By Barnett Wright
The Birmingham Times
One week before the Birmingham City School board fired Superintendent Kelley Castlin-Gacutan, she engaged in a tense email exchange with board member April Williams, according to documents obtained by The Birmingham Times.
Castlin-Gacutan accused Williams of harassing and micromanaging the superintendent’s staff. Williams responded that Castlin-Gucatan’s tone was “inflammatory” and an “attack on her character.”
The never-before-disclosed emails bring light to events that may have played a role in the superintendent’s dismissal. In addition, interviews over the past two weeks reveal that Castlin-Gucatan may have unknowingly found herself caught in the middle of Birmingham’s lethal political climate, which contributed to her “downward spiral,” according to one elected official.
Castlin-Gucatan’s termination came not long after she wrote an email dated Sept. 16, 2016, to school board members stating that one of her subordinates felt “harassed by the ongoing requests” made by Williams. The superintendent also wrote that “the ongoing interference in day-to-day operations and certainly harassment” would not be good for system governance.
Williams responded on Sept. 19, 2016, that she was “taken aback” by Castlin-Gacutan’s email and that the superintendent’s tone was “extremely concerning and inflammatory.”
“At the very least,” Williams wrote, “the expectation is that you would have contacted me for clarification or to discuss your concerns prior to releasing such a message attacking my character and motives.”
Williams strongly denied she harassed anyone.
In an interview, Williams said, “As a result of that letter, I asked for the executive session due to good name and character because she was attacking mine.”
The executive session was closed to the public. Efforts to reach Castlin-Gacutan for comment for this report were unsuccessful.
Governance and Leadership
Five days after Castlin-Gacutan’s email to board members, an advisory went out that the Birmingham Board of Education would meet on Sept. 22, 2016, “to discuss governance and leadership.”
At the meeting, Williams, along with board members Daayge Hendricks, Cheri Gardner, Sandra Brown, Sherman Collins Jr., and board president Wardine Alexander voted to fire Castlin-Gacutan. Board members Brian Giattina, Lyord Watson, and Randall Woodfin voted against.
The majority said the superintendent was making decisions that were not fiscally sound. For example, Hendricks said the school system spent $2.5 million on a new reading initiative based on the superintendent’s recommendations, but students hadn’t received their new books. She also said the superintendent was making large expenditures without the board’s approval.
Woodfin said the decision to fire was “both unwarranted and reckless” and added that school boards tend to have a problem when they cannot control a superintendent with personnel recommendations and brick-and-mortar issues.
One brick-and-mortar issue that has caused political headaches for Birmingham school superintendents, even before Castlin-Gacutan, has been the renovation of Ernest F. Bush K-8, which is located in Williams’s district.
Williams said the dismissal of Castlin-Gacutan was “far-reaching and had absolutely nothing to do with Bush.” A number of other officials say otherwise, pointing to a July 11, 2016, community meeting at Jackson-Olin High School that contributed to Castlin-Gucatan’s “downward spiral,” according to State Rep. Juandalynn Givan (D-Birmingham).
During the meeting—attended by an anxious group of parents; some of the area’s most influential elected leaders, including Givan, State Rep. Mary Moore (D-Birmingham), and Birmingham City Councilman Stephen Hoyt; and school board members, including Williams—Castlin-Gucatan explained that funds were not available to renovate the elementary school.
This, in fact, also was indicated in a July 7, 2016, memo to school board members from Chief School Financial Officer Sharon Roberts: “We have $6,464,693 remaining in the Capital Projects fund allocated for the renovation of Bush K-8. … The base bid came in at $8,186,550 ($1,721,857 over budget), and this amount does not include alternatives that would provide added security and high-quality roofing.”
Roberts also wrote, “If the tough decision to not go forward with Bush K-8 is made, the district would then have $7,727,548 in Capital Projects. … These dollars would go a long way to help our Capital Projects fund become more fiscally sound and allow us to begin to address our major deferred maintenance needs.”
Board member Brian Giattina said Castlin-Gacutan used that memo as the basis to inform residents and other meeting attendees that the money was not available to renovate Bush K-8: “She presented a factual representation of where we were overall,” Giattina said.
“I have felt their pain from the very beginning,” he said of those who support the renovations for the school. “But at the same time we as a school system have to look out for the entire district. We have to make sound financial decisions that affect all 24,000 kids.”
Residents at the meeting were upset. Again they were being told money was not available for renovations, even after the Birmingham Board of Education had voted previously to rescind a plan to build a new school in the Ensley community in favor of a $7 million Bush K-8 renovation.
What made matters worse, according to many present, was that Castlin-Gacutan would not let some in the audience speak—including Hoyt and Givan.
“She wouldn’t let me speak,” Hoyt said. “We went back and forth for about two to three minutes. I said, ‘I’m the representative. You’re talking about my school. It’s in my district.’ I said, ‘Please, don’t treat me with contempt, because I don’t warrant that.’ ”
Hoyt never got a chance to speak. Neither did Givan, who walked out.
“If they didn’t want us to speak, why were we sitting there?” Givan said. “Their minds were made up. I stood up and told the people, ‘Let’s go. If they don’t have enough respect to want to hear and listen to what we have to say, then we don’t need to be sitting here listening to them.’ ”
Givan and others said that meeting contributed to Castlin-Gacutan’s “downward spiral.”
“They don’t understand the dynamics of the politics that are involved,” Givan said. “There is a lack of connectivity to the community because the voices of the community and the people must be heard.”
Following that chaotic July meeting, some members of the board began cataloging their problems with the superintendent, including, they said, her refusal to provide financial information as requested, her recommendation to convert Glen Iris Elementary into a charter school, her delay in having principals assigned to schools, and other issues. These matters came to a head when Castlin-Gacutan sent her Sept. 16, 2016, email.
School officials said the decision to terminate the superintendent’s contract “had nothing to do with an email exchange between Dr. Castlin-Gacutan and one board member.”
Williams was out of town when the email was sent, but it did not take long for her to respond.
“Would you send someone that you report to that type of message without seeking clarification?’” she said in an interview.
At the Sept. 22, 2016, special board meeting, Williams addressed Board President Wardine Alexander.
“Madame President,” Williams began, “I’d like to make a motion to go in a different direction with the leadership of Birmingham City Schools. Specifically, I move that we terminate the contract of Superintendent Kelley Castlin-Gacutan.”
Sixteen months after she was named superintendent, Castlin-Gacutan was fired on a 6-3 vote.
Updated on 10/7/2016 at 9:28 a.m. with comment from the Birmingham school district.