By Anita Debro
Special to the Birmingham Times
As expected, Birmingham City Schools (BCS) Superintendent Lisa Herring is busy this time of year. School opens in less than a month—the first day of classes is August 6.
When she walks into Birmingham City Hall on a recent Tuesday, her steps are purposeful and tight as she heads toward Mayor Randall Woodfin’s office, where she awaits the completion of a meeting already in progress. Herring—formal, but still warm when greeting a few city staffers who poke their heads into a small conference room when they hear she has arrived—seems focused already on her next meeting.
In minutes, Woodfin breezes in.
“What’s up?” he asks with a broad a smile as he greets the superintendent.
Leisurely and cool inside these confined quarters, he sits down beside Herring to discuss something important to both of them: the working relationship between Birmingham’s top elected official and the leader of the city’s schools.
Woodfin and Herring have established a partnership unlike any between a Birmingham mayor and school superintendent in recent memory. The two have made more than a dozen joint appearances over the past seven months, and many more are likely.
Some meetings between the two are planned and some—when there is a tragedy to address, such as a school shooting—are not.
“We have a genuine friendship,” Woodfin said, noting their collegiate ties: he is a Morehouse College graduate and she is a Spelman College graduate, renowned Atlanta historically black institutions with close connections.
Herring adds, we have “a deep layer of respect” for one another.
But there’s something else they agree upon as a priority.
“We are colleagues with a kindred spirit, and the end goal is the success of the students,” Herring said.
Woodfin uses nearly the same words: “Our end goal is success for the students of Birmingham.”
For too long, he explained, the relationship among the mayor, the superintendent, and school system was “transactional.” The city would hand money to the schools, and the school system would spend that money. Woodfin, a former school board president, and Herring agree the relationship must be “more than an exchange of tax dollars.”
The pair speak via text or phone call a minimum of once a week. Oftentimes, the conversations are daily.
“We talk about everything that affects children,” Herring said.
For example, before their joint interview on July 17 at City Hall for this article, their conversations began long before they met in a third-floor conference room. Earlier in the day, they talked about a fire that had consumed the former Ensley High School. Previous conversations between them led to the opening of the doors of A.H. Parker High School as a warming station during the blistering winter weather when the regular locations at the Boutwell Auditorium and Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex (BJCC) were not available.
Woodfin and Herring relate to one another as fellow public-sector CEOs, pulling and pushing against a tide of positive and negative discourse from several areas. Parts of leadership can be lonely, said Herring. She frequently refers to the support from the mayor as a “safe space. … Having space to be human, that is significant.”
Woodfin and Herring first met when she interviewed for the BCS superintendent position in 2015 and Woodfin was a member of the Birmingham Board of Education (BBOE). Herring did not get the job then, but her presentation made a positive impression on Woodfin, who served as BBOE president from 2013 to 2015.
“She has that ‘it’ factor,” Woodfin said recently following one of Herring’s presentations. “She has a unique and relatable spirit and a positive vision.”
Herring returned to Birmingham in early 2017 to interview for the position once again and was named superintendent on May 3, 2017. Previously the chief academic officer for Jefferson County Public Schools in Kentucky, she had to learn Birmingham’s education and political landscape. Quickly. And there was one person who served as a guide.
“I’m new to Birmingham,” Herring said. “To have the space to watch and learn [from Woodfin] … is powerful.”
Woodfin, raised in Birmingham, is a product of city schools, attending North Birmingham Elementary and Putnam Middle School. He then went to high school at Shades Valley before enrolling at Morehouse. When elected mayor in October 2017, he asked Herring to work on his transition team.
“The mere fact that I have been so involved in helping shape the mayor’s education agenda is a great opportunity to build on,” she said during a presentation of the transition report back in March.
That was the beginning of a partnership that has only strengthened.
Woodfin and Herring now have a formal memorandum of understanding that the two will “work together and support one another to ensure that every child in the city of Birmingham is prepared for college, a career, and a successful, productive life.”
The two since have shared ideas on ways to improve early childhood literacy, bridge in-school learning with workforce development, and increase pre-kindergarten offerings throughout the system.
In April, Herring and Woodfin traveled to Chicago, Ill., as part of a delegation that toured Apple Inc., a trip that led to the city’s offering coding classes to students. That same month, the two also showed up in a less-formal setting: the annual Chuck and Tux Gala fundraiser, hosted by local youth-mentoring organization Growing Kings.
In May, the duo appeared at four events around the city, including a press conference with the United Way of Central Alabama (UWCA) to announce a $150,000 grant that will be used to boost early childhood literacy; a City Council District 7 town hall meeting; and another press conference to share information about a free six-week summer workshop for Birmingham’s middle school students.
In June, the City Council approved the mayor’s $436 million fiscal year 2019 budget, which designates $3 million for BCS, including money for more metal detectors, handheld scanners, door alarms, security officers, and crossing guards.
In July, Woodfin attended a press conference to acknowledge the school system’s accreditation—a huge step for BCS as it works to get back on course. Woodfin also introduced Herring before her inaugural State of the Schools address at the Lyric Theatre on July 19. Later that same week, the pair appeared at a back-to-school rally.
Many of those meetings were planned. And then there are those that are not. Woodfin has stepped in to support Herring during those challenging times.
“She does not deserve to lead in isolation,” he said.
On March 7, Huffman High School senior Courtlin Arrington was shot on the campus by a fellow student. Herring said she and Woodfin were communicating almost immediately after the shooting and throughout the ordeal.
“I made that phone call. I had to break it to her that the student died,” Woodfin recalled. “That was emotionally tough for both of us. I wanted her to know that she doesn’t have to bear that alone.”
When Herring met the press, Woodfin was by her side.
“Knowing who was standing beside me, that was a powerful opportunity to have support,” she said. “It is extremely positive to be able to lean on him.”
There are times when they show up to the same events unaware that the other will be there, which allows for brief moments to check in on one another friend to friend.
After their joint meeting at City Hall for this story, Herring is whisked across town for her next appointment, a press conference at the Lincoln Professional Development Center. There, she eagerly announces to the crowd that BCS has received full systemwide accreditation—which is a big deal. This is the first time the system has been fully accredited by the accrediting arm AdvanceEd, which had placed the system on probation five years ago because of infighting and leadership issues. Now, it seems, the system is headed in the right direction with AdvanceEd.
This is positive momentum for the superintendent who has been on the job at BCS for only about 14 months. Herring has already faced many challenges during her tenure, including a state report card that gave the city’s schools a grade of D and the deaths of two students in shootings. She has said she meets those challenges with a determination to change the school system’s outcome through accountability and forward movement.
‘A Common Goal’
Others have taken notice of Team Woodfin and Herring.
Drew Langloh, CEO of the United Way of Central Alabama, said the city will reap the benefits of the partnership between the superintendent and mayor. During the May press conference announcing the $150,000 grant for early childhood literacy initiatives, Langloh championed the collaborative efforts of the city, the school system, and other community partners.
“Great things happen when … we work toward a common goal,” he said.