he learned about those troubled students, he said, is what they really needed was a lot of love and discipline. If you gave them that, he said, they could learn. He also told me, “I wish I could say that we saved them all. But we lost some.” He wasn’t talking about them dropping out of school or failing to graduate. He meant some ended up in prison or were killed.
As our conversation turned back to Birmingham City Schools, Bice also told me he was very impressed with Craig Witherspoon, whom the new school board had hired to replace Ms. Allen. He believed Witherspoon was truly focused on the children, and was developing excellent plans to boost academics and improve the system overall.
“You really have a fine superintendent in Craig Witherspoon,” he said, confiding that he was already sensing trouble ahead for the new leader. “I hope the people of Birmingham realize what they have in Dr. Witherspoon and they’re smart enough to keep him.”
Few of us truly understand what really ended the honeymoon between Dr. Witherspoon and the current board of education members. But the split has been nasty and very public over the last few months.
But what has amazed me is a broad segment of the our usually (I hate to say it) apathetic community rallied behind Witherspoon, first after the public got wind of a hastily called Good Friday meeting in April by the five board members who were set to oust him. When “The Five” (Edward Maddox, Alana Edwards, Emanuel Ford, Virginia Volker and Tyrone Belcher) tried to fire him (but failed because of a procedural rule), several board members in the minority invited the state education department to look into what was going on.
Continued missteps by the board, particularly its failure to follow the state education department’s orders to get its financial house in order and trim staff, led to state intervention.
Despite the state intervention, the support for Witherspoon, and threats of voter reprisals at the ballot box in next year’s school board elections, “The Five” voted successfully to fire Witherspoon earlier this month. His lawyer filed a suit to keep his job and the community rose up in arms again.
But who led the charge to Witherspoon’s rescue each time? Tommy Bice, now State Superintendent Dr. Bice. He’s even scheduled to testify on his behalf in court today.
It was Dr. Bice at the helm of last week’s board meeting, large and in charge, overruling the board and making the hard decision to fire and demote workers in a system that can’t afford to pay them because of its dwindling student population. But he also did his best to be conciliatory, saying his presence was temporary as he and his staff worked with the board to get it back on track and back in its leaders’ hands.
Always, he made sure something nice was said about the city schools. Ed Richardson, whom Bice dispatched to work with the board, praised the system’s principals and teachers and their willingness to work through the leadership crisis so that the schools could open on time. And Bice himself admonished the media to take more time to find the good that happens in the city schools.
I believe that this is what drives Dr. Bice, his genuine desire to find something good where people see no good, his desire to fix a problem rather than just complain about it. I have to say, he was very strategic in the way he went about the school intervention, which ruffled a lot of feathers. I think he’s sensitive to the racial tensions bubbling beneath the surface of this showdown with the board. His meeting with antsy legislators and community leaders yesterday is proof of that.
In the end, I believe Dr. Bice’s focus is on righting Birmingham schools’ sinking ship and keeping a good person at its helm, for the sake of our children and the best public education we can give them. If he can help us perform that miracle – whether Witherspoon or the board goes or stays – then Dr. Bice is all right with me.
(Photos taken from the Alabama State Department of Education website’s Media Center under “2011 Torchbearer Awards.”)