Author: Maggie Andrews

Raymond L. Johnson Jr.

District Attorney, 10th Circuit, Jefferson County Name: Raymond Johnson Jr. Age: 67 Residence: Birmingham Political experience: State executive committee member, Alabama Democratic Party; ran for district attorney in 2016. Professional experience: Private practice and shareholder, The Johnson Law Firm, LLC, Birmingham, 2004-present; adjunct professor, Cumberland School of Law, 1988-present; shareholder, Thomas, Means, Gillis & Seay,

From Houston County wetlands to North Birmingham neighborhoods, Alabama’s budget battles lead to environmental problems

Holes are appearing in Alabama’s official safety net for environmental protection.

A consistent loser in recent battles for state funding, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) is seeing delays in enforcing regulations.

It also is seeking to hand off to local governments the primary responsibility for emergency response to environmental accidents.

And its lack of matching funds helped dash hopes for federal clean-up of long-standing industrial contamination in several north Birmingham neighborhoods.

A recent sign of the problems came Feb. 10 with landowner James Hodges’s plea to ADEM’s oversight commission for more timely enforcement of regulations to prevent construction runoff from damaging his cypress wetlands in Houston County. Read more.

A+, the ACT and Poverty: Can Program Help Poor Schools Too?

A first look at the list of 81 Alabama high schools whose students scored best on the 2016 ACT exam shows an encouraging intersection: Fifty-four of those schools are participants in the A+ College Ready Initiative, a program that helps schools implement Advanced Placement programs and aims to raise education aspirations across the state.

But another view of the data, reported by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, reveals that 51 of the 54, about 94 percent, of top-performing A+ College Ready schools share another advantage. The schools are working with more affluent student bodies, those with less poverty than the state average. Read more.

Ripples from Mideast Travel Order Reach Alabama Professor

Baher Sabah, a plastic surgeon from the Iraqi city of Babylon, was looking forward to his trip to America. “He loves America,” said Sabah’s uncle, Safaa Al-Hamdani, a biology professor at Jacksonville State University. “When he has come to the United States for any reason, it was just like he won the lottery.”

On tap for Sabah was the American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery’s annual scientific meeting on Feb. 9-11 in San Diego. He had his airline ticket. He had his visa and, at the scientific meeting, he would have access to workshops, live patient demonstrations, displays of the latest technologies and, of course, lots of networking opportunities. All in all, said Sabah’s uncle, “a golden opportunity to advance himself.”

Now, as a result of President Donald Trump’s recent executive order temporarily halting travel to the U.S. by citizens of seven Middle Eastern countries, including Iraq, Sabah has put his visa, his ticket and his golden advancement opportunity on the shelf. Read more.

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

March 2016 Special Report from BirminghamWatch, B-Metro

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

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

Fairness and Safety. Education and Jobs. Similar Worries for Clinton and Trump Voters

(In the early days of a new president, BirminghamWatch is looking at what divides us and connects us close to home. This is the third of the stories.)

On face value, the political and cultural divide in the Birmingham metro area — and, in larger part, the country — appears to be an ever-widening gulf of competing ideals and values.

But if you take a closer look, you will see that supporters of President Donald Trump and of Hillary Clinton say they want many of the same things from government — fairness, safety and the support to achieve greater success. They value church and family, education and freedom. And they express feelings of disenchantment. Both sides complain of feeling left out, unheard and overlooked.

Birmingham residents, like many interviewed in the Sylvan Springs area for a recent story on Trump Country, said it is important for government to treat people fairly and justly. Many said they want the government to make safety a priority. Read more.

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

ProPublica: How Jeff Sessions Helped Kill Equitable School Funding in Alabama

(The U.S. Senate confirmed Jeff Sessions as the next U.S. attorney general Wednesday on a vote of 52-47.)

In the early 1990s, children across Alabama’s large rural stretches still attended faltering public schools, some with exposed wiring and rainwater leaking into classrooms. The education was in disrepair, too. Teachers couldn’t assign homework for lack of textbooks. A steel mill announced it would no longer hire local high school graduates because most tested below the eighth grade level. In short, Alabama’s most economically disadvantaged students, primarily black children and those with disabilities, were missing out on a basic education.

Then, for a moment, change seemed possible. A civil-rights lawsuit challenging the system for funding Alabama’s schools succeeded, and the state’s courts in 1993 declared the conditions in the poor schools a violation of Alabama’s Constitution. Gov. Guy Hunt, who had battled the litigation, accepted defeat, and vowed to work with the courts to negotiate a solution for equitably funding all of Alabama’s schools.

“This is a unique and timely opportunity to make historic improvements in Alabama’s public schools for our children,” Hunt said at a news conference in 1993, “and we will not miss this opportunity.”

EPA Funds-Freeze Spotlights Alabama’s Precarious Environmental Budget

Environmental Protection Agency alarmed Alabama environmentalists still reeling from a recent gasoline pipeline leak and fatal explosion in Shelby County.

The Alabama Rivers Alliance’s program director Mitch Reid said, “Federal money isn’t extra money for us, it’s absolutely fundamental to the maintenance of clean water in Alabama. Any way you look at it, this throws a wrench in the steady state operation of water protection in Alabama.”

From Jefferson County’s Trump Country: “I feel like I’ve been left out a lot.”

(As a new president takes office, BirminghamWatch is looking at what divides us and connects us close to home. This is the second of the stories.)

Driving 20 minutes west of downtown Birmingham and taking a short jog off the interstate lands you solidly in Trump Country.

It’s a world where trees outnumber people and hardware stores are still locally owned, where people believe in hard work and fair play, where voters believe entitlement programs should be cut back, and maybe taxes a bit, too. It’s a world where some people visit Birmingham, but mostly they try to avoid the crime and traffic they perceive in The City.

This is Sylvan Springs, population about 1,542 in the 2010 U.S. Census, more than 97 percent of it white. At the largest polling place in the area, 94.29 percent of voters cast their ballots for Trump in November. That was one of 11 Jefferson County polling places where more than 90 percent of voters cast ballots for the candidate inaugurated as the nation’s 45th president on Friday. Read more.

From PARCA: Lackluster 2016 Receipts to General Fund and Education Trust Fund Perpetuate State’s Budget Woes

Both the accounts that pay for state government operations, the General Fund and the Education Trust Fund (ETF), ended the 2016 Fiscal Year basically flat when compared to the previous year, a sign that the state’s struggles to balance budgets will continue in the future. What would have been a moderately healthy year of receipts to