Birmingham City Council

Woodfin Defends Proposed Cut to Education Budget

Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin presents his budget to the Birmingham City Council. (Source: Sam Prickett)

Mayor Randall Woodfin defended his plan for Birmingham’s education budget at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, arguing that shifting millions of dollars from city schools to his proposed Birmingham Promise Initiative would allow the city to invest directly in students.

Woodfin’s proposed FY 2020 operating budget would cut the city’s funding for Birmingham City Schools from $3.2 million to $1 million. It would place that $2 million into a fund for the Birmingham Promise Education Initiative, a public-private partnership that would provide juniors and seniors in Birmingham city schools with paid apprenticeships as well as dual enrollment opportunities with Lawson State and Jefferson State community colleges. The program also would offer scholarships for city school graduates to attend public colleges and universities in Alabama.

Woodfin’s proposed cut to the schools’ budget has gotten mixed reviews. The city board of education in a letter to the mayor and council expressed support for the program but asked that the $2 million cut be reconsidered in the future.

Some council members today expressed support for the program and said it would be a benefit to Birmingham’s students; others were wary and said they needed details about the plan before being asked to vote on it.

When he unveiled his budget proposal in May, Woodfin described Birmingham Promise as “probably the biggest apprenticeship program this city or any city its size has ever seen in America.”

An announcement of the “broader campaign” for Birmingham Promise is scheduled for February. But first, the council would have to approve its funding via the FY 2020 budget, which has not yet been passed despite a July 1 deadline.

Last month, the City Council approved $65,000 in funding for a pilot version of the program. Currently, 20 students, including at least one student from each BCS high school, are enrolled in the pilot program, which began June 3 and will last through July 26. The pilot program is being run from the city’s Department of Innovation and Economic Opportunity, under the mayor’s office.

Citing statistics from the Brookings Institute that Birmingham has the 16th highest youth unemployment rate per capita in America, Woodfin said his proposal would allocate money “directly into our students instead of the system.”

The initiative has the support of Birmingham City Schools Superintendent Lisa Herring, who co-authored an introduction to the initiative on the city’s website. Woodfin also said that a majority of the school board is “very, very supportive of this … (though) there are some school board members who have (other) opinions.”

Most school board members have not been reached for comment.

Woodfin, a former president of the city’s school board, said he was unhappy with the city writing a $3.2 million “blank check” to the school board each year.

“I think sometimes at the end of the year, some of y’all ask questions (about how the money is spent), and there’s some frustration in those questions,” he said to the council.

The most vocal council support for Birmingham Promise came from District 9 Councilor John Hilliard, who described the program as “one of the best things we can ever do that will last us a lifetime … one of the greatest things we could be trying to put in place right now for our children.”

Councilors Want More Details

Council President Valerie Abbott, meanwhile, said she was open to the idea, but that Woodfin’s administration had not provided enough specifics about the program to the council.

“We don’t have all that many details,” she said. “I will admit to you, I have resistance to change. I am absorbing this, (but) I would like to see the plan, like, in a binder or booklet or something.”

District 8 Councilor Steven Hoyt echoed Abbott’s call for more details, but he appeared less open to supporting the program.

“This is something new, and I can’t get excited about something I don’t know is going to work,” he said.

He argued, instead, that the city should double down on its existing educational initiatives. “There’s an academic component that I think we need to put more emphasis on,” he said.

Woodfin, whose political relationship with Hoyt has often been strained, dismissed the councilor’s opposition as “petty” and said he did not expect Hoyt to support the measure or the budget as a whole. Hoyt previously has taken issue with other parts of the proposed FY 2020 budget, including cuts to events such as his annual Party with a Purpose.

“I’ve heard Councilor Hoyt … complain about education in Birmingham,” Woodfin said. “I’ve heard people tear this (initiative) down, but I haven’t heard people offer a different solution. Until someone offers a different solution, this is what we’re going to roll with.”