By Robert Carter
Walter Gonsoulin, who has served as interim superintendent of the Jefferson County Schools since the departure past month of Craig Pouncey, now holds the position for good.
Gonsoulin was selected unanimously by the JefCoEd Board of Education in its regular monthly meeting Thursday morning. Unlike previous searches for a new superintendent, this search was over and done almost as quickly as legally allowed — just four days after the deadline for submitting applications had passed.
While other African American educators have served briefly as interim superintendents for JefCoEd in the past, Gonsoulin is the first in the system’s history to hold the job on a permanent basis.
“It’s a great honor and a great privilege to be a part of history,” he said. “I’m thankful that the board had confidence in me to appoint me. We’re just ready to get to work to serve our 36,000 students.”
Gonsoulin, who was previously a deputy superintendent at JefCoEd for 2½ years and the superintendent of the Fairfield City Schools before that, was favored by virtually all stakeholders as the permanent choice for the top position. His selection as interim superintendent in October was met with approval by teachers’ organizations, the system’s principals’ association and other rank-and-file workers. Some board members had indicated to BirminghamWatch that Gonsoulin was their choice for the job just after they had given him the interim appointment.
By state law, the board advertised the position for 30 days and had the Bishop Colvin law firm screen applications. In the end, Gonsoulin was the only applicant, according to board President Ronnie Dixon, who had taken the gavel minutes beforehand from outgoing President Oscar Mann as board members elected their officers for the coming year.
“The fact that only one applicant applied for the job should not be construed as a lack of interest for the position,” Dixon said before the board voted. “Rather, other prospective applicants likely realized after his appointment the Dr. Gonsoulin was the right person to lead the Jefferson County School System.”
Dixon told BirminghamWatch after the meeting that he was not surprised that Gonsoulin was the sole applicant.
“We wrote the request for applications indicating that we would prefer to hire from within. It puts other superintendents in a precarious situation, because we also indicated we wanted someone with prior superintendent experience. So you don’t want to apply and let the people where you’re at know you are leaving if the (system) you’re going to is looking from within, so that’s why I wasn’t surprised,” Dixon said.
The new JefCoEd leader said he’s ready to get down to work in a job that he actually has held for a little more than a month.
“We’d already started working on community and faculty meetings,” Gonsoulin said. “We have several new initiatives that we’re planning, and we’ve been meeting with stakeholders to communicate with them what the plans are for the next six to 12 months.”
Among the projects the system has in the works are several new schools plus improvements to existing ones, some of which will be converted to academies that will focus on certain areas of study such as arts, STEM subjects and the like.
Those changes still must be approved by the federal courts as part of the longstanding supervision of JefCoEd ordered under the Stout vs. Jefferson County Board of Education desegregation case. Pouncey had started the ball rolling on the latest changes to the desegregation order, some of which would allow the academies to be implemented and new schools to be built. The ultimate goal is to finally reach what’s known as “unitary status,” the declaration by the courts that the system is fully desegregated after half a century and no longer needs federal oversight.
“We are working with the parties and getting ready to submit something to the judge (U.S. District Judge Madeline Haikala),” Gonsoulin said. “The first part is having the judge approve the plan, then we have to be under supervision of working under that plan. That may be two, three, four or five years.”
Gonsoulin takes over for Pouncey who left JefCoEd after five years to become the president of Coastal Alabama Community College in Bay Minette. Pouncey, previously a deputy superintendent of the Alabama State Department of Education, had twice applied for the state superintendent’s post while serving at JefCoEd. He lost election by the state board each time by one vote.