First step in city school system?
By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
In a meeting where most of the discussion took place after formal adjournment, Atmore City Council members voted unanimously on Monday (March 25) to hire a Vestavia Hills firm to help determine the feasibility of forming a city school system.
The council action marked the first step in a long process toward deciding whether or not to create the municipal education system, but supporters of a move to separate the three schools within Atmore’s city limits from the Escambia County School System apparently expected more.
Just as council members voted to end the meeting and were preparing to leave, Loumeek White — president of Atmore Citizens of Change — asked to speak. White reminded Mayor Jim Staff that the council had voted at its March 11 meeting to consider a formal resolution of the city’s intent to form a three-school system and to notify state education officials of the plan.
That set off a debate that lasted about 10 minutes, during which some of the confusion present at prior meetings on the subject resurfaced.
“We’ll do this when we get through with the study to see where we are,” Staff replied. “I know what you’re asking for, but I don’t think that was what the motion said.”
District 4’s Susan Smith jumped into the fray at that point.
“My question is: Do we have to have a resolution before we do the study?” Smith said. “We have to send a resolution to the state, saying this is our intention.”
District 5’s Chris Harrison reiterated that to go ahead with such a resolution would be putting the cart before the horse.
“We need to make sure we can pay for it (the school system) first,” Harrison said. “That’s the main thing, that’s what the study does.”
Harrison agreed that Smith had made the motion she earlier mentioned and that District 2’s Jerome Webster had seconded it. But, he pointed out, a video of the meeting that was posted on Facebook shows that a vote was never taken on the matter, that it was lost in the confusion that erupted near the end of that council session, which was attended by more than 90 people.
Staff ended the debate at that point, prompting a local minister — one of about two dozen supporters of the proposed city school system on hand — to leave the room in anger.
“Anyway, this is the way it’s supposed to be done,” the mayor said, noting that a vote for adjournment had already been taken. “This is what we’re going to do. And the meeting is over, by the way.”
Michael Arnold, vice president of ACOC, took exception to the mayor’s comments, waving his arms and speaking to the mayor, council members and the other city-school supporters in the audience as he vacated the meeting room.
“Oh, buddy,” he said as he headed for the door. “Election time is coming; y’all better wake up.”
The city will pay Decision Resources, headed up by Dr. Ira Harvey, $60,000 to conduct the feasibility study. At a council workshop held last Thursday, March 21, Harvey reported that such a study would take “about 18 months, maybe more.”
White attended that meeting, as did Hill and local ministers Willie Hawthorne and Darryl North. Harvey answered as many questions as he could, admitting that his present knowledge of Atmore is limited.
He explained that he and two of his staff would conduct the study, which will rely on county school officials for much of the data, including budgets for individual schools, lists of equipment and buildings that are associated with the three schools — Rachel Patterson Elementary, Escambia County Middle and Escambia County High — that would be affected by formation of the new system and more.
Asked if students from Huxford and other areas that are contiguous to the city would be able to attend the city system, Harvey said formal contracts would have to be ironed out with the county school board and any other entity that is not part of the city.
He suggested that a redefinition of the city limits might be another way of bringing in students from Huxford, Nokomis and other areas just outside the city.
“A lot of this can be worked out, if the Escambia County Board of Education is cooperative and is shown how logical this is for them,” he said. “Roping off, geographically, is logical. You might even want to look at expanding your municipal boundaries before you form the system. That is logical and makes sense out of the overall picture.”
An interesting aspect of the workshop is that it marked the first time Poarch Band of Creek Indians has participated in the various meetings on the matter.
PCI Education Director Sandra Hiebert and Policy Analyst Justin Stabler listened to the discussion, taking notes but not taking part in the discussion. Both agreed that much more information would be needed if PCI was to decide to allow children of tribal members to attend city schools, if and when the system is established.
“These are very important discussions that are happening with the city school movement,” said Stabler, who said he and Hiebert attended as representatives of Tribal Chair Stephanie Bryan and the Tribal Council. “The reason I was here today is that it’s such an important conversation, not only for the city, but for the tribe and the entire county.
“My job is to go back and make sure the tribal council is in the loop. Obviously, based on some of the discussion today, there are a lot of unanswered questions. We appreciate the comments on the tribe possibly being involved in some of the feasibility study as well. It’s such an important conversation, the tribe wants to be involved in the process.”
In other action during this week’s meeting, the council:
* Approved a request to hold a circus-carnival event on property behind the former Escambia County Middle School on Martin Luther King Driver on April 4-7;
* Approved the purchase from Vigilance Solutions for $100,000 (over a five-year period) of body cameras for officers and investigators of the Atmore Police Department;
* Pledged support for the city’s participation in the National Day of Prayer Thursday, May 2. The daylong series of prayers and related events will culminate in the community gathering that will be held at Escambia County High’s Cornell Torrence Gymnasium at 5:30 p.m.