NAACP Plans to Ask Judge to Reconsider Gardendale School Order; Ruling in Case Defies Conventional Procedure

U.S. District Judge Madeline Hughes Haikala has given Gardendale residents the keys to some of the schools in their city even though she asserted that their effort to withdraw from the Jefferson County Schools system is racially motivated.

It’s a contradiction that raised an eyebrow for former federal judge U.W. Clemon, and it’s why he and his colleagues on the legal team for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund plan to file a motion asking Haikala to change her order and halt Gardendale’s takeover.

“It’s called a motion to alter,” Clemon said Wednesday. “In light of her more important finding that the Gardendale school board did not carry its burden of proof that the new school system would not impede the desegregation of the Jefferson County Schools, then there is no legal basis on which to approve the formation of the new system.”

Clemon’s planned motion would be a step short of a formal application to the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.

Haikala’s finding is one of the highlights of a 190-page ruling that reads like a walk through the history of school desegregation in America and into the social media world of Facebook. But her exhaustive historical account and her unorthodox use of social media in the ruling are not her only two departures from traditional judicial practice. Before the end of a hearing on this case in December, Haikala opened up the floor to anyone who wanted to share their opinion, a practice rarely used in any court.

Her thoroughness won compliments from Clemon, even as he disagreed with her ultimate ruling. Read more.

From Vacant Industrial Land to Puppy Palace? Residents Debate Use of Old Trinity Steel Land in Titusville

Sixty Titusville residents sat in the sweltering gymnasium of Memorial Park Recreation Center to consider giving their support for the old Trinity Steel property going to the Greater Birmingham Humane Society.

“It is so hot in here,” said Greater Birmingham Humane Society President and CEO Allison Black Cornelius, “but they stayed.”

When each side had made its case, 52 residents voted for the Humane Society to move to the long idle property from its Snow Drive location in Homewood. Eight voted no. Read more.

Federal Judge Gives Gardendale Control Over City’s Elementary Schools, Lets JeffCo Keep Middle and High Schools for Now.

The City of Gardendale has tried for more than three years to break away from the Jefferson County Schools to form its own municipal system. The county system has tried equally hard to keep that from happening.

On Monday, a federal judge gave each side some of what they wanted, but maybe not enough to satisfy either.

U.S. District Judge Madeline Haikala ruled that the Gardendale City Schools – a system that has existed as only a legal entity for three years, without any schools to operate – may take over Snow Rogers and Gardendale Elementary schools for the 2017-2018 academic year. But Gardendale High and Bragg Middle schools will stay in the Jefferson County system, for at least the next year “and until this Court orders otherwise,” in the judge’s words. Read more.

Briarwood Presbyterian Church Police Department Bill Moves Forward in Legislature

Briarwood Presbyterian Church may soon join the ranks of the Vatican and Washington National Cathedral as a religious institution with its own police department.

Critics of the bill to allow Briarwood to establish its own police department say the move is unconstitutional. But Briarwood representatives cite the increasing rate of mass shootings at churches, schools and commercial venues as reasons for bringing police officers on staff.

Since the House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee approved the legislation April 19, the Alabama House of Representatives is likely to vote this next week on whether to allow the Vestavia Hills church to establish its own police department. Read more.

PARCA Survey: Most Alabamians Say State Officials Don’t Care What They Think

The divide between state government and its people is wide, and there’s no bridge in sight.

In a recent survey conducted by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, more than two-thirds of those surveyed said state government officials don’t care what they think, and slightly less than two-thirds said they feel they have no say in what government does. Read more.

Alabama’s Political Corruption: Three Governors and One House Speaker Convicted of Crimes Give State a Reputation

With Robert Bentley’s resignation as governor, Alabama’s history of top elected officials who have had their careers end because of scandal continues.

In the past 25 years, three governors have faced criminal charges during or soon after their terms of office, and a speaker of the House was forced out after convictions on a dozen ethics violations. The state’s chief justice was removed from office twice – not on criminal charges, but for willfully disobeying federal judges’ orders.

With four top elected officials now convicted criminals, is Alabama leading the nation in political corruption? Read more.

Bentley Resigns, Ivey Becomes Governor. Both Promise Smooth Transition After Wild Political Day

Alabama started Monday morning facing a week of impeachment hearings expected to center on sordid details of the governor’s relationship with an aide and his use of law enforcement to cover it up.

But by the end of the day, the state had a new chief executive who pledged to “steady the ship of state,” and former Gov. Robert Bentley had fingerprints and a mug shot on file at the Montgomery County jail.

Bentley resigned Monday afternoon and took a deal to plead guilty to two misdemeanor charges stemming from information the state Ethics Commission handed over to the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office last week. Read more.

A Long Way From Aleppo: A Doctor and His Family Try to Rebuild Their Lives in Hoover After Fleeing the Ravages of War

It has been a warm day in early August 2012, in Aleppo, the historic, cosmopolitan Syrian city where you work and live. This day is part of the Muslim month of Ramadan, in which the faithful fast from sunup to sunset. Now the sun is setting, and your oldest son, Fouad, and two of your daughters, Rama and Lydia, are out in the walled garden of your elegant, 14-room home getting ready for iftar, the meal that will break the day’s fast.

Then, overhead, without warning, without invitation, comes a whining, whooshing sound. Seconds later, the ground shudders as a projectile lands outside the wall and explodes. Sounds of gunfire follow. Your children run into the house. Lydia, who is 8, is crying and screaming for her mother, your wife, Latifa.

Before the month is out, you, Latifa, Lydia, your other son, Khaldoun, and your baby daughter, Caroline will have left your bloodied, battered country. By September, Fouad will have left and Rama will have joined relatives, among them your mother and father, who have fled to Turkey.

Your name is Ahmad Faris, you are now 52 years old, and you used to be a well-off, well-known and well-respected surgeon. Now you and your family are among the approximately 5 million Syrians who have left Syria since the civil war’s start in 2011, and you hope that one day, you will practice medicine again.

In the meantime, you, Latifa, Khaldoun, Rama, Lydia and Caroline are now making your home in a place where, on the August day that brought the terror of war over the rooftop of your home in Aleppo, young, high-school-age men are getting ready to don helmets and shoulder pads and practice a war-like game that you still do not fully understand.

This place is Hoover, Alabama. Read more.

ADEM to Cities, Counties: ‘Don’t Depend on Us’ to Help After Budget Cuts

If a tanker truck overturns and spills a load of petroleum on a roadside or into a creek, local governments likely will have to cover the cost of the clean-up.

The Alabama Department of Environmental Management used to set aside $500,000 to help counties and municipalities with disaster response. That went away with state budget cuts last year, and ADEM expects the same this year, according to Director Lance LeFleur. They also are bracing for another financial whammy with the president’s proposed severe budget cuts to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

“Don’t depend on us to be on-site” for anything other than major disasters such as the recent gasoline pipeline incidents in Shelby County, LeFleur said. “Don’t depend on us to be on-site” for anything other than major disasters such as the recent gasoline pipeline incidents in Shelby County, LeFleur said. Read more.

In Homewood, Neighborly Spirit Mutes Politics Despite Close Presidential Vote

(In the early days of a new president, BirminghamWatch has looked at what divides us and connects us close to home. This is the final story in the series.)

Edgewood resident Leo Wright has been an election officer in Homewood for the past four presidential elections, and Homewood Public Library has served as his base every Election Day.

It’s the largest voting location in Homewood and one of the largest in Jefferson County based on registered voters. On Nov. 8, 2016, a total of 3,381 residents voted there, enjoying free coffee and a collegial, jubilant atmosphere that Wright says is typical.

That atmosphere reflects the sense of community in Homewood, says Wright, who served as the registration list clerk and assistant inspector.

But it belies the division among voters in the Over the Mountain suburb, particularly those who cast ballots at the library, where Donald Trump won 49 percent of the votes and Hillary Clinton won 43 percent. Read more.

Other stories from this series:
Fairness and Safety. Education and Jobs. Similar Worries for Clinton and Trump Voters
From Jefferson County’s Trump Country: “I feel like I’ve been left out a lot.”
A Big Blue Dot in a Sea of Red. But Jefferson County’s Presidential Vote Tally Masks Deep Community Divisions

Race and the Alabama Legislature, Volatile Mix in Redrawing Political Map

While Alabama’s House and Senate make headlines with debates over pistol permits, death sentences and sanctuary campuses, staff members and legislators are working largely unnoticed on a project that could affect the racial and political makeup of the Legislature.

A federal court in January ruled that some of Alabama’s legislative districts amounted to racial gerrymandering, putting too many predominantly black communities with little in common in the same district and diluting their influence. Since then, the Permanent Legislative Committee on Reapportionment has started to look at maps and redraw the boundaries of House and Senate districts. Perhaps 30 of the Alabama Legislature’s 140 districts might be affected.

The chairman of the committee said in a meeting recently that he was hoping for a quick and amicable process. But rarely in Alabama are conversations about race either quick or completely amicable, and this one is beginning against an already politically charged background.
Read more.

Birmingham, City of Immigrants: Newcomers Follow Opportunity, Face Slurs, Find a Home

March 2016 Special Report from BirminghamWatch, B-Metro

About 18 months ago, when St. Symeon Orthodox Church was building a new sanctuary at its Highland Park site, its rector got a reminder of how much Birmingham has changed since he first came here in the 1980s.

A team of Hispanic workers did the plaster work on the dome inside the new building. They also did the exterior stonework. “They just were tremendously diligent and acquitted themselves so impressively that you couldn’t help but take notice,” says the Rev. Alexander Fecanin, himself the grandson of Russian immigrants. Fecanin also took notice when another team arrived to install the sanctuary’s shiny new hardwood floor. It consisted of a man originally from Romania, along with his son. In the grand scheme of diverse things, the construction project at St. Symeon was a small blip on the radar. But it was yet another marker on the upward climbing graph charting the Birmingham area’s ever greater diversity. “Alabama is no longer…or Birmingham is not a black or white conversation,” says local attorney Freddy Rubio, who came here as an English-challenged Puerto Rican in 1991. “It is white, black, and other, [and] there’s nothing that we can do to stop that.” Read more. . .

Report Criticizes Work of Pipeline Safety Agency  

The fatal gasoline pipeline explosion that occurred Monday – the second incident in six weeks involving Colonial Pipeline’s infrastructure in Shelby County – came on the heels of a report critical of the federal agency responsible for pipeline regulation and safety.

On Oct. 14, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Inspector General released an audit that concluded “insufficient guidance, oversight, and coordination hinder the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s (PHMSA) full implementation of mandates and recommendations.”

PHMSA develops and enforces regulations for the “safe, reliable, and environmentally sound” operation of the nation’s pipeline transportation system and hazardous materials shipments. Read more.

Know Before You Go: State, Local Offices and Issues on November 8 Ballot

For months the spotlight has been on the race for president. But voters on November 8 will also find a robust ballot of offices and issues closer to home. To be decided are an Alabama Senate seat and seats in Congress, presidency of the Alabama Public Service Commission and membership on state and local boards of education. County offices and a slate of amendments also will be decided, along with control of the state’s judicial system, from justices on the state’s Supreme Court, to district attorneys, to judges on the bench throughout the state.

BirminghamWatch – in partnership with Weld, WBHM, Starnes Publishing, B Metro, Trussville Tribune and the Birmingham Public Library – gives information on all of that in this Alabama Voter Guide. You’ll find sample ballots for Jefferson and Shelby counties, biographical information about candidates on each of those ballots and a rundown of the amendments you’ll be asked to decide. There is also a package of resources to help you navigate election day, from verifying your polling place and registration to researching the issues and the candidates more deeply.

There’s a lot to decide in one 12-hour window at the polls between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. on Tuesday, November 8. Read more at AlabamaVoterGuide.org.

Destination of Graduates: Chart from PARCA shows where 2015 Alabama grads headed after high school.

Most Alabama Students with a High School Diploma Go To College, but More Than a Third Do Not.

There were more Alabama high school graduates in 2015 than the year before, and the class sent more students to college as their next step. Still, more than 17,000 state students with a 2015 diploma did not continue their schooling immediately.

Within that picture were disparities: Systems with low poverty rates sent most of their graduates on to four-year colleges and universities. Systems with somewhat higher poverty percentages still sent a large percentage of graduates off to college. However, more of those graduates start at a community college.

The top four Alabama high schools in terms of college-going rate are magnet schools: three in Montgomery and one in Birmingham.

These highlights come from a new report by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama that uses more extensive data now available from the Alabama Commission on Higher Education. The full report lets you search for information by school systems and individual high schools. Here’s PARCA’s full report.

New Gas Pipeline Coming to Alabama. Brings Jobs, Tax Revenue, Environmental Questions

Construction is underway on the new 515-mile Sabal Trail natural gas pipeline that will travel about 86 miles through four east-central Alabama counties. The line will also go through southwest Georgia and north Florida to provide natural gas to Florida Power & Light customers in south Florida.

The bulldozers and pipe are on the ground in Tallapoosa, Chambers, Lee, and Russell counties. They are a welcome sight to local officials who see new tax revenues and little concern from Alabama residents.

Environmentalists, however, are continuing a so-far failed effort to stop the pipeline. They say it poses a threat to drinking water sources, environmentally sensitive wetlands and sink-hole prone areas, and has roused public opposition in Georgia and Florida.

The Sabal Trail pipeline is the first major addition to Alabama’s thousands of miles of gas and oil pipelines since the leak of 330,000 gallons of gasoline from an interstate transmission line in Shelby County in early September. That incident brought headlines and new attention to a mostly underground system that stays largely out of sight and mind. Read more.

June PFOA and PFOS tests on Coosa River water systems find none above safe level. July results due soon.

In June, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management tested for PFOA and PFOS contaminants in drinking water from three Coosa River Basin water systems and found mixed results: None tested above the safe level for contaminants, one system tested well below the top amount considered safe, and two others were near or at the safe line.

In response to those results, ADEM conducted another four weeks of testing in July for water systems in Gadsden and Centre, where higher levels of the contaminants were detected. No further testing was deemed necessary for the Coosa Valley Water Supply District.

The last of the results from July’s testing is expected next week, according to ADEM.

Read more.

Lawmakers to Consider an Alabama Lottery, but Is It a Fix for Medicaid or Prison Funding?

The Legislature is going into session Aug. 15 to consider Gov. Robert Bentley’s lottery proposal to raise money for the General Fund, but the plan is not a guaranteed quick fix for either of the state’s biggest budget dilemmas.

Medicaid and prisons together make up more than 60 percent of the state’s General Fund spending, according to budget documents. Both are in need of an infusion of cash, and the Legislature adjourned its regular session without making significant changes to funding for either the Medicaid Agency or the Department of Corrections.

The governor hasn’t released details of his lottery plan. He has said he believed it would raise $225 million a year, and he is proposing to allocate profits to the General Fund, which would let legislators determine each year where the money is most needed. Read more.

Primary Runoff Voter Guide 2016

Voters go back to the polls April 12 to determine the nominees in several races that were undecided after the March 1 primary.

For races in which no candidate got half of the votes or more, the top two candidates will compete for the nomination.

There is no statewide race on the ballot. In Jefferson County, four races – three judgeships and the treasurer’s seat – are on the Democratic ballot and two races – a seat on the state Board of Education and one on the county Board of Education – are on the Republican ballot. In Shelby County, two races – a judgeship and a seat on the County Commission – are on the Republican ballot and there is no Democratic runoff.

BirminghamWatch, Weld For Birmingham, Public Radio WBHM 90.3 FM, Starnes Publishing, B-Metro, Trussville Tribune and Birmingham Public Library are partners in offering this one-stop, interactive, factual, non-partisan Voter Guide.

Candidate profiles, sample ballots, campaign contributor lists, info on where to vote and more. It’s all in the guide. Visit AlabamaVoterGuide.org

Voter Guide

Alabama voters go to the polls March 1, and there’s a lot more on the ballot than the high-profile presidential race.

In Democratic and Republican primaries, voters will nominate candidates  for U.S. Senate and the state’s Public Service Commission president, Supreme Court and Board of Education, plus decide on an amendment.

Voters in Jefferson and Shelby counties will pick nominees for judgeships, school board seats, district attorney and treasurer offices.

BirminghamWatch and Weld For Birmingham, Public Radio WBHM 90.3 FM, Starnes Publishing, B-Metro and Kaleidoscope are collaborating to offer this one-stop, interactive, factual, non-partisan Voter Guide.

Candidate profiles, sample ballots, answers about issues, campaign contributor lists, info on where to vote and more. It’s all in the guide below.

Fine-Collection Company Stops Work in Alabama

Judicial Correction Services, the private probation company that charged Alabama’s poorest residents fees to collect municipal fines on a payment plan, announced it will no longer operate in the state. The company sent a statement to cities that continued to contract with JCS, despite a threat of lawsuits by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which led the push for cities to stop working with JCS.

Meet AIIJ’s Board of Directors

The Board is the policy-making and oversight body of AIIJ. Members are Brett Blackledge, Brant Houston, Mark Kelly, Jerome Lanning, Carol Nunnelley, Emily Jones Rushing, and Odessa Woolfolk.  
Brett Blackledge
Government and Investigations Editor at The Naples Daily News in Florida, won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting while working with The Birmingham News in 2007. His Pulitzer Prize-winning work detailed nepotism and cronyism in Alabama’s two-year college system. The series also earned Blackledge a national public service award from Associated Press Media Editors.

A Message from AIIJ Founders

Why are we doing this? What can our fledgling non-profit news organization contribute to journalism for Birmingham and Alabama?

Those may be your first two questions if you are meeting BirminghamWatch, and its sponsor Alabama Initiative for Independent Journalism, for the first time.

Supporters

The photographs throughout this initial edition of BirminghamWatch.org are the work of Walt Stricklin, generously donated by him for use on the website. BirminghamWatch and Alabama Initiative for Independent Journalism gratefully acknowledge all the support and volunteer contributions during the project’s development.

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