Reward or Waste? Contracts Bring Controversy In Vestavia Hills Schools

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If you could keep your six-figure salary but work only “as needed,” mainly from home, advising the person doing your old job, would you take that deal? After 14 years as Vestavia Hills school superintendent, that’s exactly what Jamie Blair is doing now. And that’s raised some questions in this highly regarded school district. Some support the school board’s decision, but others — including the creator of a recent popular video — say it’s just wrong. Listen above, or read below. 

You know something’s up when a 37-minute video that’s mostly one guy talking local school business gets a couple thousand YouTube hits. Jim Metrock is that guy. He’s the father of two Vestavia graduates and recently, something of a social-media activist. He jokes that the length and subject matter of the video publicly questioning the school board should’ve guaranteed no viewers. But ever since he posted it on August 16, people have been watching, and talking.

“They need to be good stewards of the money for these children,” Metrock tells WBHM in an interview. “I’m trying to raise a red flag and saying our school board made a couple of bad decisions that cost us money.”

This past winter Jamie Blair resigned, effective October 2015. But sooner than expected or advertised, in May of this year, the board named an in-house replacement — former assistant superintendent Shelia Phillips. Soon after that, the board voted to keep Blair on with the same pay and benefits, creating a new position for him as an “as needed” advisor. All the board votes were efficient and unanimous.

“We are paying two superintendents,” says Metrock. “We’re paying Jamie Blair, but Sheila Phillips, our new superintendent, is getting paid $167,000. Jamie Blair, who doesn’t have to show up for work, is being paid $178,000.”

Blair is also keeping his transportation allowance of more than $800 per month.

School board members including president Kym Prewitt have said the arrangement will not result in program cuts, as the roughly $70-million system has a healthy reserve of $26 million. Some think that’s actually too much — it’s roughly five times the legal minimum — but Metrock’s main point is that more debate might have brought about a contract arrangement more fiscally favorable to the school system.

Beth Sanders also had two children come up through Vestavia schools. She’s not swayed by the “no cuts” rationale either:

“Knowing how tirelessly volunteers in our district work to raise funds for every imaginable reason, including classroom supplies, that is an odd attitude to me. Even if we have a surplus, I’d like to think we are wise in how we allocate these resources.”

She also says part of the issue in this tightly knit community is a subtle aversion to questioning school leaders:

“I think that a lot of parents are uncomfortable to raise these issues, because they don’t want to offend people they respect. But I think that perhaps the leadership is a little too sensitive. And I know that there are parents who worry that it could affect their children. That’s always a consideration.”

Kimberly Cook is a mother of two Vestavia graduates and a current eighth-grader. She’s disagreed with system leadership on past policy issues but praises new superintendent Phillips. Cook says some parents are reluctant to speak out on the Blair situation, and others.

“That’s something that I believe is sort of built into the culture of Vestavia Hills — the fact that people … they keep quiet about things, they try to ‘keep it undercover,'” she says. “And the truth is that, you know, if parents and stakeholders cannot get information, they can’t make changes, and they can’t advocate for their students.”

But many Vestavians give the school leaders on other end of that advocacy the benefit of the doubt. Julie Ellis is an active parent of two current Vestavia Hills students who has no problem at all with the deal the board gave Blair after 14 years of running a growing system that now serves about 7,000 students:

“I can’t imagine what it’s like to have to be answerable to this many parents, when you have that many parents who all want what is best for their children, but all have very different ideas about how to achieve that. I am sure it is an insurmountable task, so in my opinion, Dr. Blair has earned every penny of it. And I hope he enjoys his retirement.”

She adds that she’s surprised people take issue with the Blair arrangement because it’s common in schools, sports, and business, given that contracts have to be honored. Like many critics of Blair’s arrangement, Ellis is proud of Vestavia’s schools in general. But she also has deep faith in its elected city councilors (and the school board members they appoint).

“We’ve got it pretty darn good,” she says.”I trust those who are elected and those who are appointed. While I may not agree with every decision, and I may question some of the decisions, I don’t think I have all the information to judge them. I have to trust, and I do trust, that those who are in that leadership position are doing what is best for our students, and I’m confident in them.”

The Alabama Ethics Commission tries to make sure that confidence isn’t misplaced. General counsel Hugh Evans isn’t allowed to comment specifically on the Jamie Blair issue (he didn’t want to hear Blair’s name or place of employment — just the general situation), but Evans says if there’s no break in service, the board has not violated the letter of the law against creating a position for a specific person. But Evans says the situation “probably violates the spirit” of the law.

Retirement Systems of Alabama deputy director Don Yancey says school systems with new leaders often have a “parallel” or “overlap” period, but that usually lasts a couple months, not more than a year as in Blair’s and Phillips’ case. Contrary to what many have assumed, though, he says the state retirement benefit Blair will get is the same whether Blair stays on until 2015 or retires tomorrow. But Yancey does wonder about something:

“My question, if I were a citizen of Vestavia, would be why are we paying him a salary through the school system? That’s the additional benefit he’s getting, not the retirement part.”

It’s hard to say exactly how much Blair is working for the district from his farm in Tuscaloosa County. The central office recently put out an email to staff to the effect that Blair has “daily” contact with his advisees. On the other hand, many people — including retired Vestavia High School Principal Michael Gross, who had something school-related to discuss with Blair — say they can’t get a hold of him.

Regardless, the school leadership is not talking about it. Just before a budget hearing last Wednesday, I tried to speak with board president Kym Prewitt, who the was the only school leader who hadn’t yet given me the official “no comment,” and to whom other board members had referred me.

When I asked her about the Blair situation, she responded, “we really don’t have any comment, Dan [my emphasis]. I mean it’s not, it’s really not an issue. We don’t have any comments. But you’re welcome to come in here and find out all about our budget and you’re welcome to look at our videos on our website that have our meetings.”

When I tried to ask her why people might be so reluctant to comment on the subject, she turned and walked quickly away.

I turned to board member Mark Hogewood, who said, “The videos, like we referred you to, speak for the board. The board that meets together speaks as a board.”

Regardless of all this, Vestavia Hills has a very good school system, and even critics of Blair’s deal are quick to say it. Under Blair’s 14 years of service and before, Vestavia has racked up accolades. Blair himself was State Superintendent of the Year in 2010. U.S. News and World Report and the U.S. Department of Education have ranked the system highly in the
state and nationally.

Some of that status comes the work of lifelong educator Michael Gross. To give you a sense of his reputation, when he retired as principal of Vestavia Hills High School in 1999, the state legislature declared “Michael Gross Day.” He says he has deep respect for Blair, the board, and Jim Metrock who made the critical video. Gross says he thinks there’s more to the story than people know right now:

“My take on it is just … some pieces of the puzzle are missing. And we shall see what happens.”

 

REPORTER’S NOTE (updated below): After my interaction with Kym Prewitt and Mark Hogewood mentioned above, I stayed for most of the short budget meeting — roughly 20 minutes. Then, as I walked toward my car, from the BOE municipal parking lot I called up through a fence to a group of teachers sitting on a bench in a playground. (I was standing in the lot, looking up a wall to the playground; the playground is on a higher level than the lot where I was standing, and is also enclosed by a fence — see photo below.) Not surprisingly, the teachers said they did not want to comment on the Blair situation. I was inside my car less than a minute after that. But right after I got in my car, a police officer came out and began searching around the building. He apparently didn’t see me just sitting there responding to emails. He went back inside, but came out again, still intently looking around, still apparently not seeing me. I slowly drove off the lot to go back to work. Later I learned the central office had emailed principals to instruct staff not to speak with an “unidentified male reporter from WBHM” who was trying to talk to teachers on a playground. And at least one staffer was reportedly told that I’d tried to climb the fence.

For the record, I was already known through numerous calls and emails I’d made seeking information for this story, and through the interaction with Kym Prewitt you just read or heard; and I never set foot on a playground or tried to do so. The last thing an experienced reporter (and former teacher and teacher trainer) would think to do would be to frighten people at a school or trespass. Also, it would have been quite a climb carrying my recording gear. I recorded the interaction, of course. -Dan Carsen, September 9, 2014


Vestavia Hills Elementary School West is part of the same complex as the Board of Education building. This is the view from where I stood in the municipal parking lot as I called one question to four teachers sitting on that red bench. -Dan Carsen.