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Birmingham Mayoral Debate Turns Testy Over Woodfin’s Scholarships Program

WBHM host/reporter Janae Pierre, top left, with Birmingham mayoral candidates. (Screen Grab)

By Ryan Michaels
The Birmingham Times

Candidates grilled Mayor Randall Woodfin over Birmingham Promise, the mayor’s scholarship and apprenticeship program, during Tuesday’s virtual mayoral debate, which was sponsored by the Birmingham Times, among other media outlets.

Challengers called the scholarship program “a political stunt,” “takes resources from K through 12 children” and “smoke and mirrors.”

Woodfin fired back that his opponents have yet to offer alternatives to Birmingham Promise and are spending their time on lies and misinformation.

The debate was sponsored by the Birmingham Times, AL.com, WBHM 90.3 FM, CBS 42, Summit Media and the Birmingham Association of Black Journalists (BABJ) and held one week before the city’s election on Aug. 24.

The moderator was WBHM’s host/reporter Janae Pierre.

The candidates included Woodfin, former Mayor William Bell, Jefferson County Commissioner Lashunda Scales, mental health advocate Cerissa Brown, business owner Philemon Hill II and activist Darryl Williams. Businessman Chris Woods was not present and Birmingham resident Napoleon Gonzalez had technical difficulties.

A number of topics – crime, business, neighborhoods, city population loss – were discussed during the last debate before the Tuesday election, but it was the Birmingham Promise program that sparked some of the night’s most pointed comments.

Asked about the program by Birmingham Times Executive Editor Barnett Wright, Woodfin replied, “In the last seven plus years I’ve had the opportunity to shake hands with every high school graduate that walks across the stage of Birmingham City Schools. And about the second year of doing that, I was afforded the opportunity…to just simply ask a young person what they were doing next, and they would tell me what they were doing, and I realized they were just answering and [trying to please an adult].”

Birmingham Promise began offering tuition assistance in 2020 to graduates of Birmingham City Schools. The program provides assistance for up to four years of college for students who attend any public college or university in Alabama.

However, the scholarship program has become one of the hot-button issues in the campaign.

“The Birmingham Promise, like other initiatives from mayors past, is a political stunt,” Scales said. “What we’re doing right now is to say listen, ‘When you become of voting age, now I give you something in exchange for a vote.’ That’s not what I believe a mayor should be trying to do.”

Scales said the Birmingham City Schools (BCS) has always been used as a “political football” but has not improved under previous administrations.

Birmingham Promise is a “photo op initiative,” which is not helping students, according to Scales. “We don’t need no more photo ops. We need to properly fund our Birmingham City Schools . . . We have all of these different initiatives, but we’ve gotten away from doing what matters, which is to fund properly, our school system.”

Williams said low grade-point averages don’t receive the scholarships.

“The Birmingham Promise–a 2.5 [GPA] student–tell me who gets that, not the 4.0, not the 3.7, but the 2.5…you show me some 2.5 [GPA] students that benefit from that program, I’ll shut up,” Williams said.

The Woodfin campaign said there are no GPA requirements for Promise participation. “The student must go through the normal application process for each college, and if the school accepts them, Birmingham Promise will cover any remaining gaps in their tuition and school fees,” according to Woodfin.

The problem with Birmingham Promise, Bell said, is a required reduction in funding for BCS that funds the program.

“There’s nothing wrong with establishing scholarship programs for our students who graduate from the school system,” the former mayor said. “My wife and I, we fund many scholarships. We work with many different organizations to make sure that young people get off to a good start in our community, but the problem with the Promise program is that it takes away resources from our K through 12 children.”

Bell said Ramsay High School is an example of how BCS needs all the money the city will give it.

“It was just announced that our flagship school, Ramsay High School, has slipped in its ranking statewide. If Ramsay is having a hard time… that tells you something about the rest of the school system,” Bell said. “We should not take away those resources to put into a program that’s good, don’t get me wrong…but it’s being billed with smoke and mirrors.”

Brown also said City Hall should take more initiative in funding BCS directly.

“As a single parent that put a daughter through school and college, thankfully she had her father’s GI Bill…I understand having financial help,” Brown said. “The Birmingham Promise is not how it seems. Our kids in kindergarten through 12th need help, so to not give any of the kids, to give $0 in the budget, it takes away from the smallest to the oldest. It’s like a punishment…and that’s not fair to our students. They deserve funds to go into the school system.”

Hill said he was suspicious of how much public money was used for not only Birmingham Promise but also other Birmingham initiatives with which Woodfin is involved.

“It is very interesting that we do not know, to this day, know how much public funds have been used to start, not only Birmingham Promise, but Birmingham Strong, as well as Prosper Birmingham, and we need to make sure that the mayor doesn’t have the authority,” Hill said, “or the dictatorship rule to use public funds to start up his own nonprofits.”

Woodfin said all spending must be approved by the City Council and his challengers were not being truthful about the scholarships.

“[There are] a lot of things that you can criticize this administration on, but the mischaracterization and intentional misinformation about opportunity for our younger generation is not the one,” Woodfin said.

To the statement Woodfin was overstepping his bounds as mayor, he said the program was a result of working with other city officials.

“We partner with the superintendent…and [the Board of Education agrees] that their high school students, attached to their career academies, need some form of work exposure because [for] what purpose did you have a career academy if the children are only staying in the classroom all day,” Woodfin said. “These same children can now leave high school early and be paid $15 an hour, and that is from the actual Birmingham Promise through apprenticeships, which the City Council approved unanimously.”

Woodfin also said that no students are denied scholarships over academic performance.

“This program does not require a grade point average, it does not require ACT score, it does not require SAT score,” Woodfin said. “If a state college, two-year or four-year, accepts you into school and you have any tuition gaps, the Birmingham Promise covers that.”

The mayor said he was baffled that of all the issues that come up during the campaign his challengers were focusing on scholarships.

“Any of these opponents to have a problem with that, and not offer you anything else [as] an alternative, then this is not about necessarily supporting children,” Woodfin said, “. . . they’re just shooting blanks at anything with misinformation.”