Birmingham Education Initiative
Birmingham Education Initiative, Inc. is a non-profit foundation created to handle the purchase, distribution and administration of laptop computers to Birmingham City Schools pupils in the 1st through 8th grades. The foundation will receive $3.5 million from the City of Birmingham during its first year, which includes $3 million for the purchase of 15,000 XO laptops from the One Computer Per Child Foundation. The funding is generated from the Birmingham Economic and Community Revitalization Ordinance proposed by Mayor Larry Langford during his first week in office.
The foundation was created by Langford in February 2008. Board members include George French Jr, President of Miles College; Perry Ward, President of Lawson State Community College; George Munchus, a management professor at UAB; Barbara Shores Martin of the Jefferson County Office of Senior Citizens Activities, and a representative from the school system.
Langford requested that the Birmingham City Council approve the transfer of funds during their February 12 meeting. The council voted 8-1 to purchase the laptops, but tabled the vote on hiring Birmingham Education Initiative as the agent for the contract. At issue was the degree to which the foundation would be accountable for how it spent the remaining $500,000 of the proposed disbursement and the formal status of the newly-registered non-profit.
Councilor Valerie Abbott cast the dissenting vote against buying the computers and stated her concerns over the foundation's ability to administer the program. When challenged about her specific concerns, she related concerns about the involvement of former City Councilman John Katopodis. Katopodis worked with Langford to negotiate the purchase from OLPC, and was previously involved with him and former HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy in the non-profit Computer Help for Kids, which could not account for $200,000 it received from the city in 2002. Langford labelled Abbott's concerns as "personal" in nature, and told her that she had no business dictating whom he hired for the program.
The Council's education committee met on February 15 and heard further details about the foundation from Katopodis. He told them that all administrative expenses would be invoiced and that the budget for the first year, excepting legal and accounting fees, stands at least over $165,000. He said that he would not be paid by the foundation, but that he would work to secure charitable donations for the project, which has already received $115,000 in private funds. Council President Carole Smitherman voiced her satisfaction with the Council's oversight of the foundation, which will expand to include a Council member and the Mayor as non-voting members and will submit an annual report to the Council.
On February 19 the Birmingham News detailed allegations made by HealthSouth in a counter-suit against Katopodis, who claims that Scrushy promised to donate a building owned by HealthSouth to the charity while he was CEO. According to the filings, the charity made payments to Langford and Katopodis, as well as adult-film actor Marc Anthony Donais and others, which do not appear to have furthered the mission of the organization. Both Katopodis and Langford have denied that any funds were used improperly, but Computer Help For Kids never allowed any of its contributors, which included Jefferson County and the City of Birminghan, to review its financial records.
On February 20 Langford notified the BEI board members that he was dissolving the group and regretted involving them in any controversy stemming from Computer Help for Kids. Katopodis withdrew from all involvement, saying that his role ended when the agreement with OLPC was reached. Members of the City Council expressed surprise that the board was dissolved entirely, but looked forward to finding ways to work directly with the Board of Education to distribute the computers efficiently.
- Bryant, Joseph D. (February 13, 2008) "Birmingham City Council approves buying computers, rejects non-profit foundation as friction rises with mayor." The Birmingham News
- Bryant, Joseph D. (February 15, 2008) "Birmingham City Council gets details on XO laptop computer foundation." The Birmingham News
- Blackledge, Brett J. and Joseph D. Bryant (February 19, 2008) "HealthSouth lawsuit challenges Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford's first computer charity." The Birmingham News
- Bryant, Joseph D. (February 21, 2008) "Mayor dissolves school laptop board; John Katopodis disassociates himself from charity." The Birmingham News