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Key Votes Ahead
The House this week will take up a bill to eliminate mandatory arbitration in employment, consumer and civil rights litigation, while the Senate will debate judicial and executive-branch nominations.
WASHINGTON — In the legislative week ending Sept. 13, members of the U.S. House passed a bill (HR 205) that would permanently prohibit the federal government from awarding leases for oil and gas drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico.
The bill, which passed 248 for and 180 against, would replace a temporary moratorium slated to expire June 30, 2022. The protected waters extend at least 125 miles from the Florida coastline and include a 122,000-square-mile military testing range stretching from the Florida Panhandle to the Florida Keys. Read more.
The Birmingham Board of Education has approved a $313 million budget that will fund salary increases, security enhancements and maintenance projects.
The board voted 8-1 Tuesday in favor of the budget for the fiscal year that beings Oct. 1. Daagye Hendricks, who represents District 4, cast the lone vote against the spending plan. She said she felt there were too many unanswered questions and not enough information.
The budget includes several salary increases: a state-mandated 4 percent raise to all BCS staff, including teachers, that the Alabama Legislature approvedin May; step salary increases; a 5% raise for custodians, bus drivers, child-nutrition workers and managers; and a raise from $8.25 an hour to $9 an hour for substitute teachers.
The Jefferson County Memorial Project dedicated a historical marker in honor of lynching victims Tom Redmond and Jake McKenzie during a ceremony Monday night.
McKenzie was killed June 17, 1890, and Redmond was killed March 22, 1897, at the Brookside Mines, which were part of the Sloss-Sheffield Iron and Steel Co..
This is the first historical marker placed by JCMP, a grassroots coalition that has researched the stories behind 30 people who were lynched in Jefferson County between 1883 and 1940.
The goal of JCMP is to bring awareness of the victims of racial terror and their descendants, advocate for racial injustice reforms and place historical markers at lynching sites throughout Jefferson County. The group’s efforts are inspired by the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which opened in Montgomery in April 2018. The memorial is made up of monuments that represent 800 U.S. counties and are dedicated to African American victims of lynchings. Read more.
Commissioner Lashunda Scales today asked for an update on Protective Stadium, which is being built near the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex.
Jefferson County invested $30 million in the project.
Scales said she had been told by someone on the stadium design committee that VIP seats are being added that would lower the total number of seats in the venue.
Also, commissioners saw a presentation from Helen Hays, the county’s director of public information, concerning efforts to promote the 200th anniversary of Jefferson County, including a pair of videos.
While the presentation appeared to be well received from most in the board room, Scales was less than satisfied, saying that the county’s story was not being fully told. She cited a Sloss Furnaces event on Monday that memorialized two men who were lynched in the 1890s. Read more.
Birmingham’s downtown housing market has boomed in recent years. Pricey lofts and luxury condos have mushroomed throughout the city center. But skyrocketing rents and leases mean many low-to-moderate income workers, such as in the restaurant and hotel industry can’t afford to live there. Read more.
Despite the pressure to provide for more security in schools, there are concerns about the long-term effects on students who are arrested by SROs and sucked into the criminal justice system. A recent report from the advocacy group Alabama Appleseed details one aspect. It found black students and children with disabilities were more likely than others to be arrested in connection with their conduct at school. Read more.
It’s increasingly difficult for rural hospitals to make ends meet. Many have had to freeze or cut salaries, said Danne Howard, chief policy officer with the Alabama Hospital Association. Some have eliminated services, like obstetrics and gynecology. Howard said others partner with outside groups or bigger health systems to take some of the financial pressure off.
“It’s clear to see that we’ve got a number of hospitals that may not survive in the current financial environment,” she said.
In the past decade, seven rural hospitals have closed in Alabama, and of those that remain, 88% operate in the red.
But Howard said Medicare is throwing the state a lifeline. The federal health insurance program, primarily for senior citizens, recently approved a plan to start paying rural hospitals a little more money. Read more.
Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin on Wednesday discussed his plan to offer Birmingham City Schools graduates the chance to go to a public two-year or four-year school in Alabama tuition-free. He tweeted a reminder Tuesday of the program announced in May.
Even Presidential hopeful U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders Bernie Sanders took notice. Read more.
In this video, Jefferson County Commissioner Joe Knight, chairman of the County Commission’s budget committee, discuses the “messy” process that led to passage of the budget recently.
A recent report from the Southern Poverty Law Center says Alabama’s community corrections program unfairly burdens low-income people and threatens public safety. Community corrections, operating in 51 of Alabama’s 67 counties, is overseen by the state Department of Corrections but run locally. It’s designed to be an alternative to prison. The report’s main criticism is that community corrections relies on fees as a primary revenue source. These include fees for drug testing, supervision or electronic monitoring. Read more.
The U.S. Department of Education announced a $25 million grant today to support charter schools in Alabama. The money will go to New Schools for Alabama, an organization that encourages the growth of charter schools. Tyler Barnett, executive director of New Schools for Alabama, told WBHM in an earlier interview the money will help fund 15 schools. He said the group will focus on serving educationally disadvantaged students. Read more.
Visit the Alabama Theatre in downtown Birmingham, face the stage and you might notice the red and gold console to the left. It’s a theater organ known as the Mighty Wurlitzer. It’s an instrument whose heyday has long passed. But this weekend, as part of the Sidewalk Film Festival, it’ll return to its original purpose: accompanying silent films. Read more.
Stormwater runoff is what washes off of parking lots, roadways and rooftops when it rains. Eve Brantley, associate professor of crop, soil and environmental sciences at Auburn University, said it may sound harmless, but it has a big impact.
“I just feel like it’s the forgotten pollution,” Brantley said.
She said part of the problem is that stormwater picks up other pollutants like trash and fertilizer. The other issue is the sheer volume of runoff that is discharged into area waterways.
Cahaba Riverkeeper David Butler sees the impact on a daily basis.
“So we’re pushing so much water into the river so fast now that, you know when it rains, instead of soaking into the ground, it’s all channeled to the river,” Butler said. “So it rises really quick, falls really quick, and you get a lot more erosion like this.”
He said all along the river, large sections of the bank have collapsed, often during rainstorms. This strips away vegetation that normally acts as a buffer, leaving dirt to erode into the river and fill it with sediment. Read more.
The Alabama House of Representatives approved a $7.1 billion education budget Tuesday, but its final passage still depends on agreement with the Senate on several points, including health insurance for low-income children.
House education budget chairman Rep. Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa, told his colleagues the proposed budget, a nearly $500,000,000 increase over the current budget, would not fix all of the state’s education problems but is part of the equation.
“This is a positive budget for the state,” Poole said.
It was approved 99 to 0 with four abstentions. Read more.
The Alabama Ethics Commission did not overstep its authority in bringing state ethics charges against Onis “Trey” Glenn and Willie S. Phillips, a Jefferson County Circuit Court judge has found.
The cases are related to work by Glenn and Phillips in opposition to the addition of a proposed Superfund site in North Birmingham to the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Priorities List.
Judge Stephen C. Wallace ruled this week that the state acted properly and in compliance with the Ethics Act, and that the cases should not be summarily dismissed.
BirminghamWatch founder Carol Nunnelley has been selected for the 2019 Distinguished Mass Media Achievement Award by the Auburn University Journalism Advisory Council.
Nunnelley, a graduate of Samford University, is among five journalists who were selected for this year’s journalism awards by the Auburn Council.
Others who will be honored at a luncheon and program on Sept. 13 are Kim Chandler, Associated Press Alabama capital reporter; Connor Sheets, Alabama Media Group investigative reporter; John Underwood, Baldwin County editor/reporter; and John Zenor, Associated Press sports reporter.
A new study by WalletHub ranked Alabama’s schools 46th in the country.
The study also gave Alabama a quality ranking of 44 and a safety ranking of 47. Alabama ranked among the bottom five states in math test scores and in the bottom 10 states for spending,
WalletHub’s analysis considered 29 metrics that accounted for performance, funding, safety, class size and instructor credentials. Read more.
With just 15 days before students arrive for their first day of school, the Birmingham Board of Education approved hiring more than 60 teachers.
As a result of the approvals, Birmingham City Schools has filled all but 11 of the 150 teacher vacancies that were identified at the end of the 2018-19 school year, school Superintendent Lisa Herring announced during a special called board meeting July 23.
Herring said that, in the face of a teacher shortage, successfully filling almost all of the teaching positions was an important moment to acknowledge.
“That is extremely significant,” Herring said. “There are teacher shortages across the entire state.” Read more.
Read more BirminghamWatch reporting on the teacher shortage:
During the days of segregation, African Americans in Birmingham were restricted on where they could shop, eat, and do business. The historic Fourth Avenue District downtown became the place for the growing African American business community to set up shop.
The community thrived with professional offices, barber shops, a bowling alley, motels, theaters and restaurants. Now there’s renewed focus on revitalizing the district. Read more.
Members of a House committee peppered former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III with questions about President Donald Trump’s displeasure over the decision by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from oversight of an investigation into Trump and whether Russia interfered with the 2016 presidential election. Read more.
Read coverage of the hearings:
Trump Says ‘We Had a Very Good Day’ After Mueller Hearings End (Washington Post)
Report Doesn’t Exonerate Trump, Mueller Testifies, and He Could Be Charged After Leaving Office (ABC News)
Mueller Offers Terse Answers, Uncertainty in Testimony (Associated Press)
Robert Mueller Testifies (CNN)
Travelers flying out of Birmingham can now identify themselves with the touch of a finger or an eye scan. At a ribbon cutting ceremony Thursday, officials at the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport unveiled new fingerprint and identity verification technology from the biometrics company Clear. Read more.
At about 10:30 a.m. on a recent Monday in Walker County, Martha Salomaa parks her white pick-up truck, walks to the edge of a parking lot and points to the river below, the Mulberry Fork.
“And so the plant, it’s in Hanceville, which is 28 to 30 miles upstream from here,” she says.
Salomaa is referring to the Tyson Foods Inc. chicken rendering plant. That’s where an estimated 220,000 gallons of partially treated wastewater emptied into this section of the Black Warrior River on June 6th.
“So by June 10th, you could see hundreds of fish, like floating by, either dead or dying,” Salomaa says.
According to state officials, it was Alabama’s largest fish kill in recent years. And Salomaa, who is president of the Walker County conservation group Sipsey Heritage Commission (SHC), said the spill didn’t just kill fish, it contaminated the river with high levels of bacteria. In the days following the incident, SHC and the Black Warrior Riverkeeper found unsafe levels of E. coli almost 30 miles downstream from the site of the spill.
As a result, the Sipsey Heritage Commission cancelled its annual kayak race, scheduled for mid-June, and Salomaa said residents avoided the water for several weeks.
“You know, like, this river is a way of life,” Salomaa said. “You can’t, you just cannot put a price on that.”
But state agencies are tasked with putting a price on it. Read more.
When Sheila Tyson asked DC BLOX CEO Jeff Uphues what his company could do for the Titusville Neighborhood it was joining, he offered a fun day in the neighboring park.
Tyson, the Jefferson County commissioner in whose district the company sits, had other ideas. “We want you to invest in our children’s education,” she said.
As DC BLOX held the grand opening of its data center on Thursday, Uphues talked about a $10,000 investment in a computer lab just across Sixth Street at Memorial Park Recreation Center. He said the lab is set for use by the entire community.
Birmingham has gained attention for its downtown rebirth. But the Birmingham area economy still falls behind similar cities, particularly when it comes to job growth. A partnership announced in December between the city and the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C. think tank, aims to boost the Birmingham economy with an eye toward making those gains more equitable. Read more.
Lashunda Scales said she finally got what she wanted today when the Jefferson County Commission agreed to supply additional funding for new bus routes without trimming support of those routes in fiscal 2020.
The commission today added $9,207 to the previously approved $100,000 to expand bus service into Fairfield, Brighton, Lipscomb, Adamsville and Forestdale for three months, through September. Commissioners had talked earlier about cutting transit funding for those areas in half during the next fiscal year. But they opted today to delay action on funding in the new year.
Commissioner Jimmie Stephens said he believes the $109,207 the commission has approved will fund the new routes into the coming calendar year, perhaps through February.
This week’s child sex trafficking charges against wealthy financier Jeffrey Epstein are a testament to the impact of investigative reporting, in this case by determined journalists from The Miami Herald, who dug through documents, tracked down victims and told a story not only of horrendous crimes but also of enablers and leniency from the court system. It wasn’t easy. Investigative journalism never is. And alarmingly, it’s getting harder to do.
Uncovering malfeasance is becoming more difficult for multiple reasons. Start with rising government restrictions on access to information (laws and court rulings), non-compliance with open-records statutes, and threats of costly lawsuits by news subjects. Further, the boffo investigations by major national outlets are not being replicated to the same extent at the local and regional levels. The well-documented shrinkage of newsrooms across the U.S. has taken a big bite out of community watchdog journalism, reflected not only in fewer staff to do the job but also in newsroom priorities.
In a coworking space just off of Lakeshore Parkway sits a potential game changer for the future of archaeology – the headquarters of the non-profit GlobalXplorer. The web-based platform invites just about anyone to become a space archaeologist by scanning satellite images in search of undiscovered archaeological sites and signs of looting. It is the brainchild of Sarah Parcak, who is well known for her work using infra-red technology to locate lost tombs, pyramids and settlements in ancient Egypt. Read more.
Roughly 100 people packed the sidewalk in front of the Robert S. Vance Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in downtown Birmingham Tuesday to protest conditions in migrant detention centers across the country. Read more.
The Birmingham City Council voted Tuesday to place a temporary moratorium on new self-storage, mini-warehousing developments in the city.
The ordinance halts all city involvement in the development of those facilities — including permitting and zoning — except in areas already zoned as M-4 (Planned Industrial) or I-4 (Industrial Park) districts. Read more.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. often planned strategy for the civil rights movement in room 30 at the A.G. Gaston Motel. For others, it was a place for wedding receptions and fancy dances. As restoration of the famed but deteriorating structure begins, Birmingham celebrated the motel’s anniversary and its founder on Monday. Read more.
In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education struck down racial segregation in schools. While the court ordered public schools to desegregate “with all deliberate speed,” the vague language allowed Southern officials to delay and resist school integration for years. It wasn’t until 1969 that the court forced school integration in a case called Alexander v. Holmes. Read more.
A new report concludes that housing costs outpace wages at such a rate that now a worker being paid the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour has to work nearly 127 hours – the equivalent of more than three full-time jobs – to afford an average two-bedroom apartment. Read more.
A series of emails released by the University of Alabama System show the dispute that led to a parting of ways with mega-donor Hugh Culverhouse preceded the comments he made about abortion.
Birmingham-area projects to prepare local workers for jobs likely to be in demand were among those that got support from Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham in its May round of grants, the foundation announced this week.
Updated — Two IT companies have canceled or put on hold discussions about moving to Birmingham because of the abortion ban signed into law last week, according to Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin.
Woodfin told author Diane McWhorter about the changes for an opinion piece published Saturday on CNN.
McWhorter wrote that Woodfin “confirmed to me today that the abortion ban affected two IT companies considering moves to the city – one canceled outright, while the other ‘put the brakes on negotiations.’” Read more.
The Birmingham-Hoover MSA grew by just 2,116 people in 2017-2018. The area ranked 251th out of 383 MSAs in terms of population growth rate, according to an analysis of census data conducted by the Public Research Council of Alabama.
The Huntsville MSA led the state in percentage of population growth, ranking it 64th in the country. It added 6,952 people to its ranks in the period.
Other large metros in the state fell below Birmingham-Hoover in terms of growth, with Mobile ranked 324th and Montgomery 327th. However, those two areas lost population in 2017-2018, as did some other metro areas in the U.S. Read more.
BirminghamWatch’s Hank Black was inducted into the Wall of Fame for the University of Alabama’s Office of Student Media during an event April 26.
Black, who covers the environment for BW, was honored for his role as editor in chief of the Crimson White during one of the most turbulent years in the university’s history. Black was editor in 1963, when Vivian Malone and James Hood became the first two black students to successfully enroll at UA, following Gov. George Wallace’s infamous “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door.” Read more.
BirminghamWatch’s Solomon Crenshaw Jr. recently won a first place award from Alabama Media Professionals for his story “Jefferson County’s ‘Blue Wave:’ How the First Black Sheriff and District Attorney Won Election,” which he co-wrote with Virginia MacDonald, another writer for BirminghamWatch. Read more.
The Klansmen who bombed Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963, killing four black girls, did not face justice for years. In 1977, then-Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley won a conviction against Robert Chambliss for his role in the attack. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that two others were tried and convicted. Senator Doug Jones led those later prosecutions and writes about it in his memoir “Bending Toward Justice: The Birmingham Church Bombing that Changed the Course of Cvil Rights.” Read more.
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