By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
Organizers of an effort to form a city school system got what they wanted when Atmore City Council members agreed during their March 11 meeting to “move forward” on the issue by paying for a study to determine the feasibility of such a move.
The decision came after about an hour of confusion, debate and redundancy, during which supporters of the move repeated many of the points they made during a recent public meeting. The council meeting was attended by more than 90 people, the largest crowd at a council meeting in years, prompting its relocation from Council Chambers to City Hall Auditorium.
The final, unanimous vote came several minutes after District 4’s Susan Smith bypassed Mayor Jim Staff and called for a motion to take the first steps in what City Attorney Larry Wettermark warned would be a long and expensive process.
Jerome Webster (D-2) seconded the motion, then Smith, Webster and District 3’s Chris Walker voted in favor of the motion. Webb Nall (D-1) voted against the measure, and Chris Harrison (D-5) abstained because of the impropriety of Smith’s motion.
“I’m not sure of the legality of the motion at hand, so I’m going to have to abstain,” Harrison said. “I don’t know if it’s legal or not; I thought all motions had to come from the mayor.”
Smith was given the floor for several minutes to explain her support of the municipal educational system. She said she had received 84 calls from constituents, “Native American, African-American and Caucasian,” who were concerned that the council might not support the plan.
“This is about doing the right thing, looking out for those who will come behind every one of us,” she said, echoing the sentiments expressed earlier by Loumeek White and the Reverends Catadro North, Willie Hawthorne and Michael Arnold. “If we fix our schools, everything else will fix itself. We must take care of our children. Red, yellow, black and white; they are precious in His sight.”
White is president of Atmore Citizens for Change, the group behind the move to separate the three schools within the city (Rachel Patterson Elementary, Escambia County Middle School and Escambia County High School) from the Escambia County School System.
“This will only rejuvenate our city,” White said to city officials. “If we start at the bottom and let you guys build a school system that will work for the city, I promise you it will work. All I ask is for, is for the kids and the city. To me, it’s a no-brainer. We need to do what we can to keep this city moving forward.”
Just as it had during the February 15 public meeting, the debate began to get out of hand, with several attendees trying to be heard above others and some arguing with various city leaders over various aspects of the matter.
Finally, an unidentified woman called for calm.
“We’re here for a meeting,” the woman said. “Let’s keep it down and be civilized.”
When things got quiet again, Wettermark told supporters that they should be aware of some of the obstacles they will run into in trying to get a new school system off the ground.
“The question, ultimately, is Can you afford it?” he said. “It took about a year for the City of Saraland study, and there is funding in place, but it’s complicated. You might be able to get the buildings, but you will also have to assume the debt service on those buildings. And the cost of the feasibility study is not an inconsequential amount; it’s probably going to cost $60,000 to $70,000 dollars.”
Supporters reported that they had a quote from a Birmingham group that would conduct the study for $15,000, to which the attorney replied that the study can’t be a “cut-rate” one that failed to examine all the angles. After a comprehensive study, he said, the group would have “all the information necessary to decide whether or not you can afford a system.”
Staff finally asked for a motion, which was again made by Smith and seconded by Webster. City Clerk Becca Smith explained to the crowd that the new motion, which drew a 5-0 vote, was that the city pay for the feasibility study.
Wettermark said he would have a draft resolution ready by the next council meeting, set for March 25, then former educator Charlotte Boyle told those in the room that they should “think it through and work together,” and cautioned parents that they would “have to start taking more interest in (their) children” if a city school system is to be successful.
In other action, the council:
* Approved a request from Natalie Coates that she be allowed to conduct a Lupus Walk on May 18 to raise awareness of the inflammatory disease, which claimed the life of her son, Brendon Jackson.
* Selected Smith as the city’s delegate to the Alabama League of Municipalities.
* Applied for inclusion in Main Street America, an organization that has several programs geared toward community improvement.