By DON FLETCHER and SHERRY DIGMON
News Staff Writers
Nearly four months after Atmore’s city council approved the measure and city officials signed a consulting contract to determine the feasibility of starting a city school system, the project is still not off the ground.
Dr. Ira Harvey, president and CEO of Vestavia Hills-based Decision Resources, said last week during a telephone interview with Atmore News that there is a good reason for the lack of progress.
When asked for an update on the feasibility study, there was a long, silent pause before Harvey said the delay was not on his part. Asked if the acquisition of data needed for the study was going smoothly, he said that topic was the crux of the holdup.
Harvey, who holds a doctorate in education, said he has not received any of the financial and demographic information he has requested from Atmore Mayor Jim Staff, Escambia County Superintendent of Education John Knott and Escambia County Tax Assessor Thad Moore Jr.
“No, not any, never,” said the consultant, who explained that he had personally contacted Knott and Moore and had filed a request through City Attorney Larry Wettermark. “I met with John Knott, and he was very cordial. I sent a request for the information very soon after meeting him. I talked with Thad in the tax office and I even put the request in writing. I also sent a request to the city attorney and copied the three people in the mayor’s office.”
School Superintendent John Knott said he had not met personally with Dr. Harvey but did have a telephone conversation which was indeed cordial.
“Dr. Harvey told me the city [Atmore] had contracted with him to do a feasibility study,” Knott said. “He told me he hoped we could work together, and I told him certainly we would cooperate. I also told him I had not received a formal notice from the city of Atmore that they were pursuing the study for a city school system. In fairness to this office and the school board, I felt it was necessary to get a formal notice of the city’s intent and their agreement with Dr. Harvey.”
Staff said he has received two emailed requests from Harvey for the financial and other data. But, the mayor said, the lack of digitized records, along with the volume of information requested, make the request one that is not easily filled.
“This is not something that is going to happen overnight,” the mayor said, adding that he has not spoken directly to Harvey since April. “It’s not like those records are on the computer. Some of the stuff is packed away in boxes, and they’re are all over the place, wherever we could find space to store them. It takes time to get as much stuff as he’s asked for.”
Moore said he wasn’t aware that the information had been requested but that he would try to comply as quickly as possible.
“I wasn’t aware that our office had received such a request, from Dr. Harvey or Mr. Knott,” said the tax assessor, who noted that most all county records are now digitized. “We get requests all the time for public information, so I’ll run this through our IT department. We are ready and willing to help with everything he needs.”
Harvey said he has done such studies for “probably a dozen” other communities, including Saraland, Chickasaw and Satsuma. He admitted that the volume of information might be a little overwhelming but said the lack of documentation on which the Atmore study will be based is a little baffling, since local officials and public employees are vital to such an analysis and usually jump right in to help.
“I’ve always gotten absolute and complete cooperation with all the cities I’ve been involved,” he said. “I’m very confused about the whole thing with Atmore.”
City Clerk Becca Smith said she and two other city employees are compiling the data as they find time, pointing out that the trio has been asked to go back 10 years, long before city records were stored on computer.
“Our computers only go back two years,” she explained. “I’m working on the ad valorem tax information, but eight years of it is on paper.”
Loumeek White, president of Atmore Citizens for Change, said he and his group just want to be kept apprised of how the process is working. But, he said, the failure of local officials to provide any of the documentation for the study has weakened the bond of trust that existed when the process started.
“We are not surprised at the inaction and manipulation by the mayor and by the Escambia County School District,” White said. “We were told to trust the process and to wait on the results of the feasibility study. We tried to trust them. But, as everyone can see, they are not to be trusted.”
The ACC president said he had asked several times for updates on the study but was told no update was available.
“When we inquired about updates, the mayor quickly said that there were no updates,” he said. “He even said that it would cost us money to get an update. When we tried to get on the agenda to address the city council, the mayor thwarted our efforts and stopped us from addressing the council. We feel that all of these actions are clear and serious ethics violations.”
District 2 Council Member Jerome Webster, in whose district most of the support for the city school system has come, said he and his constituents are concerned about the lack of progress on the study.
“It’s disappointing, and the community is getting antsy about it,” Webster said.
The city clerk also addressed reports that Harvey had been paid his $60,000 consulting fee in advance.
“We haven’t paid him anything,” Smith said. “According to the contract (signed April 13 by the consultant and city officials), ‘the fee shall be due and payable upon submittal of bound copies and presentation of the final study’.”
White said those behind the planned formation of a municipal education system just want to know whether such a move is a sound one or not.
“The mayor thinks that the issue will just go away, but he is terribly mistaken; we are in it for the long haul,” he said. “If it’s feasible, we need to go on to the next step. If it’s not, at least we tried, and now we can move on to Plan B. But we need to know things.”
Harvey said his hands would remain tied until such time as the data begins to reach him.
“If I cannot get accurate and complete financial information, I can’t possibly do an accurate and complete feasibility study,” he said.
One factor to remember in all this is that the Escambia County Board of Education has not entered into an agreement with anyone. The feasibility study is a contract between the city of Atmore and Dr. Harvey representing Atmore Citizens for Change.
“We’ve not been informed of anything,” Knott said. “As far as I’m concerned, we’re where we were before. This is not something in my purview.
“Quite frankly, my focus and attention are in getting the new school year started and making sure everything is in place. We’re looking for this to a good school year.”
Knott said he has received one email but no official correspondence from Dr. Harvey. Regardless, he added, the burden is not on the Escambia County school system to provide data.
“The city has the absolute right to consider and to seek and inquire about the possibility of going to a city school system. We’ll cooperate any way we can with that process,” Knott said. “Most of our information is available through public sources … I’ve had no formal request for information, but I will comply with providing needed information for the study.”
Knott said he has been open to meeting with anyone who wants to discuss concerns about the public school system, but no requests have been forthcoming.
“I’m always open to listening to any particular concerns and suggestions from anybody,” he said. “We want to be open, to hear honest and sincere input. We’re happy to collaborate with anybody to make our school the best we can.”