Parks and rec director brings up potential city school system at Calera City Council meeting

Published 5:57 pm Wednesday, October 18, 2023

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By DONALD MOTTERN | Staff Writer

CALERA – At the close of a regularly scheduled City Council meeting on Monday, Oct. 16, Calera Parks and Recreation Director Seth Gandy spoke to the Council about the city’s schools and discussed a number of issues he has heard from local residents.

Those issues revolved around the performance of schools in Calera, the desirability and rankings of the city’s schools and how the city can better appeal to new families and retain the ones it currently has.

“One of the benefits of us being with Parks (and Recreation) is that we get to—on a daily basis—engage with our community, our kids, our families and things of that nature,” Gandy said. “Over the past five or six years, we’ve had some families really come up to us and just ask us questions that mainly have to deal with Calera going to a city school system—starting its own school system.”

Gandy said that suggestions that Calera form its own independent school system have increased significantly in the past year. In addition, Gandy discussed a downward trend in the performance and ranking of schools in the city.

“The trend right now in our schools is that in the elementary school we are doing fantastic as far as the number of kids coming in,” Gandy said. “We have young families moving in and all of that is great. With intermediate, it’s the same thing. By the time we get to the middle school, we start losing some families and by the time we get to high school the numbers increase dramatically.”

Gandy cited two recent rankings released by Niche and U.S. News and World Report that related to the performance of Calera’s schools and compared them to both state and county classifications.

Gandy read that according to Niche rankings, Calera Elementary School was ranked 38th out of 721 in the state, and fourth out of 22 in the county. Calera Intermediate School dropped in relation to be 253rd out of 721 in the state, and 21st out of 22 in the county. Calera Middle School continued the downward trend as it placed 162nd out of 390 in Alabama, and ninth out of 12 in Shelby County. In finishing, Calera High School also rounded lower at 158th out of 369 in the state, and eighth out of 11 in the county.

The U.S. News and World Report rankings that Gandy cited next dealt with data reflecting college readiness, college level curriculum, state assessment proficiency and performance and graduation rates.

According to Gandy, in 2014, Calera High School was ranked as the 15th best high school in Alabama. Measured on those same metrics, Calera was ranked in 187th place this year, well and far behind most other surrounding schools.

Gandy cited rankings such as this as one of the reasons families may be electing to move to other surrounding municipalities as their children move forward in education.

“These are the types of families you don’t want to lose that we’re losing,” Gandy said. “We get the opportunity to talk to people and when I hear that a family is going to leave, I typically pick up the phone and call them. I ask them about the reasons that they are thinking about leaving. (One of the reasons is) the instability of leadership within our schools, what we’re talking about there is (staff) coming and going. ”

Gandy believes that this has resulted in an appearance of instability to the community. He also went on to cite that, over the past decade, Calera High School has had five different softball coaches, four different soccer coaches, three volleyball coaches, six cheer coaches and five football coaches.

“We have a lot of turnover,” Gandy said. “It’s the same thing with our teachers. The issue is that right now Calera is a stepping stone. What I’m hearing from citizens is that they would like for us to be the final place where people come to have a career, and not have people come here just to leave.”

Other reasons cited by the citizens included a belief that Calera might lack various programs and opportunities when compared to surrounding school systems. According to Gandy, this includes the management of better sports programs and better stability within the coaching staff.

Gandy suggested that a possible solution to the downward trends and turnover might be found in Calera starting its own school system. He also indicated that it would serve to greatly improve and lead to the development of school pride, community involvement and community togetherness.

Gandy was also firm in his appreciation to Shelby County Schools and Superintendent Dr. Lewis Brooks and stated his belief that the current school system does the best that they can when faced with the distribution and allotment of funds within the county. At no point was Gandy critical of the current school system’s administration.

“It’s a very difficult job, and I would not want that job at all,” Gandy said. “We certainly appreciate everything they’ve done for us. But what this would do is instead of our money going to—let’s just say (for example)— Vincent, Montevallo or somewhere else, it keeps our money here for our children, for our kids.”

Gandy suggested that for that reason, and others, the city may want to entertain the notion of starting its own school system and cited several positives that he has found while researching the topic.

“One is economic development, if you’ve seen any city that has established its own school system they’ve had great economic development within it,” Gandy said. “The allotted money for education would now stay here with our school as opposed to being distributed out to the county. The numbers have also shown that it allows for more stability within the school system for administration, teachers and coaches.”

In the closing of his remarks, Gandy openly asked the Council for permission to organize a committee that would serve in a fact-finding mission.

“I would like to request permission to form a committee,” Gandy said. “What we’ll do is just go find information—research about city schools, what’s entailed in it, what would it entail in looking into it, what would the costs be. Then, essentially, once (the committee) finds all of that, we can bring that back to the Council and (the Council) can make the decision to what (Calera) wants to do.”

Gandy also said that he had several in mind for those he would like to recruit for the committee, but no official list of suggestions was presented or settled upon.

Overall, the Council appeared open and accepting toward the organization of the committee and its role of investigating the idea. Councilmember Calvin Morgan requested that he be placed on such a committee, a request that Mayor Jon Graham was quick to endorse.

“I know that I’ve heard different people over my tenure here that have asked when is Calera doing what Pelham and Alabaster did,” Graham said. “They’ve asked me numerous times. I would be in favor of getting the committee together and doing some fact seeking.”