Calera City Council to vote on feasibility study for school district at next session

Published 12:48 pm Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

By DONALD MOTTERN | Staff Writer

CALERA – Tensions were high during a regularly scheduled city council meeting in Calera on the evening of Monday, Nov. 6 that saw an unusually high numbers of residents attend a discussion on Calera’s potential secession from Shelby County Schools.

As a result of the meeting, the Council will vote on whether or not to fund a feasibility study at the next regularly scheduled meeting on Monday, Nov. 20.

At the last council session, and at the request of Calera Parks and Recreation Director Seth Gandy, a committee was formed with the mission to investigate whether or not it would be worthwhile for the city of Calera to leave the Shelby County School System and form an independent system. As a result of this committee’s preliminary findings, a request to fund a feasibility study was set to be brought before Council.

That feasibility study, as currently proposed, would be led by Dr. Ira Harvey. Harvey has an extensive consultancy resume and has performed similar studies for multiple other school systems that have both left and remained with their county school systems in the past.

According to a press release from the city, a feasibility study for a city school system would typically include the following components:

  • Demographic Analysis: An assessment of the current and projected student population to determine potential future needs.
  • Financial Evaluation: An in-depth examination of the financial implications, including budget considerations, funding sources, and cost projections.
  • Infrastructure and Facilities Assessment: An analysis of existing school infrastructure, its condition, and any necessary improvements or new construction.
  • Curriculum and Program Analysis: A study of the curriculum, extracurricular activities, and special programs available to students.
  • Legal and Regulatory Considerations: A review of the legal and regulatory requirements associated with establishing a city school system.

As proposed, the feasibility study requested by the committee would cost the city of Calera $85,000.

“To know what the next step is, we have to have the study done to do that,” Gandy said. “Without it, we’re just spitballing a yes or no.”

Multiple council members expressed concern over the cost of the feasibility study, including Debbie Byers, Kay Turner and Kenny Cost.

Byers, in particular, claimed to have heard from a sizable number of parents in the community and cited that many were not interested in pursuing an independent Calera school system. While she did not rule out her support of a Calera School system down the road, Byers displayed a great deal of concern in paying the requested amount of money to have a feasibility study performed.

“I would much rather take that money, and donate it (straight) to the schools,” Byers said. “At the budget this year, we were not able to give a cash donation other than $6,000 per school. So, I think each school could use that (money) more.”

Councilmember Turner also displayed strong concerns over establishing the city’s own school system and strongly questioned the city’s capabilities in accomplishing a successful transition away from Shelby County Schools.

“We need to take the money we have and support the schools, along with Shelby County,” Turner said. “We need the help of the county.”

Turner also expressed a desire to hear from Dr. Lewis Brooks of Shelby County Schools before she would consider voting to fund a feasibility study. It was a repeated sentiment that many residents in attendance did not agree with and many began to vocally disagree with.

In a heated moment, Councilmember Turner insinuated that Kelly Ellison, Calera’s finance director, had “sandbagged” away funds dedicated to the purpose of funding the study. It was a charge, serious or not, that Ellison and several others in attendance took offense from.

Councilmember Cost also took a similar tone when he questioned the intentions and timing of the interest of potentially founding the school system in relation to the recent passing of the budget. Upon which time, Councilmember Turner doubled down on her previous insinuation.

“I mean, who wouldn’t be suspect about what is going on,” Turner said.

Ellison was adamant regarding the fact that no funds had been hidden in any capacity, and that the money for the study was available through the Capital Projects Fund.

“We’re not hiding funds,” Ellison said. “We could pay for (the study). At the end of the year—I’ve talked to all of you multiple times—when revenue is over expense—we do a transfer to the Capital Projects Fund. At the end of the year, we transferred over $161,000, as that was what remained. There is $161,000 in the capital project fund, and this study—and other studies that we’ve done, we’ve done a salary study, we’ve done a rate study—all of those studies are capital items. They’re assets because they have future value.”

The city has used this fund for such purposes in the past, as stated by Ellison, and is not a novel usage of the fund. Councilmember Cost’s concerns over it not being included in the budget were also conflicted with the fact that in the preceding council meeting, the Council voted in favor of allocating roughly $20,000 in additional funds to the Calera Police Department for its contract with Lexipol. This additional funding was also not in the budget, but was received and passed by the Council with little to no open debate.

“The beauty of the capital projects fund that I really like is when (the Council) approves something as a capital project we physically move the money, so right now there is $9 million sitting in the capital projects fund earning four percent interest,” Ellison said. “We can take that $9 million and tell you what everything is designated to. There is some that is not designated. It is not as (Councilmember Turner said), we are not hiding money. (The Council) gets a financial statement every month, (the money is) there, you can see it. I don’t appreciate being accused of hiding money.”

Councilmember Turner continued to state her lack of support for funding the study.

“We need more information in order to make an informed decision, but I’m not in favor of funding this (study) at this time,” Turner said.

Following this, vocal outbursts in the audience grew to such a degree that Calera Mayor Jon G. Graham opened the floor to public comment.

“I sub at Calera, we are failing our students,” said Jowanda Mark, a Calera resident. “I sub at Montevallo, normally Calera is always better than Montevallo, we were better than most schools around us. (But) right now, we’re not. I’m from Mobile, Chickasaw left Mobile County (Schools) and Saraland left Mobile County (Schools) because they were failing them and that’s the same thing Shelby County is doing to Calera. I’m very passionate about this because I have a grandchild on the way, and if we can’t give him what he needs, we’re going to leave Calera.”

Following Mark’s comments, several residents addressed the Council and each one spoke in favor of the city forming its own school system.

Ellison and members of the committee advocating for the study, further indicated that they believe that Calera can feasibly erect its own school system, and that it can potentially accomplish this without the issuance of additional taxes. However, it is paramount that these are the kind of points that a feasibility study would directly seek to investigate and answer.

“The onset and initial look is that it can be done at this tax rate that we are collecting at this time,” said Graham.

Should Calera establish its own school system, the city would gain control of its schools and all properties thereof, including buses. It would do so at the cost of taking on the current debt of those schools as they stand in Shelby County Schools. At this moment, the amount of that debt is not a known number, and is one factor that would be identified as part of the feasibility study should it be funded by the Council.

Councilmember Morgan, who sits on the committee, cited that the available information was too recent and too little to decide on the matter, “right now.”

This position was taken despite the fact that the committee meeting occurred two weeks ago and multiple other members appeared to have been in consensus that the feasibility study should be recommended.

“I sit on that committee, I’m not against this, I’m just saying right now, let the Council gather the information it needs and then let us make the decision.”

Councilmember Morgan, who at the last council session specifically asked to be a member of the committee, repeatedly stated that he needed more information. However, after multiple prompts from a number of residents asking Morgan to provide examples of information that might be collected between now and the next council meeting that would constitute such information, at no time did he provide any specific examples. Nor did he address a question on what information might come forward that wouldn’t be dependent on the feasibility study.

Despite having access to two booklets of information from Pelham’s leaving of Shelby County Schools, Morgan shared that in the two-week span between the meeting and the council session, he had not yet reviewed them.

“If we vote on this tonight, I will not be in favor of it,” Morgan said. “I’m not saying that we can’t vote on this a couple meetings down the road, if we vote on this tonight, and I hear the comments (in the audience) as well, it will not pass. But, if you allow us the opportunity to gather more information rather than voting it out, that’s what I’m asking. Now, if you want to force it and you want it to be done tonight, we can do it tonight, that’s fine, we can do that.”

After continued discussion between councilmembers and the audience, Morgan issued a motion that the council move the vote on the study until the next regularly scheduled meeting on Monday, Nov. 20 at 6:30 p.m.

The Council also stated, prior to adjourning, that they will intend to hold an in-depth conversation regarding the topic and vote at the work session that will immediately precede that meeting. The work session will begin at 5:45 p.m.

In the spirit of transparency, the City Council will provide a livestream of the meeting on the City of Calera’s YouTube channel.