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Debate over formation of city school boards dominates Senate committee meeting

Sam Mattison

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By Samuel Mattison
Alabama Political Reporter

One committee meeting in the statehouse on Wednesday was met with debates over the qualifications to start a school board by city governments.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison, D-Birmingham, would raise the requirements for the formation of school boards by increasing the population requirement from 5,000 to 25,000.

It would also require the Alabama State Department of Education to determine if the city has a tax base to support the school system. Coleman-Madison, speaking at Wednesday’s Senate committee on Education and Youth Affairs meeting, said the bill was a cost saving measure.

Jefferson County, which is in her district, had 11 school boards break away from the County’s School system, according to the senator.

Gardendale, a northern suburb of Birmingham, was a recent addition with the Gardendale City Council deciding to break away from the system in 2014. On Tuesday, however, a Federal court ruled that the city could not break away from the school system, and said the board acted with “a racially discriminatory purpose.”

Mark Gaines, an attorney representing Gardendale at the committee meeting, said the bill was designed to target the city. Gaines was also joined by other school systems at the meeting in disapproving of the bill’s population requirement.

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Kevin Corcoran, a member of the Gulf Shores board of education, said the bill would have prevented his city from forming its own school board. He said he was open to a discussion on the bill, and indicated he was not innately against the bill.

On the proponent side, Jefferson Schools Superintendent Craig Pouncey said that the bill would establish a process for schools to form boards of education. Pouncey, who saw multiple cities in his system break away, said the splits have not worked out for the cities and left them with a financial burden that they could not handle.

Pouncey specifically mentioned Gardendale as an example of a city that still takes funding from the Jefferson School system.

Other opponents of the bill said that city governments had a right to control education at a local level.

Among those advocates, was Sally Smith, the executive director of the Alabama Association of School Boards, who said the bill would stop dozens of school boards from forming. At the meeting, she handed each of the senators a list of schools that would have not formed under the new provisions in the bill.

The bill does have some provisions that would grandfather in existing school boards but would not evaluate the already existing school board’s tax base.

One of the only neutral parties at the meeting was the Alabama State Department of Education.

Ethan Taylor, the coordinator of budgets and grants for the department, said the State Department of Education had no problem with the bill, and expressed it may be a good idea to financially evaluate the cities trying to start a school board.

The committee took no action on the bill.

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