Almost true story: It’s the first day of kindergarten for Brian Giattina’s son, and his turn comes to introduce himself. “I’m Gus. My dad runs a meth lab and an extortion ring.”
Horrified, the teacher pulls him aside. “Gus, your father is a good man. Why would you say something like that?”
“I didn’t want anyone knowing he’s on the Birmingham School Board.”
Which leads to the proverbial If I Had A Dollar question Brian first heard the day he decided to run for office. Namely: Why would you want to serve on the Birmingham School Board? Three years later, Brian’s answer remains the same.
“I see a real opportunity to be part of a change in the way our school system is run. We have a mayor I respect and admire tremendously. And we have a superintendent [Craig Witherspoon] who is as solid a human being at the core as anyone I have ever met.
“From the minute he took office, Dr. Witherspoon has challenged us to be better at every level. He doesn’t do ‘status quo’ just because that’s the way it’s always been done.
“What impresses me as much as anything is how he’s stayed absolutely focused on doing what’s right for the schools, the children, and the parents. In the middle of all the chaos he’s dealt with [including a majority vote by the board to fire him on two separate occasions—the second of which is being challenged in court by the State Board of Education], I’ve never once seen him lose his cool.
“Here’s a perfect example of the kind of person he is: On the day his case went to court, a friend of mine—who’s enrolling her child in Avondale—forwarded an email to me which read, ‘OMG! See below.’ It was a detailed message Dr. Witherspoon had written her at 7:00 that morning, answering several questions she had about the upcoming school year schedule.”
Brian’s made no secret of his support for Witherspoon. At the same time, he’s consciously avoided commenting on board matters in the media. Not because of a strategic agenda, but because of a conviction he’s held since Day One on the job: “This isn’t about me. It never has been.
“Several people have asked if I resent the loss of power as a result of the state’s takeover. For starters, power isn’t why you take this job. Well, let’s put it this way: It shouldn’t be. If anything, with the state in control, we’re now in a better position than ever to implement the innovations Dr. Witherspoon has been pushing from the very beginning.
“And here’s the important thing to understand. The central problem behind our school system’s failures is not the kids. There are too many success stories out there to believe that learning ability is inherently tied to income or demographics.”
Take, for example, Wilkerson Middle School, just north of I-59 at the Arkadelphia Road exit—where 90 percent of the students are on free or reduced lunch. As Dan Carsen reported for WBHM earlier this year, “The state has named it a ‘Torchbearer School’ three years running, and four of the last five years. For perspective, only one other middle school in Alabama has won the award since its inception in 2004, and that was just once.”
Stories like that are one reason Brian remains optimistic, despite the struggles he’s experienced the last three years. Struggles which have hardly been limited to his service on the board. The architecture profession was particularly hard hit by the 2008 downturn, and Brian’s firm (Giattina Aycock, a perennial fixture on Best Of Birmingham Business lists) was no exception.
“If there’s a positive to take away from 2009, maybe the hard decisions we had to make about several people I cared for deeply have prepared me for the difficult choices facing a school system with declining enrollments.
“I realize it won’t be easy. Dr. Witherspoon understands that. But if I believe anything, it’s this: The school system can be fixed. I’ve seen what can happen when you unleash a community’s resources and talents. There’s no good reason that can’t happen for our entire system, and the thought of that still excites me.”
(Originally published in the September, 2012 issue of B-Metro Magazine)