Clueless community leaders cheer Birmingham School seizure

Ed Richardson
Dr. Ed Richardson

I grew up in Mt. Brook.

My children went to Mt. Brook schools.

I now live in Vestavia Hills.

I belong to the Rotary Club of Birmingham.

Dr. Ed Richardson spoke recently to our Rotary Club.  There was a huge corporate crowd cheering Dr. Richardson as he explained how our State Department of Education is going to fix Birmingham’s dysfunction school system.

However, I became ill when I realized I was in a room full of well intentioned decent people who didn’t realize they, themselves, caused the problem.

The real reason Birmingham and our school system are in turmoil is because most of the people in the room or their parents (including me) abandoned our City.

I bet that less than 20% of the people at that meeting live in the City of Birmingham and 0% has children in the school system.

A respected leader and friend recently told me he couldn’t understand why many of the parents in the Birmingham schools weren’t supporting our business community’s efforts to help them.  Why should they?  We yanked our children away and left Birmingham to atrophy.  Now we’re giving them some fleeting attention.

We’re feeling smug when we created the problem.

Note that this is not a Mt. Brook or Vestavia thing.  There are 36 municipalities that ran away from Birmingham and eleven other school systems in Jefferson County.  There’s no place like us on earth.

The citizens of Nashville, Jacksonville, and Charlotte aren’t having this conversation because they have a unified government.

I’m not proposing a single government for our region or recommending our school systems combine.  That’s not about ready to happen.

We live in a beautiful area with the most generous people in the world.  Why aren’t we able to compete with our Southern peer cities?

Other cities work together as a region.  We burn our energies and resources by accepting the status quo of our redundant, segmented, dysfunctional governments–and our lack of home rule magnifies our problems.

The purpose of this blog is to begin a community conversation on how we can make things better.

Let’s begin that conversation.

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David Sher is a partner in Buzz12 Relationship Marketing and co-CEO of AmSher Receivables Management. He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (ONB), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).


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38 thoughts on “Clueless community leaders cheer Birmingham School seizure”

  1. *David,

    I would agree with you about our region needing to come together and become more of a regional government. Sacrifices for the common good will be necessary to make this happen.

    Danny Rodgers

  2. David, I appreciate your comments. As a recent transplant to Birmingham, my husband and I have made a commitment (of the one-day-at-a-time variety) to stay in the city, to give our public schools a shot, to invest in the growth and sustainability of Jones Valley. We have chosen Birmingham, over Hoover or Vestavia or beyond, and it wouldn’t be fair to say that we don’t sometimes struggle with that decision.

    This is the time, in my opinion, to start having more honest conversations about the reality of today, in the hopes that we can begin to steer toward a better tomorrow. We’re hellbent on making Birmingham (and her schools) a great place to live, work, and play. What can you do (from over the mountain, along with your colleagues) to help us succeed?

    1. LK, good for you and your husband! Our goal is to find a whole lot more people like you who are “hellbent” on improving our region. The whole purpose of this blog is to begin a conversation on how to improve our government structure–so we actually have a chance. Ask your friends and neighbors to get involved.

  3. REALLY?  “Dr. Richardson explained how our State Department of Education is going to fix Birmingham’s dysfunction school system.”  Really?  Someone should have asked Dr. Richardson when he was going to fix the Educational system in our state?  Alabama typically ranks near the bottom in terms of education and he’s going to fix Birminghams mess.    I doubt it. 

    1. Bill, Dr. Richardson in his speech Rotary talked about the many improvements going on in Alabama education. Dr. Bice previously spoke to Rotary about new initiatives. I think we should all be glad that they are making a serious effort to move us from the bottom.

  4. Someone had to say this… Thank you.

    I’ve said similar things from the safety of my computer and in the safety of my home. I’ve lived over 12 states and never have I lived in a place that is more fractured and un-unified as the Birmingham metro area. It’s mind boggling, and frustrating.

    Thank you for starting this conversation. Where and how do we continue it?

    1. Karla, I think it’s all about encouraging our friends and neighbors to join our conversation. I constantly here, “We’ll never do anything about it, so why change?” There are many, many people just like you and me who want to see the best for our Birmingham region. I know you love Birmingham and so do many others.

  5. *I agree with you 100% but what,besides talking about it, are you doing about it? You don’t live in the city limits, do you shop in the downtown or southside area, do you tutor or volunteer with the schools. We have a lot of talk in this city. Let’s see some action.

    1. Mel, you are definitely entitled to ask these questions. I’d like to think that the many hours I’ve put in this blog are making a difference. But even more importantly, our company (AmSher) moved into the City of Birmingham from Vestavia Hills about 7 or 8 years ago.

  6. We continue to support socialist (government owned) schools so why is anyone surprised that there are problems?  I know it is un-American, but why not try freedom?  Try vouchers.

  7. A former ‘Hamster, now living in Memphis, I was delighted to be here when the Memphis City Schools gave up its charter, forcing Shelby County (TN) to carry out its Constitutional obligation to maintain an educational system.  Memphis, which had been sneaking ahead, suddenly found itself on the leading edge of urban school reform.  They had received Gates funds, Race to the Top funds, TFA, charters and bunches of volunteer efforts but suddenly the game was ON!  The ensuing community-wide discussion has hardly ironed out all the problems.  The main accomplishment right now is that the county schools and Memphis City schools are one legal entity, transitioning toward a single operation.  The transition team has a substantial education reform proposal that is heavy on pre-K, charters and teacher accountability.  School Board, City and County governments are chipping away at budgets and developing funding plans in remarkable, and for Birmingham, unimaginable, harmony.  Of course, all the suburban cities are working overtime to form their own school systems.   A courageous Federal judge, Hardy Mays may not let them.  Probably not all the suburbs can afford their own system, even if the judge allows their formation.  All kind of lawsuits are percolating but so also is a really deep community discussion, encouraged by the cooperation of the County and City Mayors (actually better than one big government, IMHO).  The Tennessee legislature, which is quickly overtaking AL and SC for worst in SE, did everything possible to light and then pour gas on the fire.  School consolidation/reform in Memphis is definitely a work in progress; its outcome is totally uncertain; it is a huge political and social adventure; and a credit to metro area based on risk-taking in the context of deep community ties.  Memphis is worth a look. 

    1. John, I am so glad you have joined our conversation. I wish everyone would read your post. Memphis may be a work in progress–but your community appears to be heavily engaged. We in Birmingham need to engage in a healthy discussion of how we can improve our situation. We miss your enthusiasm for Birmingham. When you come back, we’ll show you the progress we’ve made.

  8. David, I respect where you’re coming from with this but you’re way off the mark in blaming “everybody else” in the suburbs.

    The real reason Birmingham and our school system are in turmoil is because most of the people in the room or their parents (including me) abandoned our City.

    I bet that less than 20% of the people at that meeting live in the City of Birmingham and 0% has children in the school system.

    A respected leader and friend recently told me he couldn’t understand why many of the parents in the Birmingham schools weren’t supporting our business community’s efforts to help them.  Why should they?  We yanked our children away and left Birmingham to atrophy.  Now we’re giving them some fleeting attention.

    We’re feeling smug when we created the problem.

    No, “we” didn’t. The problem was created by generations of political leaders in Birmingham who used their positions to engage in systemic patronage. You have mayors and councilors and state representatives and senators who have stuffed the leadership with do-nothing jobs, and have frittered away resources. This has been done both inside and outside the school system. Want to change things from within? Good luck, you’re facing a crushing machine, and army of people who are keen on the status quo.

    Responsible parents won’t send their children to a system they have zero confidence in, because the Moral Victory they would achieve from “sticking it out” isn’t worth the price. “Sorry, son, that your first year in college was so hard. But stick your chin out and proud that we made a bold statement of confidence in our city schools!”

    Your children, My children — we have a responsibility to give them the best chance. They are not political ornaments from which to make futile statements.

    1. Ed, I agree with a lot in your comments. Things haven’t been so hot, but do we have to assume that we can’t improve our situation? As I said in my blog, I’m not saying that we should combine our schools or send all students to the Birmingham School System. That is not realistic. But we can begin a conversation about what we can do better. And there are plenty of things we can do better.

  9. *David,

    I applaud your direct and honest approach to the heart of one of our City’s gloomiest situations. Birmingham IS a Magic City, with so much to offer. People continuing to commit their time and resources have given us more green space than any other city. People who love the City have made downtown fun, interesting and inviting again. That same spirit and level of commitment to our schools would make all the difference. And you’re right in saying that when traveling outside of the area, we all live in “Birmingham”. We certainly don’t want to be ashamed of that.

      Keep up the great work!

  10. Not all of us abandoned the Birmingham City Schools.  One of my sons went all the way through and graduated with at least one classmate who had a perfect SAT score.  The other son attended through 10th grade before transferring to a private school.  Don’t confuse the dysfunctional school board with instructional quality.  There are some excellent teachers in Birmingham.  The social scene was difficult for white kids like mine, when they were a distinct minority, but I always reminded them there was a time when black kids were the minority and had an even harder time.  I am proud to say that they made many friends of both races and learned to work in a multicultural environment, something many suburban kids do not experience.

  11. David, the vested interests insured that you would get few positive responses to your suggestion of merger or consolidation.  No problem, that “solution” would not work anyway.  We would still have major school problems if all we did was merge or consolidate.

    A different set of vested interests insured that I would get zero responses to my suggestion of 9:38 on the 15th that we actually solve the problem by using vouchers.  Freedom used to be an American concept, but it certainly gets only lip service today.

    Until enough people really want to solve the problem, it will not be solved.

    1. *Durham,
      Freedom and choice are not necessarily the same thing. Freedom doesn’t involve using the force of government to collect taxes and distribute vouchers. In my opinion, freedom of education can’t exist where education, in any form, is compulsory.

      To be sure, vouchers give some measure of choice. However, many advocates for vouchers intend them to be used to fund education at church-affiliated schools. Some church schools provide excellent education. However, I feel that supporting schools, especially religous ones, with vouchers may have negative consequences in the long run in terms of both cost and quality of education, even if the individual parents feel the vouchers are well spent. The present health care system is an example of how involving third-party payer, like insurance companies, can negatively influence the cost of services. One doesn’t have to look far to find religious schools teaching things like young earth creationism. Vouchers may create a marketplace for education, but that market won’t be even close to a free market and there are no guarantees the outcomes of the market will be favorable compared to the present system.

  12. *David: You and John Gemmill, (Hi, John) are right about the redundancy of multiple governments and services.  Florida allows ONE public school system per county.  I loved having an office in Memphis/Shelby County, TN.  Over and over, I see opportunities for the MSA that are not realized because local governments compete with, instead of support each other.  Alabama as a State has been able to attract world class businesses because the economic developers from all counties work together to find the right spot for the business and make them feel welcome.  How much money could the area save for improvement if we worked together instead of against each other?

  13. *Thanks for this effort, David. Due to foreign house guests, just now getting to your mailing . . .

    Thanks to John Gemmill (hi, John!) for the Memphis info. Memphis not the only southern city to consolidate schools. Close to home, look at Montgomery and Mobile. And I just got back from Chattanooga, where there’s one school system and a downtown that looks as vibrant as Bham’s Summit.

    I believe that fundamental to strong community is generous investment in ALL our children. As we’ve said since 1954, “separate is inherently unequal.” Yet don’t expect only the OTM crowd to oppose union. Just as key black legislators a few years ago blocked a true metro area mass transit solution, key AA leaders would fight to keep from giving up Bham schools to white control. Our culture of separation runs wide and deep. 

    Dialogue (or multilogue) is required. Maybe a well-considered panel at a joint Rotary/Kiwanis meeting could help things move a little?

  14. *I’m not that hopeful about Birmingham. I think we will bumble along, neither getting much better or much worse. In the 1920s, someone wrote an article about Birmingham entitled “City of Perpetual Promise.” That’s the problem: Birmingham is always promising and never delivering.

    1. Barry, thank you so much for your thoughts. I certainly understand how you feel. However just because we failed in the past doesn’t mean we have to fail in the future. I hope you’re not suggesting we just give up? That’s what this blog is all about. There’s a whole new generation of young people–both black & white–who want to see a better Birmingham. Let’s begin a discussion on how to improve our local/state government structure so that one day we will have a chance. Please continue to comment and participate.

  15. *I am a resident of Birmingham City, and I have made the bold choice to send my children to BCS rather than move to Mountain Brook or Homewood.  Your words are powerful, and from the comments there are many who agree that the flight from B’ham did help to create the problems we have now.  But until those who have moved out are willing to move back in (regardless of age) this problem will continue.

  16. David:
    (1) Home run.
    (2) More later.
    (3)  I do favor one school district-Jefferson County School District.
     (4) We need to merge these 12 or 13 schools districts into one school district.
    (5) The over the mountain cities  would never allow the atrophy as you say to happen if we had ONE educational system for  all of our children in this county.
    (6) You can move,but you cannot hide the facts we are do live in a very beautiful area with very generous people.  
    (7) Until all stakeholders make children a priority we will not compete with those southern cities you cite.   

    Peace,George Munchus  

  17. Cynicism is a strange beast. 

    I kept rereading your opening lines, MY and I were the two biggest things that stuck out. 

    I grew up in this city, I was certainly rich by any stretch of the imagination and I am old enough to have ridden the bus downtown with my grandmother to shop for Christmas gifts. 

    What strikes me the most is this…you are no longer a parent of school aged children. They were safely ensconced in 99.9% white schools, they are some of the highest rated schools, and you neither shopped, enjoyed, or probably had any experience riding a bus downtown. 

    Now you come out and try and champion a city that you have only enjoyed via your furniture, turned collection business and profited handsomely for selling overpriced furniture to people that could never in their best of times afford the interest rates you charged.

    I find your rah rah attitude just as sickening. Honestly this is all about the money for you. Do us all a favor, have some more kids, raise them in the city schools, downtown, and deal with all real life problems that this city has and continues to be plagued with and then get back to us when you have real solutions versus a bunch of stuffy white guys that see it as their next great money making idea.  

    1. Joe, I turn 69 years old this weekend. I find that growing older gives one a perspective on life one can’t possibly have at a younger age. You obviously know some things about me and some things you don’t. For instance, as a child I rode the bus downtown every weekend. However when I was a child, the blacks rode in the back.

      Our Birmingham region has not progressed like our Southern peer cities. When I was young we were the same size as Atlanta and certainly larger than Nashville, Charlotte, Jacksonville, Tampa, etc. Birmingham’s undoing was the separation of cities from its core. I’m not judging families who left or I would have to condemn my own. I’m just saying that was the beginning of our region’s lack of progress.

      The purpose of this blog is to begin a conversation on how we might restructure our government so that we can encourage companies to locate here, create jobs, and improve our standard of living.

      But based on responses I have received since I began publishing this blog there is a lot of black vs. white; rich vs. poor; urban vs. suburban. And each group thinks the other group is at fault. Some whites think all blacks are crooked & lazy. Some blacks feel that whites are greedy and selfish.

      The purpose of this particular post was to give some conscience to the white community. I hope every group will share some of the blame so we can begin to talk.

      I have written 43 posts to date–please don’t judge me on any one of them. I will continue to write each week–hoping to create comments and conversations like the one you wrote today.

      Obviously I hate that you attacked me personally, but I will not hide your posts. I can tell from your writing that you are a life-long Birmingham resident, care about your family and community and are well educated. It might be fairer if you didn’t hide behind your anonymity, but that is your prerogative.

      Please continue to be a part of our conversation. You obviously have a perspective on our region’s history that would be helpful for others to hear.

  18. David, 

    This was not an attack. My family was dirt poor and we fell for the furniture deal and to this day this is one of my mom’s worst memories of the calls she would receive from you. She has struggled and being a single mom in the south and with three kids she was behind the eight ball. 

    I grew up in a household that in 1965 invited black Episcopalians into their home in Montgomery of all places with the attitude of “what is wrong with that”.So…your bus rides were a mere field trip.

    I do question your motives on this. Legacy perhaps…Mt. Brook et al has lost the banking community, John Harbert is long gone…is this more for you to assuage your white guilt, because trust me, I go to Advent with some of the oldest moneyed families and though I will never dance in BCC…or drink 25 year old scotch at the bar…you championing of this cause reeks of a BIG money grab…why is some 69 year old white guy giving two craps about what happens in a city you have neither experienced in the gutters with or had to deal with in a real world environment.


    1. Joe, I understand your skepticism but I know of no way to prove my sincerity.

      I am truly sorry about your unfortunate furniture experience. However, I know of no no way to rectify it now.

      It’s okay if y0u want to classify my intentions as “guilt.” I would like to think that as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become a bit wiser.

      I also can’t control that I wasn’t born poor. But I hope that doesn’t mean that I can’t be sensitive to others.

      All I’m asking is that you give me a chance. I know we both want the best for our families and community.

      Again, please feel free to comment as you wish.

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