What do Birmingham Voters Want?

Birmingham voters go to the polls Tuesday, August 27th, to pick a mayor, city council and school board members. The election comes at a time when the city is garnering positive headlines for a new downtown baseball stadium and entertainment district. But Birmingham’s schools also face the threat of losing accreditation due to a dysfunctional board. Those issues and many others were on the minds of voters at a recent candidates form at Girls Inc.

Helen Davis has been coming to these kinds of events for years. The 79-year-old Woodlawn resident may be slow to move physically, but she’s quick to talk about what she expects from candidates.

“I want definitely long, lasting stuff that is going to educate and produce long-term leadership," Davis said.

Education is her top priority. Davis says it’s sad the state had to take over the Birmingham City Schools after infighting among board members. Every one of the half dozen voters interviewed here mention education first, including East Lake resident LaTasha Toney.

“I’m in my 20s. I want to know these people are going to do to try and help our young people get a quality education in Birmingham, so that parents are not required to take their children to different areas like, you know, private schools, over the mountain," said Toney.

Toney says she’s a social worker and its popular among students to drop out or get pregnant. Apart from the schools, she says the new downtown baseball stadium is nice, but her car is getting torn up when she drives to work.

“What about the roads? What about these old houses? What about the areas where if it rains too much, they’re flooded?” Toney said.

Besides the mayor’s race, voters hear from city council and school board candidates in districts two through five which covers roughly downtown and neighborhoods to the east.

Mayor and city council candidates field questions about friction between the city council and mayor, a planned renovation of Interstate 20/59 through downtown and a land bank, which is a new proposal to deal with abandoned property. School board candidates are asked about negative perceptions of Birmingham City Schools, the potential loss of accreditation and tension between the superintendent and the board.

Dave Barnhart moved to Crestwood from Homewood a year ago.

“I’ve heard a lot of people be very cynical about Birmingham politics. I was impressed. There’s some really good candidates.”

Barnhart says Birmingham is riding a wave right now, but the momentum could easily sputter out. He’s looking for leaders with vision who are trustworthy and willing to work with others.

Forum Moderator Myeisha Hutchinson is president of the Oak Ridge Park Neighborhood Association. She says she’s surprised crime and jobs didn’t garner more attention. She says a few people mentioned an ongoing train issue in Collegeville. Standing trains can box-in residents or make it difficult for emergency vehicles to access the area.

Hutchinson says she feels tension right now about Birmingham’s progress. She sees blight in her neighborhood, but she also loves the new downtown entertainment district.

“I’m not the only person in this city, the young professional that’s looking for a nightlife and things to do," Hutchinson explains. "There are people who are raising families and they want safe, livable communities that look good, with good property values with good school systems. It has to be a combination. It can’t be one or the other.”

Figuring out that combination is that’s up to the winners of next Tuesday’s election.

~Andrew Yeager, August 20, 2013

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