• Economy

    New STEM Lab at Memorial Park Center Will Give Youth Access to Computers, Train Future Workers

    Cyber Monday took on new meaning for residents of Birmingham’s Titusville Community with the ribbon-cutting of a STEM lab at Memorial Park Recreation Center.

    The six-computer lab is courtesy of a $10,000 contribution from DC Blox, which opened its data storage center across the street in July.

    Jeff Uphues, CEO of DC Blox, said he wasn’t in charge of the scheduling of Monday’s event but is glad the day had finally arrived.

    “So much of our lives are driven by technology,” Uphues said. “This is just an example and a testament to what’s going on in the community to Titusville, a testament to the city of Birmingham and then the county. Everything that’s going on here is wonderful.”

    The STEM lab is the result of DC Blox’s desire to do something for the community. Access to computer hardware, software and instruction was determined to be what the area wanted to provide a boost to area youth. Uphues said more than 800 youth are estimated to live in the Titusville Community and as many as 4,500 are within walking distance.

    While the STEM lab is aimed at aiding children, the vision is broader, providing instruction to prepare young adults for the job market, for example. Read more.

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  • City of Birmingham

    High Court Rules Confederate Monument Outside Birmingham City Hall Cannot Be Covered, Fines City

    UPDATED – The Alabama Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the city of Birmingham had violated state law by covering a Confederate monument outside City Hall. The decision reverses a previous ruling by the Jefferson County Circuit Court and orders the city to pay $25,000 in penalties to the state of Alabama.

    The monument in question, in Birmingham’s Linn Park, was ordered covered in August 2017 by then-Mayor William Bell following deadly riots surrounding a Confederate monument in Charlottesville, Virginia. The monument, then-City Council President Johnathan Austin contended, “celebrate(s) racism, bigotry, hate and all those things that the South has been known for.”

    By covering the monument, Bell said he intended to “challenge” state law, specifically the just-passed Alabama Memorial Preservation Act of 2017, which prohibits local governments from moving or altering historically significant buildings or monuments that are more than 40 years old without permission from the state. The Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument was first placed in Linn Park by the Pelham chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1905. Read more.

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  • Education

    Walter Gonsoulin Named New JefCoEd Superintendent, Its First African American Leader

    Walter Gonsoulin, who has served as interim superintendent of the Jefferson County Schools since the departure last month of Craig Pouncey, now holds the position for good.

    Gonsoulin was selected unanimously by the JefCoEd Board of Education in its regular monthly meeting Thursday morning. Unlike previous searches for a new superintendent, this search was over and done almost as quickly as legally allowed — just four days after the deadline for submitting applications had passed.

    While other African American educators have served briefly as interim superintendents for JefCoEd in the past, Gonsoulin is the first in the system’s history to hold the job on a permanent basis.

    “It’s a great honor and a great privilege to be a part of history,” he said. “I’m thankful that the board had confidence in me to appoint me. We’re just ready to get to work to serve our 36,000 students.” Read more.

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  • Environment

    Changing Climate: Many in Coastal Alabama Act Now to Rebuild Shorelines, Prepare for Storms

    Some Alabamians and the politicians they elect traditionally have denied global warming. But many people in coastal Alabama are preparing now for what they fear will be inevitable consequences of increased warming of the air and oceans. They see Mobile Bay and the Alabama coast as uniquely susceptible in the state to harm from forces of nature.

    Money for their programs comes from a variety of public, private and institutional sources. Some dollars are being generated from a man-made disaster in the past – the BP Horizon oil spill. It’s being spent to help prepare the shoreline and bay for man-made disasters ahead as scientists say temperatures and sea level will rise, storms intensify, and the state will be slammed with more torrential rain alternating with periods of severe drought.

    Here are two examples of those efforts.

    Bayou la Batre’s Lightning Point

    Judy Haner heads the Alabama chapter of nonprofit The Nature Conservancy, part of a collaboration of entities using oil spill money from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to restore 40 acres of marsh, tidal creeks and other habitat for fish, shellfish and birds in Bayou la Batre. That small fishing and seafood processing town has not fully recovered from the twin hits of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the BP Horizon oil spill five years later. Read more.

    Over the next year, BirminghamWatch will visit places in Alabama where ways of life have been affected as climate changes and look at what’s being done to mitigate or avoid the effects. This is the fourth in a series of four stories from Alabama’s Gulf Coast. Read the earlier stories: Alabama Sees Heat, Storms, Drought and Turtles, Cloudy Future for Dauphin Island, a Canary in the Coal Mine of Climate Change , In Pursuit of the Disappearing Alabama Oyster. Will They Ever Return?

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  • Government

    Groups Petition Regions Bank to Withdraw From Business with Private Prisons and Immigrant Detention Centers

    A coalition of about 100 organizations nationwide delivered petitions to Regions Bank headquarters in Birmingham on Thursday asking the bank to not do business with companies that run private prisons and immigrant detention centers.

    Also Thursday, the group, functioning under the banner of Families Belong Together, delivered similar petitions to Citizens Bank in Providence, Rhodes Island, and to Pinnacle and Synovus Banks in Nashville.

    Families Belong Together along with shareholders, policymakers and investors already have been the catalysts in persuading the banks to withhold about $2.4 billion in lines of credit and loans to private prison businesses. Read more.

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  • Government

    Jefferson County Clears Hurdle to Working out an Agreement With UAB for a Health Care Authority

    The Jefferson County Commission voted 3-2 for a resolution that executes an amended master agreement to establish the framework for UAB to form an authority to operate Cooper Green Mercy Health System.

    Commissioners Jimmie Stephens, Joe Knight and Steve Ammons voted for the measure. Lashunda Scales and Sheila Tyson voted no.

    “I think this is really a defining moment for our indigent health care system,” Stephens, the commission president, said immediately following the vote. “Moving forward, I believe our indigents will be able to see a noticeable difference. I believe we’ll improve the quality of our health care and our efficiencies.”

    Whether current Cooper Green employees who are hired to continue to work with the health care authority may remain in the county retirement system has been a point of concern for Tyson, the chair of the commission’s committee governing Cooper Green, and Scales. Stephens said those employees will have the option to remain in the county’s retirement system or go under a retirement system offered by the authority.

    Scales said she voted no because all of the commissioners have not been given information during the negotiations.

    “In my opinion, (that) did not occur,” she said. “Because it did not occur, it made me very uncomfortable with voting on a master agreement. I asked several questions I believe went unanswered.” Read more.

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  • 2020 election

    Sessions Running for Senate, Hoping to Make Up With Trump

    Former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced on national television tonight that he will seek election to the U.S. Senate seat that he held for two decades.

    Appearing on Tucker Carlson Tonight on the Fox News channel, Sessions told the host that he will file his papers to run for his former seat on Friday.

    Carlson called Sessions the most popular person in the state after the University of Alabama football coach at the time he stepped away from the Senate. But the Selma native said he has no regrets about leaving the seat.

    “I had a great tenure at the Department of Justice in so many different ways,” he said. “I don’t ever worry about regret and things like that.” Read more.

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  • Environment

    Easier Rules Proposed for Power Companies’ Coal Ash Storage

    The Trump Administration is seeking changes in federal coal ash rules that could allow power producers to store toxic coal ash in unlined basins for up to eight more years and ease rules on temporary storage of ash for use in construction projects as filler material.

    Electric utilities in Alabama are using a decreasing supply of coal. Alabama Power uses coal to produce power at locations in Jefferson, Shelby and Mobile counties, but it has inactive plants where coal ash is still stored. PowerSouth Electric Cooperative announced it would close its coal burning facility in Washington County within a year and cap-in-place its coal ash waste, and the Tennessee Valley Authority stores coal ash at its inactive coal plant in Colbert County.

    The Southern Environment Law Center, with offices in Birmingham, along with EarthJustice and several other “green” organizations, is opposing the proposed rules that govern one of the nation’s largest industrial waste products. Read more.

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  • Birmingham City Schools

    Almost One-Third of Schools on the Statewide Failing Schools List Are in the Birmingham Area

    The state Department of Education released its annual list of failing schools Friday and Birmingham-area schools make up 30% of the schools on the statewide list.

    Six of the area districts, Birmingham City Schools, Jefferson County Schools, Bessemer City Schools, Fairfield Schools, Tarrant Schools and Midfield Schools had schools on the list.

    The list is composed of the bottom 6% of schools based on students’ standardized test scores.

    Although Birmingham City Schools had 16 schools on the list, Superintendent Lisa Herring said: “We are not a failing school system. We recognize there is work to be done. We are a turnaround district, and we will not be satisfied until every scholar in our district is highly successful.” Read more.

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  • Government

    Jefferson County Is on the Brink of Shedding Personnel Consent Decree

    U.S. District Court Judge Lynwood Smith wished Tony Petelos a happy Halloween, one in which he would get more treats than tricks.

    But the Jefferson County manager had already gotten a big treat when he heard Smith say that Jefferson County is “teetering on the edge” of being able to conclude the consent decree on personnel practices that has hovered over it for nearly 40 years. And it was a treat he was glad to get.

    “Absolutely,” Petelos said after the status hearing this morning. “It’s been almost four decades, this consent decree, and we’re very close to bringing it to an end. It’s very positive. We’re very excited. Four decades is a long time.” Read more.

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  • Birmingham City Council

    City Allocates $4M in Emergency Funding to Rehab Ramsay-McCormack

    Plans to renovate the long-derelict Ramsay-McCormack Building in Ensley are underway. The Birmingham City Council voted Tuesday to approve a $4 million plan that could have the building revitalized and open by August 2021, developers say.

    The council’s decision comes just one day before a lawsuit against the city over the building’s renovation is slated to once again go before a judge.

    The 10-story office building, which was built in 1929, has been empty since 1986.

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  • Education

    Most Birmingham-Area Schools Improve From Last Year in Latest Report Card, But Work Still Needed

    Two Birmingham-area school systems scored better than last year on the 2018-2019 annual Education Report Card issued by the Alabama State Department of Education.

    Jefferson County Schools and Birmingham City Schools each improved overall by one letter grade. Jefferson County received a B and Birmingham City Schools scored a C. The statewide grade was a B, with 84 points.

    The department has revamped presentation of the report card on its website to make viewing and searching for information easier. The enhanced site allows side-by-side comparison of up to four schools and uses colorful graphs and illustrations to make detailed information on student demographics, teacher credentials and school performance easier to read and understand. Read more.

    You can research information on each school and compare up to four schools on the ALSDE site.

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  • Birmingham City Council

    Birmingham Promise Approved by City Council

    The Birmingham City Council today took a big step toward fulfilling the promise of Birmingham Promise by funding apprenticeships and scholarships for students of Birmingham city high schools.

    By unanimous consent, council members authorized the mayor to execute a project agreement between the city and Birmingham Promise in which Birmingham Promise will administer a program to, among other things, increase postsecondary opportunities and economic prosperity of graduates of Birmingham schools.

    The city will provide $10 million during the next five years – $2 million per year – subject to extension in accordance with the terms of the agreement. Students must be enrolled in city schools now in order to qualify for the apprenticeships.
    Read more.

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  • Education

    Pinson Valley High School Teacher Raisa Eady Wins Milken Educator Award

    Raisa Eady never saw it coming — which was by design.

    The biology teacher at Pinson Valley High School knew something big was happening when officials from the Alabama State Department of Education, Jefferson County Schools, local governments and the Milken Family Foundation showed up for an assembly in the school auditorium. Some teacher was about to receive a big award.

    But when her name was announced as the winner of the Milken Educator Award, she sat in disbelief.

    “When it (the announcement) happened, everyone looked around and I said, ‘Oh, it is me?’ They said yes and I said, ‘No way!’” Eady told reporters afterward. “I’m so honored and overwhelmed today. I definitely had no idea this was happening. … I have not even grasped what’s happened yet. I feel extremely blessed, grateful — and overwhelmed.”

    She did have a literal grasp on a big check, though. The award, given by the Milken Family Foundation, comes with a prize of $25,000, and no restrictions on how it may be used. Read more.

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  • General

    The Opioid Prescribing Problem: A JR Long Read

    Blame for the opioid crisis in the U.S. often falls squarely on pharmaceutical companies, pharmacies or rogue prescribers — like the Virginia doctor who prescribed more than half a million opioid doses in two years.

    But the whole story is more complicated, and it implicates a large portion of health care providers. Research shows that many doctors, nurse practitioners and physician assistants across the nation have oversupplied patients with opioids, spurring a national crisis that each year claims tens of thousands of lives.

    “This isn’t just a story about rogue prescribers and pill mills,” says Caleb Alexander, co-Director of the Center for Drug Safety and Effectiveness at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. “A much broader swath of the medical profession is responsible for the oversupply of opioids in clinical practice.” Read more.

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  • Environment

    Birding in Alabama: A View of What Losing 3 Billion Birds in North America Looks Like Here

    On a recent sunny Saturday, Dwight Cooley and some friends spent four hours at north Alabama’s Swan Creek Wildlife Management Area looking for different kinds of what an online dictionary defines as “a warm-blooded egg-laying vertebrate distinguished by the possession of feathers, wings, and a beak and (typically) by being able to fly.”

    In other words, they were birding.

    Cooley, the former manager of the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge near Decatur, has been bird-watching and doing bird counts since the 1970s, and what he and the others saw on that recent Saturday was not encouraging. In their four hours in the field, they saw dozens of birds, including 16 representing five species of warblers. Four decades ago, under similar conditions, Cooley said, the group not only would have seen more warblers, but also more species of them.

    “You just don’t see the number of birds that we used to see, and you don’t see the diversity of birds out there,” Cooley said. Read more.

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  • Environment

    The Heat Goes On, and So Do the Ozone Alert Days

    It’s Alabama’s uncharacteristic September heat, not lack of rain, that’s caused recent air quality ozone alerts in numbers unheard of this late in the summer. That’s the word from the Jefferson County Department of Health expert Corey Masuca.

    Masuca, who is the county’s air quality control engineer, is one of six experts who the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is required to depend on for recommendations on air quality standards for ozone and particulate matter, among other air pollutants, to protect public health and safety.

    Ozone alerts have occurred nine days since May, according to the health department. Six of those have occurred in September. Check here for daily information on air quality in Jefferson County.

    Ninety-degree Fahrenheit temperatures are expected to persist for the next several days in a “heat dome” effect that occurs only once every 10 to 30 years, according to an analysis by the joint national weather services of the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Read more.

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  • Birmingham City Council

    Birmingham Launching Pilot Ridesharing Service

    Starting in December, residents of some Birmingham neighborhoods will have a new transit option. The Birmingham City Council voted Tuesday to approve a six-month transportation pilot program with ridesharing company Via, funded in part by the city and in part by the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham.

    The program will provide on-demand transportation using marked Mercedes Metris vans, which can be summoned online, through an 800 number or on a smartphone app. Each trip will have a flat fee of $1.50 per rider; the vans can accommodate six riders at one. The pilot program will cover a 6.7-mile area that includes parts of downtown Birmingham, along with western neighborhoods such as Smithfield, Graymont and College Hills. Read more.

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  • Education

    Jefferson County Board of Education Makes History With Appointment of First African American as Interim Superintendent

    It was a history-making moment for the Jefferson County Board of Education.

    The board on Wednesday unanimously selected Dr. Walter Gonsoulin Jr. as interim superintendent, making him the first African American to head the system in its 200 years of existence. Gonsoulin is temporarily replacing the departing Dr. Craig Pouncey.

    “I feel humbled and honored to be chosen by the board,” Gonsoulin said after the meeting.

    Gonsoulin joined JefCoEd as a deputy superintendent of school and community support in 2017. One of six deputies currently on the JefCoEd staff, he has had oversight over half of the system’s schools. Before that, Gonsoulin served as superintendent of Fairfield City Schools, a job he took in 2012 after moving from an assistant superintendent’s post in Starkville, Mississippi’s city school system. Read more.

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  • 2019 Birmingham City Election

    Birmingham Voters Head to Polls Oct. 8 to Pick 3 Council Members, Decide on School Taxes

    Birmingham is one month away from a citywide election that will not only determine the future of funding for city schools but also whether up to one-third of City Council seats change hands.

    The election, which will be held Oct. 8, will determine whether to renew three ad valorem property taxes that benefit Birmingham City Schools.

    Voters also will determine council members for districts 1, 6 and 7, replacing councilors who were appointed to the posts. Read more.

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  • Economy

    Hallmark Cooperative Takes Control of Iconic Property in Warrior, Plans Development

    Warrior Mayor Johnny Ragland is like a child looking forward to Christmas as he envisions Warrior’s Hallmark Farms development coming to fruition.

    Considering the floating Christmas tree and decorated barn with which passersby had become familiar, that is understandable.

    “Myself, I would love to have it next month,” Ragland said. “Two businesses over here. Five over here. But it takes time.”

    Members of the Hallmark Cooperative announced today that it has officially taken control of the property just off Interstate 65 and nearly surrounded by Locust Fork, one of three major tributaries of the Black Warrior River.

    Along with revealing the logo for the cooperative, which features the iconic barn on the property, cooperative members talked about what is to come to the area in north Jefferson County.

    “We can bring as much as 720 jobs to just this property,” said Jefferson County Commissioner Steve Ammons, who is president of the cooperative. “That is a huge influx of daytime folks.” Read more.

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  • Birmingham City Council

    Birmingham City Travel Tops $250K

    Open full Birmingham City Travel spreadsheet

    Birmingham city employees spent $258,387.96 of taxpayer money on travel between Oct. 24, 2017, and July 19, 2019, an analysis of City Council meeting agendas reveals.

    Close to three-fourths of that money, $186,011.87, was spent by the Birmingham City Council and its employees; the remaining $71,276.09 was spent by Mayor Randall Woodfin and his employees.

    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. Approximately $40,000 in travel funds have been preliminarily approved, without follow-up, since January. 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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  • 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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  • 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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  • 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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  • 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.

    ,
  • Crime

    Woodfin Touts Neighborhood Revitalization Work, Cuts in Crime Rates in Update on his Administration’s Progress

    Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin marked the halfway point of his first term in office Tuesday evening with a presentation highlighting his administration’s accomplishments and broadly gesturing toward his plans for the next two years.

    Tuesday’s event, which took place at the downtown Birmingham venue Haven, followed a similar presentation that took place in March, also titled “The Big Picture.” Both events were intended to provide an update on the Woodfin administration’s strategic initiatives. But while March’s event featured presentations from a slew of city officials, Tuesday night’s presentation centered on a half-hour speech from Woodfin. Read more.

    ,
  • Environment

    As More-Powerful Hurricanes Batter the Country, Scientists Ask, ‘How Much Worse Did Climate Change Make It?’

    Mexico Beach, Florida — When Hurricane Michael exploded in strength over the Gulf of Mexico in October 2018 and hit Florida with a devastating storm surge and 157 mile-per-hour winds, it marked the first Category 5 storm to reach the Panhandle and only the fifth to make landfall in the United States.

    Michael reduced much of the Panhandle town of Mexico Beach to splinters and destroyed parts of other nearby communities. We saw the destruction firsthand while reporting here for The American Climate Project. It killed 16 people across the Southeast and is considered responsible for 43 other deaths in Florida, including from storm clean-up accidents and health issues worsened by the hurricane, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

    It inflicted about $25 billion of damage to the region, including about $5 billion alone at Tyndall Air Force Base near Panama City. The storm caused catastrophic damage in southeastern Alabama and southwestern Georgia, as well.

    More than other weather disasters, hurricanes seem to prompt people to ask: Was climate change to blame?

    That, climate scientists say, is the wrong question. People should, instead, be asking, “How much worse did climate change make it?” said Texas Tech climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe. Read more.

    Also from InsideClimate News’ American Climate Project:
    The Sound of Rain, the Crackle of Fire Take Victims Back to the Moment of Their Nightmares

    ,
  • Birmingham City Council

    New Birmingham Bold Funding Approved for Economic Development Projects, From Help for Small Businesses to Job Training for Single Mothers

    The Birmingham City Council voted Tuesday to approve $680,949.46 in program funding for seven local organizations as part of Mayor Randall Woodfin’s Building Opportunities for Lasting Development initiative.

    Adah International, the Birmingham Business Alliance, the Birmingham Business Resource Center, Jefferson State Community College, REV Birmingham, the Salvation Army, and the Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham were the beneficiaries in Bold’s second year, following approval of the program’s “inaugural class” last November.

    Several of the projects will help small businesses, with a focus on women-owned, minority-owned and disadvantaged businesses, while others will support underprivileged mothers and children and help residents improve their work skills. Read more.

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  • Birmingham City Council

    Birmingham City Council Approves Deal for AHSAA Football Championship Games, Will Consider Naming Five Points South an Entertainment District

    During its brief Nov. 26 meeting, the Birmingham City Council turned its eye to the future of the city’s entertainment industry, approving a contract to host state high school football championships at the in-development Protective Stadium and setting a public hearing to designate one area of the city an entertainment district.

    The council voted to approve an agreement with the Alabama High School Athletic Association to host its football championships at the city’s under-construction Protective Stadium in 2021, 2024, 2027 and 2030. The $175 million stadium, which will seat roughly 45,000 people, started construction last December.

    As part of the agreement, the city will provide up to $125,000 in economic incentives to the AHSAA; in turn, the resolution states, the championship games will generate an estimated $10,000,000 in economic impact for the city. Read more.

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  • About News

    UNA Student Media Adviser Learns the Price of Standing up for Free Speech Can Be Exorbitant

    The censorship of student newspapers has been a source of concern among journalists around the nation during 2019. One Alabama school, the University of North Alabama in Florence, became the focus of the issue of First Amendment rights of student journalists when it forced out its student media adviser following the campus newspaper’s publication of articles that drew the ire of some administrators. Here is the view of what happened at UNA from then-student media adviser Scott Morris, a former editor at the Decatur Daily and the TimesDaily in Florence.

    Winning a national award and becoming a poster boy for a campaign against student-press censorship is small consolation for losing my job at the University of North Alabama.

    The College Media Association recently presented me with its Noel Ross Strader Memorial Award, the Purple Heart of student media awards. The honor goes to a full-time teacher or student media adviser who upholds the principles of a free press at some risk to personal or professional life.

    While I greatly appreciate the award, I would prefer to be using the last five years of my professional life by training students to become journalists and other types of media specialists. Instead, I am unemployed at age 60. I lost my job at UNA in May after I stood up for my students’ rights to report on sexual harassment, possible sexual abuse and other important issues that administrators preferred to keep behind closed doors. Read more.

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  • Environment

    PSC Hears Arguments for Raising or Abolishing Alabama Power’s Fees for Solar Users

    Spectators – many wearing ‘Let It Shine’ stickers – packed a Public Service Commission hearing room this morning to hear testimony about the fees Alabama Power Company charges residents to use solar panels or other alternative means of power generation.

    As the 2½-hour hearing concluded, Administrative Law Judge John A. Garner instructed both sides to prepare briefs to be delivered on or before Dec. 20. The matter will be taken under advisement, and the ruling will be made during an open meeting of the commission.

    Two persons were escorted from today’s proceedings for failing to adhere to Garner’s order of no recordings. One woman was shooting video of the hearing while another was livestreaming the event. Read more.

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  • Birmingham City Council

    Alexander Retains Seat in Birmingham City Council District 7 Runoff

    Despite strong opposition from challenger Ray Brooks, incumbent District 7 City Councilor Wardine Alexander appears to have retained her seat on the Birmingham City Council.

    Alexander secured 869 votes compared to Brooks’ 751 votes, or 53.6% and 47.4% of the vote, respectively. That vote count does not include provisional ballots, which have yet to be tallied. Turnout in Tuesday’s election was 9.36%, according to the city clerk’s office. Read more.

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  • Government

    Jefferson County Officials Meet With Cooper Green Workers About Health Care Authority

    Tony Petelos told the Jefferson County Commission Tuesday that he and others would meet Wednesday with employees of Cooper Green Mercy Health Service in the next step toward its transition to a health authority.

    The county manager said the employee meetings will begin at 7:30 a.m. and continue until about noon in the Cooper Green cafeteria.

    “We’ll have people with UAB and also our payroll folks talking about the transition,” Petelos said. “We’ve moved the transition date to approximately April 1st. We’ll talk about the benefits and all the benefits will be transferring over to the health care authority.” Read more.

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  • About News

    Northwestern Students: Low Grade for Journalism but an A for Ethics

    Journalism standards need defending in this climate of assault and deterioration, but I never imagined that would include hordes of professional journalists going on social media to meanly bash the daylights out of some college students who work for a campus newspaper.

    Such was the reaction to an editorial published Sunday in The Daily Northwestern, the news outlet for Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, that apologized for its coverage of student protests at a campus speech by Jeff Sessions, the former US attorney general and US senator from Alabama.

    The protesters accused Sessions and the Trump administration of racism and fascism, manifested primarily in their anti-immigration policies. The Daily published photos of protesters climbing through windows and engaging with police, then followed that up by texting to some protesters to ask if they would consent to interviews. You waiting for the controversial part? For the mistake that required the apology? That was it. Read more.

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  • General

    Report: State Improved in Several Child Health Indicators but Still Struggles With Poverty, Racial Disparity

    Updated — Alabama has made significant progress in infant mortality rates, teen pregnancies and child safety, but poverty and a racial disparity in indicators of wellbeing remain a problem for children in the state, according to a report released today.

    The report, called the Alabama Kids Count Data Book, explores 70 key indicators across four issue areas: health, safety, education and economic security. The Montgomery-based nonprofit group Voices for Alabama’s Children has produced the data book every year since 1994.

    Angela Thomas, communications manager for Voices, said that while the state’s child population has decreased, it has also become more ethnically diverse. And that trend follows national demographics.

    Despite the diversity, African American children track below their white peers in every indicator covered in the data book, she said.
    “Alabamians of color are overrepresented in measures of disadvantage,” she said. Read more.

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  • Birmingham City Council

    Birmingham Council Chips in on East Lake Grocery Revamp as Part of Battle Against Food Deserts

    Birmingham Council Chips in on East Lake Grocery Revamp as Part of Battle Against Food Deserts

    The Birmingham City Council voted Tuesday to approve a slate of economic incentives for one East Lake grocery store, continuing the Woodfin administration’s pledge to work toward eliminating food deserts in the city.

    Village Market, located at 7737 Second Ave. S., will receive up to $865,000 in incentives from the city, which will allow for “substantial improvements” in the store, “to include upgrades in the refrigeration and point-of-sale equipment, painting, rebuilding the cash office, adding new storefront signage, installing new shelving units, gondolas, replacing the motor room and providing additional security,” according to the meeting’s agenda.

    The city will pay the first $200,000 of those incentives up front out of the city’s Healthy Food Fund. That fund, specifically focused on providing incentives to grocery stores, was created by the council in May and was initially allocated $500,000; Village Market is the first store to receive money from the fund. Read more.

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  • Congress

    The Partisan Divide Isn’t That Wide Between Alabama’s Two US Senators, Though It Still Is a Canyon Among House Members

    Although they differ on many high-profile issues, Alabama’s two U.S. senators voted together about half the time on key issues during 2019.

    Republican Richard Shelby, who has served in the Senate for 31 years, and freshman Democrat Doug Jones have voted together 11 times and on opposite sides on 10 occasions this year, according to weekly reports compiled by Voterama in Congress for BirminghamWatch.

    The two have parted ways, however, over many of President Trump’s nominations for federal judgeships, cabinet posts and other positions, according to weekly reports by Voterama. Jones voted to confirm five of the president’s nominees and against nine. Shelby voted for all 14. Read more.

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  • Environment

    Public Hearing Called on Water Pollution Permit for Tyson Plant in Blountsville

    A public hearing will be held Nov. 19 concerning a proposed new permit that would set limits on how much pollution and storm water Tyson Foods could discharge into waterways from its Blountville chicken processing plant.

    The plant is upstream of two public recreation areas, Mardis Mill Falls and King’s Bend. It is not the Tyson facility that caused a recent massive fish kill in the Mulberry Fork of the Black Warrior River.

    The draft permit would allow the Blountsville plant to release about 1.3 million gallons of wastewater daily to Graves Creek, a tributary of the Locust Fork, as well as to the Locust Fork itself. The wastewater would include bacteria and nutrient pollution. Tyson Foods could also discharge polluted stormwater under the permit if approved. Read more.

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  • Government

    Economic Development Spending Stirs Flap Among Jefferson County Commissioners

    Steve Ammons, chairman of the Jefferson County Commission’s committee on economic development, called another commissioner’s moving without his knowledge to require full commission approval to spend economic development funds “a slap in the face.”

    Ammons said he had no idea the resolution was coming up. “When it came up, honestly it was a slap in the face,” he said.

    Ammons and Commission President Jimmie Stephens were absent Tuesday when Commissioner Lashunda Scales presented the resolution in the commission’s committee meeting. Read more.

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  • Birmingham City Council

    Birmingham Council Elects Parker as New President

    The Birmingham City Council voted Tuesday to appoint District 4 Councilor William Parker as its new president and District 7 Councilor Wardine Alexander as president pro tempore.

    Parker takes over from District 3 Councilor Valerie Abbott, who had held the seat since October 2017.

    The council’s vote was narrowly split between Parker and District 1 Councilor Clinton Woods, who had just been sworn into office after winning his first public election; he originally was appointed to the council in December.

    Abbott and District 8 Councilor Steven Hoyt both jockeyed for the decisive vote, repeatedly asking the city clerk to pass over them until everyone else had voted. Read more.

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  • 2020 election

    Jones Stockpiles $5 Million for Senate Race, Byrne Leads GOP Candidates With $2.5 Million Nest Egg

    Sen. Doug Jones enters the final quarter of 2019 with more than $5 million in the bank as he campaigns for a full term in the U.S. Senate.

    Jones, who became the first Democrat to represent Alabama in the Senate since 1997 when he defeated Roy Moore in a special election in December 2017, has amassed almost twice as much cash as any of his potential Republican challengers. Read more.

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  • Education

    The Beginning of the End? Court Motion Starts Process to Declare Desegregation in Jefferson County Schools Complete

    In 1971, when the U.S. District Court first ruled that Jefferson County Schools were segregated and required the court’s supervision to integrate, most of the people who would be directly affected had not yet been born — in numerous cases, their parents hadn’t born yet, either.

    But that era might be coming to an end at long last, though that end may still be three or four years away.

    JefCoEd is scheduled to file a motion with District Judge Madeline Haikala that seeks to amend an order handed down in Stout v. Jefferson County Board of Education, the landmark case that found the county system operated separate schools for white and African American students. The motion to amend comes after lengthy negotiations with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, which originally filed the lawsuit in 1965, and the U.S. Department of Justice. Read more.

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  • Government

    Jefferson County Commission OKs Magic City Classic Funding; Scales’, Stephens’ Reasoning Took Them on the Same Path to Different Destinations

    Jefferson County Commission President Jimmie Stephens and President Pro Tem Lashunda Scales are often on opposite sides of discussions.

    In Thursday’s commission meeting, they once again wound up on different sides of the fence, but their sentiments were not as far apart as they might have appeared.

    Stephens pulled for separate consideration resolutions allotting $100,000 apiece to Alabama A&M and Alabama State universities. That money is to assist in the promotion of the annual Magic City Classic football game.
    Scales, Sheila Tyson and Joe Knight voted for the actions. Stephens abstained and Steve Ammons was absent. Read more.

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  • Birmingham City Council

    One Birmingham City Council Seat Goes to a Runoff; Two Incumbents Returned to the Council

    One Birmingham City Council seat will be up for a runoff after none of the candidates won more than 50 percent of the votes in Tuesday’s balloting. See full results here.

    Wardine Towers Alexander will face Ray Brooks on Nov. 19 in a runoff for the council District 7 seat. Alexander won 42.41% of the vote to challenger Ray Brooks’ 30.88%.

    Two other races were decided Tuesday. Crystal Smitherman will return as council District 6 councilor, having garnered 51.50% of the vote in a seven-candidate field. In the District 1 race, Clifton Woods will return to the council, with 71.27% of the vote in his district.

    The three propositions to renew separate ad valorem taxes all passed by wide margins, with those voting yes in each race amounting to about 90%.

    Reporting of full results was delayed until Wednesday because of an error in the handling of electronic machine memory cards at three different precincts.

    The cards from the Martha Gaskins School, Robinson Elementary School and Five Points West precincts were sealed inside boxes that contained the paper ballots filled out by voters. Officials with the Birmingham City Clerk’s office had to get a court order Wednesday morning to allow them to open the box and add those votes to the total. Read more.

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  • BirminghamWatch

    Legendary Birmingham Sports Promoter Art Clarkson Dies

    Art Clarkson, who ran two of Birmingham’s best-known minor league sports teams among many other ventures, has died at age 78, just months after retiring from his last sports management job.

    Clarkson has had a hand in management of numerous sports operations across the country, but he is best known locally as the man who brought the Barons baseball team back to Rickwood Field and who ran the Birmingham Bulls hockey franchise in two different incarnations. Read more.

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  • General

    Bluesman Henry “Gip” Gipson Dies at 99

    Alabama native and blues musician Henry “Gip” Gipson is dead. Gipson died Tuesday at a nursing home in Bessemer. He was 99. Gipson was known worldwide for his Saturday night backyard parties. “Gip’s Place,” his Bessemer juke joint, has been the gathering spot for blues since the early ’50s. Read more.

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  • Economy

    Cyberattacks Like the One on DCH Are Increasingly Common

    Ransomware attacks are the most significant cyber threat to hospitals across the country, according to John Riggi, a 28-year veteran of the FBI and now senior advisor for cybersecurity and risk at the American Hospital Association. “Ransomware has a direct impact to interrupt patient care delivery operations and potentially patient safety,” Riggi says. Read more.

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  • Economy

    Alabama, Business and Brexit

    There’s a lot of unrest around politics in Washington right now, and it’s the same in the United Kingdom as the clock is ticking on a Brexit deal. The UK is scheduled to leave the European Union on October 31st, which has put Prime Minister Boris Johnson and parliament in a state of turmoil. Andrew Staunton is the UK’s representative in the American South. As the British Consul General in Atlanta, he oversees relations in six states, including Alabama. On a recent trip to Birmingham he sat down with WBHM’s Andrew Yeager. Read more and listen to the interview.

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  • Economy

    What’s the Future of Legion Field?

    WBHM
    It won’t be long before construction starts on the new Protective Stadium at the BJCC in downtown Birmingham. It’s expected to be finished in 2021. That brings up a big question: what happens to Birmingham’s current stadium, Legion Field? An article published Friday in the Birmingham Business Journal explores some options. WBHM’s Andrew Yeager spoke about those with BBJ editor Ty West. Read more.

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  • Education

    Pouncey Gets Sendoff From JefCoEd

    The meeting room was filled with Jefferson County Schools officials and administrators, plus mayors and other dignitaries, even maintenance workers, to see off Superintendent Craig Pouncey on his last day in office.

    But perhaps none stood out more than Larry Lee — and it wasn’t just because of his brightly-colored Hawaiian shirt, liberally sprinkled with Auburn University logos.

    Lee, a well-known public education advocate and outspoken blogger from Montgomery, was in attendance Thursday morning to give his best wishes to his friend, who is leaving to take over the presidency of Coastal Alabama Community College in Bay Minette.

    “Craig, I didn’t know so many people were coming to make sure you got gone!” Lee joked. “Y’all had a good man here for five years, and I wish the state could have taken him away from you, and I’ve written about that…. God knows we need some leadership in Montgomery, where we ain’t got none.”
    Read more.

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  • Government

    Immigrant Rights Workers Released on Bond From ICE Detention

    Two migrant workers arrested by immigration officers in Homewood last month were released on bond Wednesday following fund-raising and petition drives by Adelante Alabama Worker Center.

    Marcos Baltazar, a member of the Adelante board of directors, and his son, Juan, 18, spent the month in detention facilities at the Etowah County Jail in Gadsden and in Jena, La.

    Both facilities have been cited by human rights groups for their inhumane treatment of detainees, said Reysha Swanson of Adelante, a non-profit organization based in Hoover that unites migrant workers and their families. Read more.

    Read BirminghamWatch’s coverage on the Etowah Detention Center and immigration:

    Alabama Site for Detained Immigrants Has History of Abuse Charges, Efforts to Close It

    Man Without a Country’ Describes Conditions at Gadsden Detention Center

    Lawyers: Major Changes Happening in How Law Is Applied to Immigrants

    Immigration Rights Worker and Son Detained by ICE

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  • Government

    Transit Board Approves Fare Increase and Service Cuts

    Bus riders in Birmingham and Jefferson County will see an increase in their fares and reduced service times beginning this November.

    After weeks of debate, the Birmingham Jefferson County Transit Authority approved its $34 million budget Wednesday. This includes setting one-way fares at $1.50 — an increase of 25 cents. And some MAX bus routes that run late into the evening will now end at 7 p.m. Read more.

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  • Environment

    Trump Administration Scales Back on Water Protection Rules

    The EPA and Department of the Army announced Thursday that the EPA’s proposal to roll back protections under the Waters of the U.S. rule had been finalized.
    The change eliminates federal jurisdiction over headwaters, ephemeral and some intermittently flowing streams, and wetlands that do not abut surface water, among other waters.

    Environmentalists have warned that more than 80 percent of Alabamians receive their drinking water from such sources. Business owners, farmers and developers have said the change would save them money and allow them to complete projects more quickly.

    The rule change has been discussed for months. Read Birmingham Watch’s earlier coverage of the proposal and its potential effects in Alabama:

    Local and State Springs, Tributaries, Wetlands May Suffer From Pollution if Proposed Rule Is Finalized

    Trump’s EPA Seeks to Remove Much of Nation’s Headwaters and Wetlands From Protection

    Return to Muddy Waters? Uncertainty Reigns as EPA Tries to Roll Back Obama Administration Waters of the US Rule

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  • Birmingham City Council

    City Gives Negro Southern League Museum More Money to Finish Off Construction, Surprising Councilors Who Thought It Was Done

    The Birmingham City Council voted Tuesday to allocate an additional $290,274.39 toward construction on the city’s Negro Southern League Museum. But many councilors, including those who voted in favor of the funding, weren’t happy about it.

    “There are so many things that I vote on that I have to hold my nose while voting,” said council President Valerie Abbott. “Sometimes you have to vote for things that you don’t really want to vote for, but we need to complete this project.”

    The Negro Southern League Museum, which first opened in 2015, is part of a downtown development that includes the adjacent Regions Field. But much of that building has remained unfinished since then, representatives from the city’s planning, engineering and permits (PEP) department told the council. With a new restaurant slated to move into the building, extra funding to complete construction was needed. Read more.

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  • Government

    Alabama Site for Detained Immigrants Has History of Abuse Charges, Efforts to Close It  

    After immigration officers detained Marcos Baltazar and his son, Juan, in Homewood one morning last week, the two men were in the Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden by nightfall.

    Their destination spotlights the Etowah center, a controversial facility adjoining the county jail in Gadsden where federal authorities detain immigrants.

    The center has drawn critics’ protests and attempts to close it for years, and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office itself tried to close the facility in 2010. That effort hit a maelstrom of resistance from local political officials and their supporters in Congress.

    In the case of Baltazar and his son, Adelante Alabama the next day protested outside Etowah center against their arrests. Marcos Baltazar is a member of the board of directors of Adelante Alabama, a human rights group based in Hoover that has been active in obtaining the release of immigrant detainees.

    Baltazar entered this country from Guatemala three years ago. Though undocumented, he was allowed to stay in the country with his son, who was a minor at the time, if he periodically checked in with ICE, according to Adelante Alabama. His son has turned 18, so he is no longer considered a minor by ICE.

    The two were detained last week when they went to the ICE office in Homewood for a routine check-in, a provision of their being allowed to stay in the country, according to ICE spokesman Bryan Cox. Read more.

    Read more on the detention center and immigration:

    Man Without a Country’ Describes Conditions at Gadsden Detention Center

    Lawyers: Major Changes Happening in How Law Is Applied to Immigrants

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  • 2020 election

    Time for new Alabama Democratic Party leadership, says Sen. Doug Jones

    With pressure mounting from national party leaders and the Democratic National Committee, the state’s highest-ranking Democratic officeholder says the state party needs new leaders.

    Sen. Doug Jones told Birmingham Watch on Thursday that he is frustrated with the Alabama Democratic Party’s direction, or lack thereof, and he would like to see Chairwoman Nancy Worley replaced. Jones’ comments came after a student forum held at Miles College in Fairfield.

    “Leadership needs to be changed, and I think it’s going to be changed. I think there’s still some things that will have to be done,” Jones said. “We don’t even have a delegate selection plan right now. It’s been rejected. I think once we can get bylaws done, soon we’ll get a new election. We’re going to expand. I believe the membership of the party will include more youth, more diversity and opportunities we haven’t had in a long, long time. I’m very, very optimistic about where we’re going to ultimately go with the party.” Read more.

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  • About News

    Bring It On: Journalists’ Tweets, Even Old Ones, Are Fair Game

    The recent news that political supporters of President Trump have been searching social media channels for offensive posts by journalists who work for certain national media brought understandable alarm and companion rhetoric from the targeted organizations. Media objections that such dirt digging intends to punish and discourage aggressive reporting are correct, but the better response would have been: “Have at it, and let us know if you find anything.” Read more.

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  • Government

    Battle Looms over Trump Administration Bid to Ease Safety Rules for Big Rig Trucks

    In Washington, D.C., a new Trump administration plan to relax safety rules for truck drivers has rekindled old heartaches for families across the country.

    On a sunny Labor Day morning in Oklahoma, Linda Wilburn’s younger son, 19-year-old Orbie, hopped into his 1994 red Camaro and headed east from Weatherford on Interstate 40. The college freshman, excited about his new rental house, needed to collect more stuff from his parent’s place, 10 miles away.

    At mile marker 87, he encountered a stall blocking both eastbound lanes. The young man slowed and stopped the Camaro. And then, on Sept. 2, 2002, Orbie DeWayne Wilburn was dead, smashed from behind by a big rig bearing down on him at high speed.

    The 41-year-old truck driver from Kentucky, who also also died at the scene, had driven from Bakersfield, Calif. – nearly 1,300 miles away – to Oklahoma “without a rest break at all,” said Orbie’s mother.

    Now the Wilburn family is steeling themselves for a new fight as the anniversary of Orbie’s death approaches. This week, the Trump administration formally proposed easing the rules over rest breaks truck drivers must take and giving them more flexibility over their on- and off-duty time. Read more.

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  • Government

    Immigrant Rights Worker and Son Detained by ICE

    Updated — Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers in Homewood today detained a board member of Adelante Alabama Worker Center, a human rights group based in Hoover that has been active in obtaining the release of immigrant detainees.

    Marcos Baltazar and his son, who’s name was not disclosed, were detained, said Resha Swanson, Adelante policy and communications coordinator.

    The two, who are immigrants, were making a routine check-in with ICE at the time of their arrest. Read more.

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  • BirminghamWatch

    Reading Birmingham: Miss Fancy Tells Sweet Story of Jim Crow’s Harsh Reality

    “Meet Miss Fancy” by Irene Latham; illustrated by John Holyfield (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2019).

    Miss Fancy the elephant is a Birmingham legend. In her children’s book “Meet Miss Fancy,” Birmingham author Irene Latham uses that legend and the truth behind it to tell a story of race, exclusion and hope. Read more.

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  • Education

    The Big Build: Jefferson County School System to Undertake Its Biggest Building Project Ever

    After getting a thumbs-up from voters to extend a special tax, and after an all-clear from a federal judge, the Jefferson County School System is about to embark on the biggest school construction project in its history.

    Superintendent Craig Pouncey announced the plans for the massive project, some of which is already under construction, in a press conference Tuesday at the system’s central office in Homewood.

    The list includes six new schools, seven existing schools that will receive renovations and/or additions, and two athletic packages for high schools. Additionally, preliminary plans were announced for a new Fultondale High School — something the city’s residents have long sought.
    Read more.

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  • Alabama Legislature

    Chemical Castration Law’s Impact Could Be Minimal

    MONTGOMERY — A law requiring chemical castration for some convicted child sex offenders will go into effect in September but will not apply to many of the worst child sex offenders. Read more.

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  • Government

    Proposed Food Stamp Changes Would Cut Some Alabamians Out of the Program

    State welfare officials say they do not know the number of food stamp recipients in Alabama who would be affected by President Donald Trump’s proposed federal rule change that nationally would cut some 3 million recipients from the program.

    There are 716,989 food stamp recipients in the state, including 67,318 people age 60 and above with no earned income.

    Trump wants the rule change in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, called SNAP but often known by its old name, food stamps. He says a loophole lets states give benefits to those who would otherwise be ineligible.

    Forty states, including Alabama, and the District of Columbia use the option. Read more.

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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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  • 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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  • 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

    ‘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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