The idiosyncratic world of the Birmingham City Council
Three years ago, Birmingham opened the doors of Carver High School, the first high school built in the city in 30 years. An imposing, $50 million educational facility, the school actually began conducting classes before construction was completed as delays piled up and costs soared well past original estimates. Designed for technical as well as academic instruction, Carver has been touted by many as the first phase in rescuing Birmingham’s plummeting education system. Others warned it was doomed from the start, and it looks like the cynics were correct.A July 20 front page story in the Birmingham News cast Carver as a disturbing icon for the city’s school system. The school is so poorly wired that only half of the computers in the computer lab can be operated at one time. Floor tiles are coming up, concrete is falling in the elevator shaft, walls are cracking, and the foundation is splitting. Air conditioning and heating units must be run simultaneously to prevent the build-up of moisture in the main building.
Two days after the article was published, Councilor Elias Hendricks apologized during the Tuesday city council meeting for scoffing at those who warned “that thing was gonna fall off that mountain.” Carver was built on the site of the North Birmingham Golf Course over the objections of those who insisted that the land had been properly dedicated as a park in 1924. The golf course was a public facility that for years was the only course black residents were allowed to play on. Hendricks added that word among the golfers was that Carver had been constructed above an abandoned mine.
Councilor Bert Miller waved a copy of the newspaper story as he warned of impending danger. “Someone should be held accountable. Sooner or later, the school’s gonna fall down and kill some of our kids. You got the walls cracking, you got the ceilings leaking,” Miller exclaimed as audience members applauded the mention of students suffering such a ghastly fate. “We should call them all [architects, engineers, etc.] back to the carpet and put them on trial!” Guaranteeing that he’d be nothing less than a good steward if in charge of such a substantial amount of money, Miller proclaimed, “If you give me $50 million to do something, I’m gonna do it!” Miller noted that there had been three high profile secondary education schools built in Jefferson County in the past five years: Hoover High, Spain Park High, and Carver. Commenting that he hasn’t heard any complaints about structural problems at Spain Park and Hoover, he couldn’t resist putting a racial spin on the issue at the July 22 council meeting, asking, “Are our black kids being neglected because there are black kids going to a different school [than whites] and the architects are cutting costs or just didn’t care? Is that the reason they just threw the school up?”
Though obviously disturbed by the embarrassing situation, several councilors were adamant that educational and other civic dilemmas be handled away from the council chambers, where meetings are broadcast on a tape-delayed basis on a local cable access channel. Councilor Carol Reynolds urged city residents to bring problems directly to council committees to avoid painting negative images of Birmingham that discourage businesses from moving into the city. “When we stand up here and belittle our education system instead of going into the back to do the work . . . when we stand up here and talk about crime and how horrific it is and how out of control it is and you haven’t even filed a police report [an airport neighborhood resident came to the council to complain that there was a "crack house" in the area due to the blight resulting from airport expansion], you’re belittling the efforts of our police and this council and this mayor and every resident of this city that is trying to make this a better place to live,” said Reynolds. “This goes live every Tuesday night. Every word we say, verbatim. There’s no censoring, there’s no 30-second delay. So when you slander your city or when you bring your problems instead of taking it to the proper committee or taking it to your council person, guess what? They play these videos [of council meetings]. Hoover, Homewood, Vestavia, Mountain Brook, Irondale, Leeds, Gardendale. They take them to these conventions and play them. [Reynolds imitates a panic-stricken voice] Oooh, there’s crime in Birmingham, stay away, stay away!”
During an interview after the meeting, Mayor Kincaid agreed with Reynolds, though he did take a swipe at councilors, four of whom have declared they will run against Kincaid in the October mayoral election this year. “The positive things don’t come to the floor on the [council] dais.” said Kincaid. “That is the time that councilors want to parade the malcontents, or the people who actually have grievances. Most of these can be addressed by taking them to the proper administrative end. . . . It seems that this council, for the next 84 days or so, is going to be content with parading what’s wrong with Birmingham without understanding that intrinsically it hurts our ability to recruit. . . . What about the positive things that are happening there? It’s injurious to the image of Birmingham.” In other words, it’s injurious to the image of Bernard Kincaid.