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September 14, 2000
August 29, 2000
Approving $57 million in warrants for Birmingham schools and other capital improvements is this morning’s heavyweight issue. Councilor Bill Johnson demands a status report on the hiring of a project manager to oversee new school construction. Glen Dickerson, chief financial officer for the Birmingham school system, reports to Johnson that “we’re looking at it [hiring a project manager].” Noting that the position has been in limbo since last March, Johnson wants a “timeframe” on resolving the issue, calling the financial arrangement to improve local schools a “one-shot deal.”
Johnson continues: “We’ve mortgaged the greatest asset that we have here in the city of Birmingham, our water works, to get this money to fund a building program that we’ve desperately needed here.” Johnson expresses concern over how money is being spent in the absence of proper management. “Without a project manager, we’re not going to get the most bang for our buck on this,” Johnson insists and cites waste as a frequent by-product of unmanaged funds. The councilor refuses to support the warrant issue until the project manager position is filled.
“I’d like for the scope of the project manager to be very involved and not window dressing,” adds Councilor Don MacDermott, noting that his “confidence level in [the management of] the school system is kind of low, and every day it doesn’t get any higher.” The councilor further states, “If you can’t manage day to day, I don’t see how you can manage the future.” MacDermott says that in his district there are rumors that students at Huffman High still have no textbooks after three weeks of classes. Dr. Abbe Boring, an assistant superintendent with the Birmingham Board of Education assures MacDermott that the textbooks are at the school, a problem that should have been addressed by the principal at Huffman. She promises MacDermott that she will personally look into the problem.
Councilor Jimmy Blake urges more fiscal responsibility and maintenance, suggesting that he “almost feels like there’s been a purposeful effort to let schools fall apart so we can claim that we need hundreds of millions of dollars to fix them.” Blake tells Dr. Boring that if textbooks are at the school but not distributed, the problem lies with a “lack of leadership” on the part of the school board. He says that “current maintenance” should be a priority, pointing out the “outrageous amounts of money are spent on computers, yet the teachers will tell you they don’t even know how to turn the things on!” He agrees to approve the warrants so that the Council will not appear to be holding up the issue.
Councilor Sandra Faye Little is primarily concerned with the inclusion of more local firms on the “bond team” [Little calls the warrants currently under discussion 'bonds;' Councilor Blake insists that they are 'warrants,' explaining that 'bonds' would have to be approved by the city's voters], which includes underwriters and financial advisers. Councilor Little promises to set up meetings with minority and local firms concerning upcoming bonds in January to determine the qualifications of local firms in dealing with bond issues.
Reading from notes, Councilor Pat Alexander concurs with Little. “I agree, and it spreads my concern about local corporate offices in the city of Birmingham, our own firms, about not being involved in whatever,” says Alexander, who readily admits her lack of knowledge regarding bonds. “Questions have been proposed, and I’m glad someone asked these questions, ’cause some of the questions when it comes to the bonds, I just don’t know.”
Mayor Kincaid acknowledges that he has not been briefed as previously scheduled under the Bell Plan [the warrant, or bond, plan passed by the Council almost two years ago to fund school construction]. Glen Dickerson, who is representing the school system, says he thought the reports were to be issued yearly. Blake argues, urging him to read the Bell Plan stipulations again. Dr. Boring states that bimonthly mayor-school board meetings have been taking place. To set the record straight, Kincaid reassures the Council that his staff has met regularly with the Board of Education for updates on projects, but “not in a comprehensive fashion.”
Blake then goes off on a tangent, expressing dismay to the Mayor that $5 million of the $11 million approved for other capital improvements will go to Phases II and III of The Summit [shopping mall] construction. Kincaid defends The Summit spending by reminding Blake that he [Kincaid] is fulfilling Council actions he supported when he was on the Council. The Mayor tells Blake that the $5 million in Phase I was to generate $5 million in new taxes over 72 months, or else The Summit had to pay the difference. He also reminds Blake that The Summit took only 16 months to pay back the funds. Kincaid goes further to explain that the shopping center has 48 months to repay the $5 million for Phases II and III that is promised in tax revenue. For these reasons, the Mayor says that he believes that the money going to The Summit is not “corporate welfare.”
With their brief spat over the definition of corporate welfare still unresolved, Blake agrees to support the warrants for the schools, but warns that the Birmingham Board of Education must address the project manager vacancy as well as the plethora of school repairs needed. Councilor Gunn says that when he was in school, “we got books with the pages torn out, bad words were written in ‘em, and [they were] hand-me-downs.” Gunn further notes that Kingston School [in Gunn's district] has “never seen air conditioning and doesn’t have one now!” Council President Bell has the final word, dismayed not only that the project manager has not been hired but also that construction companies on the Carver High project have been hiring out-of-state subcontractors. The warrant issue is approved 8 to 1, but Bell decides the funds will not actually be transferred until councilors’ questions about management inefficiencies and local participation in contracts are resolved.