• Government

    Jefferson County Commission Plans to Bypass Tyson in Health Care Authority Nominations

    The Jefferson County Commission voted today on the commissioners they intend to nominate to the UAB Healthcare Authority and Sheila Tyson, chair of the committee dealing with Cooper Green Mercy Health System, was not included.

    A majority of commissioners agreed that chief financial officer John Henry should be recommended for a 2-year term, and county manager Tony Petelos and Commissioner Joe Knight to 1-year terms.

    “I see the good ole boy network is still alive,” Tyson said. “If they wanted to start a road committee out of the gas tax and they didn’t want you (Stephens) on there and you are the chair of roads and transportation, you would have a problem with that. But it’s all right not to put me on the committee where I sit and have been working on.”

    Today’s vote was not final but will go before commissioners again Thursday. Read more.

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  • Birmingham City Council

    Birmingham School Officials Say Schools Can Work Around Woodfin’s Proposed Budget Cut

    Birmingham City School Superintendent Lisa Herring said Tuesday that, although she’s not sure where BCS will go to make up the $2 million that Mayor Randall Woodfin is proposing to cut from the school’s budget, she’s confident “it doesn’t put the district in a state of distress.”

    Woodfin’s budget proposal would cut the city’s funding for schools from $3.2 million to $1 million, shifting $2 million into a fund for the Birmingham Promise Education Initiative, a public-private apprenticeship and scholarship program.

    In previous years, BCS has spent the $3 million allocation from the city on community-based and outreach programs through the schools; one-time purchases to meet security needs, such as metal detectors; and on personnel, athletics and academics, Herring said.

    The city board of education in a letter to the mayor and council expressed support for the Birmingham Promise program but asked that the $2 million cut be reconsidered in the future.

    Herring echoed that idea in an interview with BirminghamWatch, saying she understood the Birmingham Promise initiative would have a direct impact on students.

    “We are aware that we are talking about an amount in which, given the overall budget of our organization, there is space for us to have recovery,” Herring said.

    Several school board members also said they can deal with the cut, though some said they wish they didn’t have to. Read more.

    Also Tuesday:

    Woodfin Defends Proposed Cut to Education Budget

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  • Environment

    Frustration With Health Department Intensifies as Environmental Groups Seek to Overturn ABC Coke’s Air Permit Renewal

    Environmental groups say ABC Coke’s air permit renewal issued in April is flawed and are appealing to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to agree that it does not comply with requirements of the federal Clean Air Act.

    The groups are asking the EPA to object to the five-year renewal of the permit issued to the coke plant by the Jefferson County Health Department under Title V of the act.

    The EPA has until Aug. 13 to respond to the request by the Southern Environmental Law Center and Gasp, a Birmingham-based clear-air advocacy group.

    The permit renewal was hotly contested by area residents and organizations at a health department public hearing last year, largely over health concerns in the neighborhoods near the Tarrant facility. Read more.

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  • Crime

    Jeffco District Attorney’s Office Looking to Speed Up Work on Untested Sexual Assault Kits

    The Jefferson County district attorney’s office is looking to ramp up its efforts to deal with the county’s massive backlog of untested sexual assault kits. A pending expansion to a 2016 federal grant would allow the office to increase the rate at which old kits are tested — and would allow for the appointment of a new prosecutor who would focus on those backlogged cases.

    The office originally received a federal Sexual Assault Kit Initiative grant in 2016. An inventory that was finished in September 2017 found that 3,876 sexual assault kits — which law enforcement use to collect DNA evidence after a sexual assault — had not been submitted for testing. Since then, 275 kits have been sent to the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences for testing, at a rate of 25 per month. But a new expansion to the county’s grant would allow the county to double that rate, sending 50 kits per month to the state lab for testing. Read more.

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  • Crime

    Case Dismissed Against Marshae Jones

    A judge has dismissed the case against Marshae Jones, whose fetus was killed during a fight in December.

    Circuit Court Judge David Carpenter dismissed the case Saturday morning. He dismissed the manslaughter charge on which Jones had been indicted with prejudice, meaning the charge cannot be refiled.

    Bessemer Cutoff District Attorney Lynneice Washington announced Wednesday that she was dropping the misdemeanor charge. Read more.

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  • Birmingham City Schools

    Making the Grade? How Birmingham City Schools Are Doing Depends on Which Measure You Choose.

    Multiple choice:

    1. The Birmingham City Schools system has a high number of failing schools as determined by the Alabama Accountability Act.
    2. The Birmingham City Schools system is below average, based on a “D” grade on the Alabama Education Report Card for the 2016-2017 school year.
    3. The Birmingham City Schools system is doing better, on the upswing.
    4. All of the above.

    If you chose “4” you may understand how complex it can be to determine the exact state of the city’s school system. Read more.

    Read the rest of BirminghamWatch’s special report on Birmingham schools:

    Many Questions About Birmingham City Schools Remain After Three Months of Trying to Understand the State of Education

    The History of the Birmingham City Schools

    Shooting for the A — Birmingham Schools principal succeeded at one school. Now he’s aiming to redirect another that is facing significant challenges

    An Introduction to Birmingham Schools, From A to F

    Birmingham Schools’ Superintendent Talks About Facing Competition for Students, Being Accountable and Building Relationships.

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  • Environment

    ADEM Director Up for Review of His Job Performance Amid Renewed Complaints

    Alabama Department of Environmental Management Director Lance LeFleur, who survived scathing attacks from environmental groups on his job performance last year, faces renewed efforts to remove him from office this year.

    The department’s overseeing body, the Alabama Environmental Management Commission, announced this week that it is seeking public comment on LeFleur’s record as head of the state’s environmental regulatory department for his annual job review.

    Negative comments about LeFleur’s job record last year centered on his handling of industrial pollution in north Birmingham and whether the Environmental Protection Agency’s 35th Avenue Superfund site should be expanded. Criticism of LeFleur’s department this year has included its handling of industrial pollution discharges that have resulted in large fish kills on the Mulberry Fork as well as water quality issues on the Tennessee River near Decatur. Read more.

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  • Alabama Legislature

    Why No One Opposed a $31M Transfer From Alabama’s Education Budget

    MONTGOMERY — In the last days of the legislative session, in late May, lawmakers quickly and quietly transferred a tax revenue worth nearly $31 million a year from the state’s education budget to the General Fund budget to fill a “hole” created by other financial commitments.

    Those normally opposed to diverting money from schools to other state expenses didn’t complain.

    Education advocacy groups were relieved the education budget didn’t get stuck with the growing expense of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, so losing a small, flat revenue source was an acceptable tradeoff.

    Some Republicans have said they didn’t know many details of the transfer, but leadership said the idea wasn’t new.

    Democrats in the House say they didn’t have time to oppose it. They found out about it when it was on the House floor on the second to last day of the session via an amendment to an economic incentives bill they supported. If they tried to kill the transfer, they’d kill the incentives.

    “What do you do?” said House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels, D-Huntsville. “You go on record voting against a bill for rural incentives?” Daniels said.

    “Or do you approve an amendment that there’s a year to contend with?” Read more.

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  • Alabama Legislature

    New Law Helps Firefighters Diagnosed with Cancer

    In Gene Necklaus’ 36-person Scottsboro Fire Department, he’s seen three firefighters in recent years diagnosed with occupation-related cancers. One of them died last year. The other two were able to return to work after treatment. One had $20,000 in out-of-pocket expenses, including deductibles and co-pays, Nicklaus said.

    “It shouldn’t cost him because he got cancer on the job,” Necklaus, president of the Alabama Association of Fire Chiefs said.

    Fire officials around the state praised a new Alabama law that will require local governments to provide supplemental insurance coverage for career firefighters diagnosed with cancer. Read more.

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  • Economy

    Report: Well-Being of Alabama Children Still Lags Nationwide

    Overall on children’s well-being, Alabama came in 44th nationwide, down from last year’s ranking of 42nd in the country. That’s according to the latest KIDS Count Data Book, released annually by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

    The report ranks the well-being of kids across the U.S. The publication includes indicators of health, education, economic well-being and family and community. This year’s report is based on data from 2017 from sources such as the Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Education.

    Despite that decline in rank, the state progressed in several areas. For example, from 2010 to 2017, there was a big drop in the percentage of high schoolers not graduating on time. Read more.

    Explore the interactive digital data book.

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  • Government

    Gov. Ivey Replaces ABC Board

    MONTGOMERY — Gov. Kay Ivey has replaced the three members of the Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board.

    The new members are Col. Alan Spencer of Tuscaloosa, Melissa Morrissette of Mobile and Walter Bell of Mobile.

    Mac Gipson, the ABC administrator, was appointed by Gov. Robert Bentley. He said he didn’t have any conversation with Ivey about the new appointments, but she’s within her right to make the changes.

    “As far as I’m concerned, she’d done a lot of good work on other decisions, so why should I question this one?” Gipson said Thursday. Read more.

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  • Alabama Legislature

    Ivey Signs Chemical Castration Law, Process Details Still Pending

    MONTGOMERY — Court-ordered chemical castration of child molesters as a condition of their parole will soon be required in Alabama, but exactly how the treatments will be administered is still being determined.

    The law, signed by Gov. Kay Ivey on Monday, goes into effect in three months. It requires the Alabama Department of Public Health to administer the treatment.

    “We’re still reviewing (the law) to understand exactly how our role will work,” Public Health Officer Scott Harris said this week. “We’ve done some work looking at other states, trying to get an idea of how it works.” Read more.

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  • Alabama Legislature

    From Buses to Libraries, 2020 Education Has More for K-12 Schools

    MONTGOMERY — An additional $318 million for K-12 schools is in Alabama’s 2020 education budget, and lawmakers and education leaders say that money will make tangible differences in local schools.

    Gov. Kay Ivey signed the record-setting education budget into law Thursday.

    “This budget represents significantly more resources for education,” Senate education budget committee chairman Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said.

    Here’s what some of the new money will mean to K-12 schools.

    There’s nearly $190 million more for the K-12 Foundation Program that supports schools’ basic functions. The 2020 total is $3.9 billion. There’s also an additional $27.8 million for transportation. Read more.

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  • Birmingham City Council

    Birmingham Council Members Spend More than $75K Traveling Near Home and Abroad on City Business

    Current members of Birmingham’s City Council spent a total of $78,555 on travel between November 2017, when the bulk of councilors took office, and May 2019, a look at the council’s meeting agendas reveals.

    That amount does not include trips for which a final total has not yet been approved. Estimated costs for city-funded trips are approved beforehand by the council; after the trip, the council votes again to approve the actual amount spent.

    District 4 Councilor William Parker tops the list of the city’s most-traveled councilors, having spent $30,334.15 on 41 trips since November 2017. He’s followed by District 5 Councilor Darrell O’Quinn, who has spent $21,554.04 on 13 trips, and District 8 Councilor Steven Hoyt, who has spent $16,136.80 on five trips.

    District 9 Councilor John Hilliard, with $12,719.07 for 13 trips; District 7 Councilor Wardine Alexander, with $3,174.65 for two trips; and Council President Valerie Abbott, with $346.70 for one trip round out the list.

    The remaining councilors — District 1 Councilor Clinton Woods, District 2 Councilor Hunter Williams and District 6 Councilor Crystal Smitherman — each have no confirmed travel expenses since they took office, although Woods and Smitherman have each taken one trip, the expenses for which are pending final council approval. Read more.

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  • Environment

    Controversial Coal Mine at Dovertown Wins 5-Year Permit Renewal, Can’t Use Brownfield Portion Without Pollution Plan

    The Alabama Surface Mining Commission issued a permit renewal last week for Mays Mining Company’s Mine No. 5 on the Mulberry Fork. But the company has to meet multiple court-ordered and other conditions before beginning to operate at the site near the Dovertown community.

    Gary Hosmer, a Dovertown resident who has led the 14 year-long local opposition to mining in the 200-resident Walker County community, said, “We’re going to fight it as far as we can, and then some.”

    The mine site is about five miles upstream of a major intake pipe that supplies the Birmingham Water Works Board and serves 200,000 customers. The water works has said the mining is a threat to the area’s drinking water quality. The utility went to Jefferson County Circuit Court to stop the mine from operating on the Black Warrior tributary, and officials said in a statement, “We are reviewing the (commission’s) decision and evaluating the BWWB’s options.” Read more.

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  • Alabama Legislature

    Lawmakers Boost Money for Prisons and Will Return in the Fall to Take on Pervasive Problems

    As the Alabama Legislature winds down its regular session, state lawmakers are on track to boost the budget for the state’s prisons, they have approved a pay raise for correctional officers, and they expect to meet again in the fall to address other issues in a system that is still overcrowded, under-resourced and under the watchful eye of a federal judge and the U.S. Justice Department.

    “There are lot of different issues, from mental health to overcrowding, the pay, to facilities,” said Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston.

    Friday is likely to be the last day of the regular session. On Wednesday, Gov. Kay Ivey signed into law a bill that will give correctional officers “a one-time two-step salary increase,” and expand bonus opportunities for Department of Corrections employees. The measure takes effect Oct. 1, the first day of fiscal 2020.

    Over the past few years, the Department of Corrections has seen its budgets increase by small amounts. For fiscal 2020, it expects to have a budget of $601 million. Most of that money would come from the state General Fund, which pays for most of state government’s non-educational functions.

    The Legislature has approved and sent to the governor a General Fund budget that is slated to include money to cover the pay increase signed into law by Ivey, give money to hire and train 500 new corrections officers during fiscal 2020 and improve the prison system’s mental health services. Read more.

    BirminghamWatch, in collaboration with B-Metro Magazine, documented the conditions under which correctional officers work for a story last year:

    Guarded: Alabama Correctional Officers Work Long Hours in Dangerous Conditions for Low Pay – and There Aren’t Nearly Enough of Them.

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  • Environment

    Judge in Historic Ruling Says Drummond Violating Clean Water Act Because of Ongoing Discharge From Closed Mine

    The acid coal mine drainage at Maxine Mine on the Locust Fork is ugly, with discordant orange, yellow, red and purple hues that contrast with verdant spring growth on adjacent riverbanks and bluffs.

    Nearby residents of this Black Warrior River tributary in north Jefferson County, close to the community of Praco on Flat Top Road, call the abandoned mine “a mess,” a place devoid of fish and most other aquatic life and given a wide berth by boaters and swimmers. It’s where algae blooms proliferate in a slough rife with sediment washing from the mountain of mine waste that has accumulated since the early 1950s.

    And it’s a site that made Alabama history May 7 when a federal judge ruled that its owner, Drummond Company, was in violation of the U.S. Clean Water Act for continuously polluting the Locust Fork with acid drainage. In a suit brought by nonprofit Black Warrior Riverkeeper, U.S. District Judge Abdul Kallon issued a summary judgment against Drummond, dismissing the coal company’s assertion that the law does not apply to pollution from waste after mine operations ended.

    It was the first time the federal act was used to successfully sue the owner of an abandoned mine for polluting an Alabama waterway. Read more.

    The River ‘Flows Through My Veins:’ Voices From the Locust Fork Tributary of the Black Warrior River

    Funding to Make Abandoned Coal Mines Safer Could Disappear Soon

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  • Reading Birmingham

    Doug Jones’ story about the bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, and the prosecution of the Klansmen who did it, provides perspective on the past and present.

    “Bending Toward Justice: The Birmingham Church Bombing that Changed the Course of Civil Rights” by Doug Jones with Greg Truman (St. Martin’s Press, 2019)

    “Maxine McNair’s screams were primal,” Doug Jones writes in Bending Toward Justice. As McNair searched for her daughter Denise in the rubble of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church she knew, the way a mother would know, that the unthinkable had finally happened.

    The 1963 Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing that killed Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Addie Mae Collins happened because white Americans were angry. Birmingham’s public schools were integrated the week before the bombing, and as whites saw dents and cracks appearing in the wall that separated them from black Americans they became resentful and afraid. And a few whites, bitter losers clinging to the bottom rung of the white racial hierarchy, were willing to do more than just gripe about it. They were willing to commit murder.

    “Bending Toward Justice” accomplishes what good history should accomplish. The book helps readers understand the past and the present. And the events of 1963 are relevant now because sometimes history does backflips. That’s not to say that history repeats itself, because it doesn’t really. But occasionally, without looking where we’re going, we jump back to a spot we thought we had left behind. And then we have to retrace our steps to see how it all turns out this time.

    Read more.

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  • Education

    First Class in More Than Name Only: Why Alabama’s Preschool Program Is Best in the Country on National Standards

    https://birminghamwatch.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/Hufman-Dr.-Stephanie-Parker-begins-the-class-day.jpg

    A new PARCA report shows kids who attend Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program are more likely to be proficient in reading and math, an advantage that continues through their middle school years. Read the report.

    The excitement in the room is hard to miss – and it’s coming from the kids as well as the teacher.

    “Kiss your brain for knowing that!” Dr. Stephanie Parker exclaims to her students at Huffman Academy Pre-K this cool December morning in Birmingham. The class is part of Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program.

    Surrounded by colorful charts, educational photos and pictures of kids and their art, Parker takes her eager students through a recitation of the previous day’s Gingerbread Man story, as part of their “morning meeting.” She’s sitting in her wooden rocker at eye level with the kids, who talk and shout excitedly in answering her questions.

    When they get something right, she applauds them with either a “kiss your brain,” or after a particularly significant achievement, encouragement to do a “standing Saturday Night Fever,” – with more than a dozen kids mimicking John Travolta’s hand-across- the-body dance move.

    In the classroom next door, Denise Dennis’s preschoolers, after their morning meeting, are putting together gingerbread houses, some sitting at a small round table with their teacher, others at another table with her auxiliary teacher Wyesha Pullum.

    There are two teachers in each pre-K class at Huffman Academy, and that is just one of the reasons Alabama’s public pre-K program got high marks in July from the Rutgers University-based National Institute for Early Education Research. NIEER ranked the efforts of 43 states and the District of Columbia to provide quality instruction for kids before kindergarten age.

    For those who expect Alabama to be at the bottom of the list in educational achievement, the NIEER report may come as a surprise.

    “I think if you look at this report, the conclusion would be Alabama’s the national leader here,” says Steve Barnett, the founding director of NIEER and a member of the team that put together the report, “Implementing 15 Essential Elements for High-Quality Pre-K: An Updated Scan of State Policies.”

    Breaking down the rationale behind the 15 essentials, Barnett says: “They’re the result of a project which was developed to reverse engineer successful preschool. … Rather than saying ‘On average how much do any of these things matter?’ the question was ‘Well, if we focus on the programs that seem to have succeeded in doing great things for young children, what do they look like? What do they have in common?’ … What is it that seems to have to be in place to really have a high-quality preschool program that delivers excellence?” Read more.

    This article was published in collaboration with 100 Days in Appalachia, a digital news publication incubated at West Virginia University in collaboration with West Virginia Public Broadcasting and the Daily Yonder.

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  • Environment

    County’s Major Air Polluters Concentrated in Low-Income, Minority Neighborhoods

    BirminghamWatch Graphic: Clay Carey

     

    The Oliver Robinson bribery trial, in which guilty verdicts were issued for officials of Drummond Coal Co. and its law firm, Balch & Bingham, revealed a gritty episode about avoiding environmental cleanup in North Birmingham. But there’s a bigger dirty picture.

    The vast majority of Jefferson County’s 31 major sources of pollution – those emitting enough pollution to require a permit under Title V of the Clean Air Act – are located in low-income areas, a BirminghamWatch analysis found.

    The findings show 71 percent of the major pollution sources are in areas with incomes below the median income for the county.

    Only one primary source of pollution is in a neighborhood with a median household income greater than 110 percent of the county median.

    Residents of the same low-income areas also often are largely African American. Research has shown that economically depressed populations can be more heavily affected by the negative health effects of air pollution.

    Poor air does not equally strike everyone in the Birmingham area, raising issues of environmental justice. Read more.

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  • Economy

    The Tyranny of Sales Tax: Alabama Cities Rely on It. Walmart is the Sought-After Retailer. But E-Commerce Threatens.

    In Alabama, the big catch for the state’s economic development prospectors is a manufacturing plant and its hundreds, maybe thousands, of high-paying jobs. But individual cities go to great lengths to get big-box retailers to set up shop in their city limits, deploying consultants and dangling incentives. They’re following the money. Because of the state’s tax laws, the largest single source of municipal tax revenues is sales tax.

    Big-box retailers come in several types and brand names. The biggest of them all, though, is Walmart. The largest private employer in the world, Walmart grew from its roots in Arkansas to be a major force in virtually every part of the United States. In Alabama alone, 38,000 people are employed by Walmart.

    Tens of millions of customers across America walk through the doors of the company’s stores every day. In Alabama, cities that have a Walmart get taxes on sales to those customers, which helps pay for services such as police and fire protection. Walmart’s website states the company collected $684.6 million in sales taxes and fees in Alabama for the fiscal year ending in 2017 and paid another $92.1 million in its own additional taxes and fees.

    Dependence on sales taxes is unusual compared to most other states and harkens back to Alabama’s early days as a state that was almost entirely rural and dependent on the production of cotton and timber. Property taxes are lower than in other states, in some cases much lower, especially on agricultural and forest lands. Read more.

    A Tale of Two Jefferson County Cities: Sales Tax Comes and Sometimes Goes

    By Robert Carter
    Gardendale Mayor Stan Hogeland is one of the city officials who work to attract retailers of all shapes and sizes – and their sales taxes.

    He said he spends time trying to bring in retailers “every single day.” According to figures provided by City Clerk Melissa Honeycutt, Gardendale derives 70 percent of its tax receipts from sales taxes.

    It’s a different story in Fairfield, about 20 miles away. Fairfield was once a thriving city and home to a massive U.S. Steel factory complex and numerous shopping centers. After the factory closed, the stores followed. When the Walmart there closed, it took about a third of what was left of the city’s tax revenues, according to the mayor. Read more.

    BW Expands Economic Development Coverage

    Robert Carter covers economic development in Birmingham and Alabama, a new assignment in 2018. He is a veteran journalist, both with newspapers and in radio. A Kentucky native, Carter began working at his hometown Glasgow Daily Times straight out of high school. He also worked with Christian Family Radio in Bowling Green and with Western Kentucky University’s public radio service. In Alabama, Carter has worked at The Birmingham News and The North Jefferson News in Gardendale.

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  • BirminghamWatch

    The Best of BirminghamWatch in 2018

    Air pollution in low-income areas, the economic rebirth of the western area, the last white Democrats in the state’s Legislature, these are just some of the stories BirminghamWatch developed this year. Here’s a sampling of BirminghamWatch’s best work in 2018. Read more.

    County’s Major Air Polluters Concentrated in Low-Income, Minority Neighborhoods

    Seventy-one percent of Jefferson County’s 31 major sources of pollution – those emitting enough pollution to require a permit under Title V of the Clean Air Act – are located in low-income areas, a BirminghamWatch analysis found.

    U.S. Attorneys: Leading the Justice Department on the Ground in Alabama

    BirminghamWatch interviewed the three U.S. Attorneys appointed by Trump, who all said violent
    crime would be a priority during their tenures.

    Trump’s Budget Wish List: What It Could Mean for Alabama

    BirminghamWatch took a look this year at a number of the programs on President Trump’s chopping block and asked, “What If.”

    Written in Black and White: In Alabama’s Statehouse, the Parties Are Split Almost Entirely by Race

    When newly elected Neil Rafferty takes his place in the Alabama House of Representatives next year, he will be the only white Democrat in the 105-seat chamber With one other white Democrat in the Senate, the Alabama Legislature’s two parties are almost entirely divided by race. An all-white GOP has a supermajority

    Guarded: Alabama Correctional Officers Work Long Hours in Dangerous Conditions for Low Pay – and There Aren’t Nearly Enough of Them

    Update: The debate about making prisons better – and safer – has been simmering for years. But because of more violence in the prisons, look for the Legislature in 2019 to consider multiple bills aimed at the prisons, including one to significantly increase the number of correctional officers. A recent report showed that south Alabama’s Holman Correctional Facility was functioning with only 40 percent staffing. The governor also reportedly is considering moves to pay private companies to develop prison space and lease it to the state. Also on the table for prisons, a federal judge is considering whether Alabama prisons should be held in contempt for continued shortages in mental health staff.

    The Tyranny of Sales Tax: Alabama Cities Rely on It. Walmart is the Sought-After Retailer. But E-Commerce Threatens.

    In Alabama, the big catch for the state’s economic development prospectors is a manufacturing plant and its hundreds, maybe thousands, of high-paying jobs. But individual cities go to great lengths to get big-box retailers to set up shop in their city limits, deploying consultants and dangling incentives. They’re following the money. Because of the state’s tax laws, the largest single source of municipal tax revenues is sales tax.

    Coal Ash Ponds Leach Toxins into Alabama Groundwater, Waterways, Analysis Finds. ADEM Fines Power Companies, but Route to Remedy Uncertain.

    Significant levels of toxic materials are leaching into the state’s groundwater and waterways from the millions of cubic yards of coal ash stored in massive, unlined storage ponds adjacent to six electrical power generating plants, including plants in Shelby, Jefferson and Walker counties.

    In Soap-Making and Landscaping, ‘Creative’ Entrepreneurs Get Help Building Business Skills from Co.Starters

    A designer, a scuba diver, an art curator, a furniture maker. They all share something in common – seeking and receiving help with the business side of their creative work from the Co.Starters program of Create Birmingham.

    Ready, Set, Action: Birmingham’s Become a Film-Making Destination That Brings Jobs, Millions of Dollars to Economy

    The Magic City is not quite Hollywood, yet. But Birmingham’s economy is getting a show business-sized boost with millions of film dollars flowing into the local economy. The city’s Red Mountain substituted for the Hollywood Hills, wearing the famous HOLLYWOOD sign in “Bigger,” one of dozens of films made in metro Birmingham in recent years.

    All’s Not Quiet at Birmingham Public Library: Board Surveys Employees after Criticism of Director

    Update: The Birmingham Public Library Board has set out a “corrective action plan” for library Executive Director Floyd Council.
    A survey asking the Birmingham Public Library’s 285 employees about staff morale was conducted in the spring amid growing concerns over employee dissatisfaction and public criticism of the library’s new executive director. One staff member said discontent is high and morale low among many library employees because of what some employees called Council’s belittling comments, lack of appropriate communication, disrespect, micromanagement and a growing “environment of suspicion” at the library.

    Amazon’s a Big Deal, but West Jefferson’s Economic Rebirth is Bigger and Broader

    The television cameras were in action and the local politicians were all smiling at the recent announcement of a huge new distribution center in Bessemer for Amazon, the online retail behemoth. It’s a project that will bring an estimated 1,500 jobs, and it makes for a great picture of a down-on-its-heels part of Alabama that is remaking itself for the digital age. But in fact, the Bessemer Cut-Off area — the traditional name for the separate division of Jefferson County that has its own courthouse and other separate government functions — has been in transformation from steelmaking, mining and heavy manufacturing for the past decade or so.

    As Alabama’s Unemployment Rate Decreases, Medicaid Enrollment Does Not

    Alabama’s unemployment rate hit record lows in the past year, falling below 4 percent, but the number of people enrolled in Medicaid hasn’t decreased. Medicaid, the health care provider for the state’s poor and disabled, has higher enrollment now than when the unemployment rate hit nearly 12 percent in 2009. While more people are working, not all of them are in jobs that pay enough to get their families off Medicaid, advocates say.

    Amid Immigration Controversy, More Hispanic Students Arrive in Alabama Classrooms

    Lipscomb Elementary School, tucked away on a quiet neighborhood street, does not draw a lot of attention to itself. Its enrollment numbers, however, show a dramatic story of Alabama’s growing Hispanic population.

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  • Congress

    Doug Jones Says Trump’s ‘Racist Language’ Divides the Nation

    President Donald Trump used “racist language” that is further dividing Americans when he suggested four women in Congress could leave the country if they don’t like it, U.S. Sen. Doug Jones said Thursday.

     “To use racist language, and it was that — I’m not calling the president a racist, but he used racist language to do this — this is the same kind of dog whistle politics that we have seen before,” Jones said during a conference phone call with reporters.

    “But folks, we have to resist the pull of the forces that are trying to divide us,” Jones said. “We need to come together as one America and work together to live up to the lofty ideals our country was founded on. Attacking the patriotism of other Americans using hateful rhetoric and dog whistle messages doesn’t get us any closer to achieving those unifying principles.”
    Read more.

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  • 2020 Primary Elections

    Jones, Byrne Lead in Fundraising Among Candidates in 2020 US Senate Race

    Democratic incumbent Sen. Doug Jones raised $1.8 million for his election campaign during the past three months, outpacing the still-forming field of candidates for Alabama’s 2020 U.S. Senate elections.

    Candidates for the Senate seat filed campaign finance reports Monday with the Federal Election Commission for the period of April 1 through June 30.

    Among a broader field of candidates in the Republican primary, U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne of Daphne was the fundraising leader, with $685,635 collected during the period. Read more.

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  • Birmingham City Schools

    Avondale Elementary Climate Frustrates Parents and Teachers

    The Birmingham Board of Education has some hiring to do, particularly at one elementary school. Thirty percent of the educators at Avondale Elementary from last year will not be returning. Teachers and parents say the environment at the school was chaotic last year, and they worry about safety and communication. It’s also leading some parents to consider other education options for their children.

    Morgan Richardson was president of the Avondale PTA, but this year, she says her children will attend private school.

    She says she is an advocate for public education, but she has concerns about Avondale.
    Read more.

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  • Economy

    Energy Storage Research Center Opens in Birmingham

    Energy officials from around the country gathered Tuesday on the campus of Southern Research (SR), a Birmingham nonprofit specializing in science and technology, to celebrate the opening of the state’s first Energy Storage Research Center.

    In his opening remarks, Corey Tyree, SR’s senior director of energy and environment, told the crowd of company executives, engineers and scientists that the center represents a new era.

    “For 100 years in the electricity industry, the model was basically ‘make, move, sell electricity,’” Tyree said. “With the advent of energy storage, you can ‘make, move, hold, then sell electricity.’ Seems like not a big deal. It’s a big deal. It’s a really big deal.”
    Read more.

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  • Economy

    Let’s Make a Deal: What Metro Birmingham Cities, Counties Give Away to Get New Businesses

    When online retail giant Amazon announced that it was looking for a home for a second headquarters that would bring 50,000 high-paying jobs, cities all over the nation — including Birmingham — mobilized to attract the latest holy grail of corporate prestige and new jobs.

    In the end, the company decided to split the HQ2 project into parts, with half going to the Long Island City section of New York City and the other half to Arlington, Virginia. An additional “center of excellence” was located in Nashville with about 5,000 jobs. But metro Birmingham, which gained publicity with the giant Amazon shipping boxes it used in its promotion, didn’t come away empty-handed. A new distribution center employing at least 1,500 workers is being built at the western end of Bessemer.

    The effort to attract Amazon was waged in public by both company and cities, an unusual approach. Amazon announced HQ2 in the news media and opened competition to any city. Most efforts to bring new employers to an area are much more subdued, partly to avoid tipping off other municipalities competing for a project.

    David Carrington, the former Jefferson County commissioner who handled business and industrial development until his term ended last year, said the decision for Jefferson County to go after the Amazon project was a challenge.

    “It was kind of a ‘whosoever will may come’,” Carrington said. “The decision to go after HQ2 was a tipping point. On paper, it was a reach. It was a very quick project and had a core of 15 to 20 people working on it. It was an out-of-the-box presentation (literally, featuring the giant Amazon shipping boxes) that we were told later precipitated their interest.”

    In total, about $200,000 was spent on the drive to attract Amazon, plus incentives from the county, Bessemer city government and the state. Jefferson County kicked in $3.3 million, primarily for road improvements, while Bessemer agreed to cap permit and business license fees in exchange for meeting certain employment goals. The city will also make quarterly payments to Amazon to reimburse the company for part of its capital costs, again tied to employment levels. In return, metro Birmingham gets a company with instant brand recognition and a $40 million payroll.

    While the Amazon HQ2 project was very public, Carrington and his successor, Steve Ammons, have a staffer labelled “confidential assistant” to usually keep such industry-recruiting information under wraps. “Most (companies) don’t want people knowing they are looking because they don’t want to get five RFPs (requests for proposals). Obviously, the community wants to keep it confidential because they don’t want, say, Greenville, S.C., to find out we’re in on a project,” Carrington said.

    From Irondale to Gardendale, Hoover to Birmingham, incentives are deployed at the municipal level in a metropolitan area with three dozen cities, as well as by state and county governments in Alabama. Read more.

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  • Civil Rights Cold Cases

    FBI Records Could Have Solved A Civil Rights Cold Case. Now It’s Too Late

    The murder of the Rev. James Reeb was unsolved for more than 50 years.

    Then last month, using the FBI’s case file, NPR identified a man who had participated in the attack on Reeb but was never arrested or charged. William Portwood died less than two weeks after reporters Andrew Beck Grace and Chip Brantley confirmed his involvement. At 87, Portwood was the last living person who could have been held to account for Reeb’s murder.

    Now, Alabama officials who might have pursued prosecution tell NPR that if the FBI had shared its case file with them, they would have investigated Reeb’s murder years earlier.

    It’s impossible to say whether state and local officials would have been able to close the case. The Boston minister was killed during the 1965 voting rights campaign in Selma, Ala., and three men were tried for and acquitted of the crime. And the FBI has failed to solve Reeb’s murder twice: once in 1965, and a second time in 2008, when it reopened the case as part of its Cold Case Initiative.
    Read more.

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  • Birmingham City Council

    Birmingham City Council Approves Healthy Food Overlay District

    The Birmingham City Council voted Tuesday to establish a “healthy food overlay district,” designed to make healthy food options more accessible for the approximately two-thirds of the city’s population that lives within food deserts.

    The healthy food overlay district will cover areas of Birmingham defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as “low-access census tracts,” where “a significant number (at least 500 people) or share (at least 33%) of the population is greater than half a mile from the nearest supermarket, supercenter, or large grocery store.” The final version of the ordinance also establishes a half-mile “buffer” around the overlay district, within which restrictions on dollar stores will still apply.
    Read more.

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  • Environment

    Neighborhoods Want Trust Fund Set Up From Proposed ABC Coke’s Benzene Pollution Case

    The North Birmingham community made clear this week that it wants money from an ABC Coke pollution penalty to be used to create a trust fund to benefit residents in the surrounding area.  

    The Jefferson County Department of Health and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would each get half of the proposed $775,000 fine, or $387,500 each, for the agreement that the Drummond Company facility mismanaged the carcinogenic chemical benzene in its byproduct recovery facilities.

    State Rep. Mary Moore, other community members and the clean-air nonprofit group Gasp said during a news conference Monday that the health board should set up a trust fund for its share of the settlement, with community membership included on an oversight board.
    Read more.

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  • Birmingham City Council

    Birmingham Council Increases Lodging Tax to Fund Tourism Efforts

    Despite warnings that doing so might backfire, the Birmingham City Council voted Tuesday to increase the city’s lodging tax.

    The ordinance, which drew fierce criticism from local hoteliers, adds a $3 per night, per room surcharge to the city’s lodging tax code. The revenue generated by that surcharge is to be allocated “exclusively for sports and entertainment recruitment and development, tourism and infrastructure improvements.”

    That surcharge is in addition to the city’s current 17.5% lodging tax rate, which is above the national average of 13.4%.

    The ordinance was proposed — and at times angrily defended — by Council President Pro Tempore William Parker, who said the increase would add $4 million in annual revenue. Parker argued that this extra money would make the city “more competitive” in recruiting sporting events, which would in turn increase the city’s tourism. Read more.

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  • Government

    Jefferson County HR Director Fired, No Comment on Cause

    Three weeks after telling a friend on social media that she was “having a great time” in her job, Michelle Rodrigues has been fired from her post as the head of human resources for Jefferson County.

    “Michelle Rodrigues is no longer working for the county,” county manager Tony Petelos told BirminghamWatch. “On personnel matters, I can’t comment on that. All I can say is she’s no longer working here.”

    Rodrigues declined a request for comment from BirminghamWatch.

    Rodrigues is the second top manager the county has lost in a week. Armika Berkley resigned from her position as executive director of Cooper Green Mercy Health System.

    Petelos squelched thoughts that the actions might be related. “No, it had nothing to do with that,” he said. “Michelle has absolutely nothing to do with Armika leaving or her contract.” Read more.

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  • City of Birmingham

    Is Your Pet Peeve on Birmingham’s Planned Paving Map?

    View Birmingham’s planned paving map.

    The city of Birmingham has released a map showing plans for repaving roads in the city.

    Roads shown in green are projects already funded in the city budget. The red streets are identified as priority projects but have not yet been funded.

    The map allows you to zoom in to see details of any projects, or you can search for a specific address.

    These plans are part of an ongoing $5.1 million repaving project. The roads in green are expected to be finished about November. Read more.

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  • About News

    A Universal Action: When PR’s Goal Is to Hide the Truth

    Very few people knew just how devastating was the June 2008 fire at the Universal Music Group’s archives that destroyed the master recordings of thousands of musical artists – from Count Basie to Snoop Dog, Chuck Berry to Nirvana.

    The company made sure.

    In fact, it took 11 years before the public began to fully understand the loss. The New York Times Magazine revealed the losses in its story published June 11, 2019..

    The story is worth reading for many reasons – as an accounting of what happened, and insight into the magnitude of the losses that go beyond the mere millions of dollars and cents.

    But there’s another way to read the story — as an example of public relations scheming. The Times’ story points out many places where Universal’s public relations staff did its best to hide the extent of the losses — to itself, to the music makers who entrusted their original master recordings to the company and to the public. Only with insurance filings did it seem to reveal the losses. Read more.

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  • 2020 election

    Legislature Sends Amendments to Voters

    Alabama legislators passed hundreds of new laws this year, but they also sent several decisions to Alabama voters in the form of proposed constitutional amendments.

    Among the proposals to be on statewide ballots are ones that would replace the elected board of education with an appointed one, allow the Legislature to recompile the state’s constitution and reiterate that only U.S. citizens may vote. Read more.

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  • Environment

    New Map Provides Comprehensive Graphic of Coal Ash’s Groundwater Pollution at State Power Plants

    While some electric utilities in some other southeastern U.S. states are moving millions of tons of toxic coal ash away from waterways and into lined landfills, those in Alabama are holding fast to plans to corral their toxic material in unlined pits at their present locations, an option labeled cap-in-place.

    Four nonprofit environmental groups this week released a new ineractive map they say shows the potential danger of the cap-in-place strategy chosen in the state by Alabama Power Company, PowerSouth Energy Cooperative, and the Tennessee Valley Authority. The maps, based on results of the utilities’ federally required tests of groundwater pollution near the facilities, show where arsenic, molybdenum, and other chemicals persist at levels that exceed government-set standards.

    While the information has been available on the utilities’ websites, it previously has not been aggregated graphically in map form.
    Read more.

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  • Alabama Legislature

    New Incentives Law Targets Rural and Struggling Urban Areas

    MONTGOMERY — A recently-passed bill aimed to spur job growth in rural and urban areas of the state has been signed into law by Gov. Kay Ivey.

    Sponsored by Rep. Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa, House Bill 540, dubbed the Alabama Incentives Modernization Act, is a set of tax incentives designed to enhance development in counties that are experiencing slow economic conditions and to help bring new technology companies to the state. Proponents of the legislation say it enhances current incentives, encourages investments in designated opportunity zones and offers a capital gains tax cut for tech companies moving to Alabama. Read more.

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  • Alabama Legislature

    Universities See Significant Increases; ‘Peer-Gap’ Formula to Continue

    Alabama’s public four-year universities will receive funding increases of between about 6% and more than 12% under the 2020 education budget recently approved by lawmakers.

    “I think all of higher education is happy with where we ended up,” Alabama Commission on Higher Education Executive Director Jim Purcell said Wednesday.

    During the budgeting process, some university officials and lawmakers expressed frustration over this year’s proposed budget including additional money for a few institutions that had previously been underfunded. Purcell said ACHE was attempting to fix “egregious inequities in funding.” Read more.

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  • Alabama Legislature

    ‘Gut Check’ Session Ends, Here’s What They Did

    MONTGOMERY – Sen. Jabo Waggoner, R-Birmingham, has been an Alabama lawmaker since 1966.

    “I’ve been through more sessions that anybody here, and this is one of the toughest sessions ever,” Waggoner said Friday evening as legislators ended the annual law-making stint that began March 5.

    “I mean, we’re talking lottery, gasoline tax, medical marijuana, abortion. It has been a gut check this year, it really has, as far as tough, impactful votes. But as far as high-profile issues, this session probably ranks No. 1 in my career.”

    Read more.

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  • Alabama Legislature

    Lawsuit Filed Challenging Alabama’s Abortion Law

    The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Alabama and Planned Parenthood filed a federal lawsuit Friday seeking to block Alabama’s strict new abortion law.

    “We are proud to take this fight to the state,” Staci Fox, president of Planned Parenthood Southeast, said. “They asked for it, and we promised it, and today we delivered.” Read more.

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  • Birmingham City Council

    Mr. Hoyt Goes to Australia. City-Paid Trip Takes Him to Sports Business Convention

    Birmingham City Councilor Steven Hoyt and council administrator Cheryl Kidd will leave Birmingham on Wednesday to attend the Sport Accord Gold Coast 2019 Summit in Queensland, Australia.

    The city will pay $8,930.07 for each of them to attend, making it the most expensive city-funded trip, per person, than any city employee has taken since at least November 2017. The trip also lasts several days longer than the convention.

    Hoyt and Kidd will be part of a delegation representing the 2021 World Games, which will be held in Birmingham. Read more.

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  • Education

    “This Report Will Be Hard to Read:” Jefferson County Memorial Project Puts the Spotlight on Lynchings, and There’s More to Come.

    Updated – Thirty people were lynched in Jefferson County between 1883 and 1940, victims of racial terror in the segregated, postwar South. Now, a new report will tells the story of each of those victims, with the goal of fostering dialogue about racial violence and its connection to present-day injustice.

    The “Jefferson County’s 30 Residents” report, released Wednesday night, was compiled by the Jefferson County Memorial Project, a citizen-led cooperative working to spark conversation around the county’s history of racial violence.

    The project was sparked by the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which opened in Montgomery in April with the stated goal of placing America face-to-face with its history of injustice.

    JCMP organizers said that their report will place Jefferson County at the forefront of a national movement sparked by the EJI’s monument, making the county a model for others looking to create a dialogue and advocate for change. Read more.

    Read more stories in the package

    Researching Birmingham’s Lynchings was Disturbing, Eye-Opening for College Students Who Took on the Project

    How They Did It: College Students Were Trained in Research Techniques to Tell the Stories of Jefferson County’s Lynching Victims

    Jefferson County’s 30 Victims


    This map links to a live interactive map on the JCMP’s website.

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  • Education

    One-Third of Alabama’s Failing Schools Are in the Birmingham Metro Area

    The Alabama State Department of Education has posted its list of the state’s failing public schools, and 25 Birmingham metro-area public schools are on it. Statewide, 76 public schools are on the list.

    The list is based on standardized test score performances and compiled yearly as a requirement of the Alabama Accountability Act. The law requires that schools with scores that fall into the lowest 6 percent be designated as failing schools.

    Birmingham City Schools comprise 26 percent of the failing schools, with 20 schools on the list. That number is up from the lists released in 2018 and 2017, when 14 and 13 schools, respectively, were designated as failing. Read more.

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  • Education

    Alabama School Report Card Shows Mostly Improvements, and Some Big Leaps, by Birmingham-Area Schools.

    Several schools in the Birmingham metro area show significant improvements in achievement in this year’s Alabama State Report Card, which grades the performance of public schools.

    In the report, issued by the Alabama State Department of Education on Dec. 28, far fewer area schools received failing grades, compared to last year.

    The Bessemer, Midfield, Fairfield and Jefferson County school systems had no failing schools this year — an improvement over three failing schools each in Bessemer and Fairfield and one failing school in Jefferson County last year.

    While the Birmingham City Schools maintained a grade of D, the system saw the number of failing schools drop from 22 last year to only five in the new report.

    Read more.

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  • Education

    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.

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