By Denise Stewart
For The Birmingham Times
If you think 2016 was filled with change and surprise, 2017 could offer much more, especially in Birmingham and Jefferson County. Here are just a few topics The Birmingham Times Staff feels could dominate discussion in the coming months.
Birmingham elections are eight months away, but already candidates are lining up to run for public office. Randall Woodfin, an attorney and former president of the Birmingham School Board, has already announced his candidacy for mayor and started putting together a ground game that included being the first to state his intentions. But Woodfin will face a seasoned Mayor William Bell who has led in the transformation of the city’s midtown, pushed revitalization in Ensley and encouraged development at the Birmingham Crossplex. But Bell has also been at odds with some members of the Birmingham City Council in recent months. If history is any indication, some of those council members also will be in the mayor’s race.
In addition to the mayor’s race, nine seats are up for grabs on the City Council as well as the Birmingham Board of Education. This council has drawn mixed reviews. Some have hinted they will not seek re-election. Others have acknowledged they will face competition in their bids for re-election.
The Board of Education faces some tough assignments in the coming year – charter schools, getting a new superintendent in place and most of all, improving student achievement. At least one board member – Woodfin of District 5, will not be seeking re-election. Other board members have not publicly indicated their plans for the future.
A couple of facts hold true for city elections – voter participation usually is low in the first round and even less if there is a runoff. In 2013, only 27,400 voters went to the polls in the general election — about one-fifth of the eligible 129,770 voters.
Who will run? Who will motivate Birmingham residents to go to the polls and vote?
First ever charter school
In November, Birmingham City Schools posted it requests for proposals to operate a charter school in 2017, but the guidelines are very specific. School leaders want a dual-language, Spanish immersion school. Lessons would be taught in Spanish, and students who don’t already speak the language would learn it and speak it regularly in school.
One Birmingham school, The Star Academy, was looking to be the first charter school in the area. But its plans for operation don’t match the Birmingham school system’s guidelines. If Birmingham rejects the Star Academy application, the school can still seek to get approval to operate from the state.
Is there anyone out there who really wants to operate a charter school in Birmingham? Can charter schools make a difference in local student achievement?
Birmingham School Superintendent
Former Birmingham School Superintendent Kelley Castlin-Gacutan lasted a little over a year before the Birmingham School Board fired her. Larry Contri, the longest serving Birmingham educator, was appointed interim superintendent and the board is now taking applications to fill the job permanently.
The school board decided to work through the Alabama Association of School Boards in its recruitment process. This approach would not cost as much as previous searches and could identify qualified candidates, board members have said.
Contri has been interested in the superintendent’s job, but has been passed over in previous searches. Is this his time?
If you pass by Loveman Village Public Housing Community, you’ll see some windows and doors boarded up. As people move out, the boards are placed because the buildings will soon be torn down and replaced with new housing.
The new Loveman Village will have fewer units at its current location, and additional units will be built in the Oxmoor Valley, Birmingham Housing Authority leaders said.
Plans also are in the works to redevelop the Southtown Court public housing community. This prime location between St. Vincent’s Hospital and UAB previously has been considered for a variety of uses.
What will begin to happen there in 2017? Will this be a place for public housing residents only, or will it serve a larger community?
Violent crime soared in Birmingham in 2016. As 2017 began creeping in, the violence continued. Police say a woman was shot on Sunday, the first day of the year, and died on Monday. A man was killed Tuesday morning in east Birmingham, police say.
The city is spending more on tools like Shot Spotters to help crack down on crime. Incoming Jefferson County District Attorney Charles Henderson has said he wants to help reduce violent crime by combatting issues such as drugs and mental illness that often lead to violence.
More than 100 people were killed in Birmingham in 2016. Many of them youths, several mothers, and many fathers who left children behind.
What will happen in 2017? How can this community stop the violence?
National Historic Monument
Civil rights history made in Birmingham helped change America and the world. A November report said President Barack Obama is expected to proclaim some of the sites in the Civil Rights District as National Historic Monuments before he leaves office.
While that proclamation has not happened, Birmingham leaders say it would bring change again to a city that has seen revitalization in other corners of downtown.
U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell introduced legislation in Congress last year to create a Civil Rights National Historic Park in Birmingham, but it has not gained enough support to get out of a Congressional Committee.
On Wednesday, Jan. 4 the newly expanded Birmingham Water Works board appointed Sherry Lewis as chairman and Tommy Jo Alexander as vice-chair. Lewis is a current board member, while Alexander is one of four newly seated members. The question now is what happens to some decisions made by the previous five member board such as a resolution to stop collecting sewer fees for Jefferson County. With the composition of the Board now up to five members through changes pushed through the Legislature does that mean Birmingham may have less control over what happens on the board, and some of the previous moves by the water works could be reversed.
But what will these changes mean for the customers? Will someone get the system straightened out so that customers get more accurate billing? In recent weeks water bills and sewer bills have more than doubled for some customers.
Birmingham will get a taste of hosting major athletic events at multiple venues when the senior games roll into town this summer.
This 19-sport event for people 50 and older is set for June 1-15, and thousands of athletes and families are expected to attend.
The 2017 National Senior Games will test the city’s ability to host diverse groups with a variety of needs. It can also highlight the needs that should be addressed prior to the World Games, slated to come to the city in 2021.
Is Birmingham up for the challenge?