For about a hundred days, I've been watching a unique event in my home region of Bama unfold....with the Huntsville school system. It's a story which has a number of twists and turns.
Roughly four years ago....folks kinda woke up and realized that the Huntsville city school system had massive issues. They had debt of roughly twenty million.....several schools on the 'failure' list...the new outstanding and dynamic director that they'd brought in was going nowhere in anticipated changes. So a decision was made....cut the dynamic director and bring in someone of a totally different mentality. The result? Casey Wardynski.....a retired Army officer.
Wardynski would admit to anyone who asked....he's not a PTA-type of guy, nor a real education PhD type, nor affiliated with any of a dozen educational organizations in the US. He's a guy that you'd turn to for a vision, and then take that vision to reality. Huntsville schools.....were in a desperate situation and needed some blunt military-style leadership.
What Wardynski found were a couple of schools in bad repair.....good teachers that were rotating into the bad schools and leaving within a year or two.....and bad attitudes across the spectrum with students from failing schools.
Wardynski worked through the county commission and the city....getting funding, and is building new schools. Wardynski worked up a new pattern for hiring teachers.....he intends to only hire competent people, and will let incompetent teachers leave as soon as possible. Then he got around to the issue which got people upset.....with new schools....the redistricting of the education districts came up.
In Huntsville, since the mid-1960s....desegregation has been a big topic. The lines of the city have been drawn around that era, with politics and education going hand in hand. Advancement over forty years? Some will say absolutely nothing has changed, but they can't rightly put their finger on the culprit or logic of that talk. Some will say the city is totally different than in 1965....but then admit there are issues a historical nature on the table.
So the facts on the table.
There is a north Huntsville and a south Huntsville.....just like in 1965. North Huntsville is mostly black in nature and the neighborhoods are in decline. South Huntsville is mostly white in nature and there's a fair argument that some areas are in marginal decline and some surging ahead. The population of the city? In 1965, it was approximately 80,000....today, it's close 185,000 (within the city limits). Approximately thirty percent of the city is black....two percent Asian....two percent Latino....and the rest white.
When the federal government stepped in and drove home the desegregation plan.....they had a fairly good idea of demographics, the layout, and big picture. No one argues about the 1965 situation or the layout.
An interesting thing started to occur in Huntsville by the late 60's....the city had some master plan and had started to put pieces of it into place.
An international airport appeared in late 1967....to be the third largest in the state. With ample room around the intended area....six thousand acres....it grew. There's two runways today....one is twelve thousand feet long, and the other ten thousand feet long. They can handle any aircraft on the face of the Earth.
The city and county went through various planning stages to get I-565 built....the connection to I-65 which takes a vast amount of daily traffic around the southern side of Huntsville....to various industrial parks....where tens of thousands of high tech workers operate. Started in 1987....it would wrap up in 1991. It is the life-line of Huntsville and what drives the urban growth of the city.
In the mid-1960s.....the only two things bringing in jobs to the city....was the space center and the Arsenal. High tech development was the angle of the city planners, and a guy would be shocked at the number of companies, the scale of pay, and the amount of tax revenue brought into the state, the region, and the city. Dozens of companies reside in the city today....because of the cost of living, ample qualified technicians living there, and a infrastructure that works in a fantastic way. The guys from World of Warcraft? In the last year or two....they even made the decision to move into Huntsville.
All of this added up to a change....which some residents of Huntsville today....have not recognized.
The high tech guys? The first and second generation guys might have moved into south Huntsville, but as I-565 finished....the whole game changed. Suddenly, a guy with a fair paycheck could live beyond Huntsville, or it's nearby region.
So grew Madison, at 4,000 residents in 1980....it now bumps against 42,000 and will likely hit 55,000 by 2020.
So grew Decatur, at 28,000 residents in 1960....it now has around 55,000.
So grew Athens, at 9,000 residents in 1960....it now has around 22,000.
Scottsboro? Around 5,200 of it's residents commute and most drive daily to Huntsville. The new school? A magnet of sorts for real estate development.
Guys branched out and bought small farm properties across the Tennessee Valley, and make the one-long drive each day. You can drive all the way into Rogersville now....an hour-long commute, where the new residents helped turn the dry-status of the city to 'wet'. An engineer can now drive home from Huntsville....to his farm....put on a pair of coveralls....get down into some field and take his border collie to hustle up twenty head of cattle....while acting as a high-tech guy, an technology engineer, and an expert on twenty-two versions of cattle ailments.
Across the border? With the I-565 situation....you could live in Tennessee and commute each day.
A couple of things naturally happened. Folks tend to work in Huntsville, but they don't necessarily live in the city limits. It's good for the valley, but this really changes the dynamics of the population. North and South Huntsville still exist....in some racial divide....but the south part of town is turn older and grayer. The malls, hospitals and urban attractions may be within the city limits....but jobs tend to belong to folks who drive into the city. Growth of malls and hospitals way beyond the city limits? Absolutely.
The job status of north Huntsville? If you didn't get into an educational mentality and do something....you graduated and ended up as clerks at Wal-Mart, restaurant help, or got into service-sector situations. The great boost up by the desegregation episode? Well....in effect....some will say that they are waiting. The boost is in some long tunnel and folks are still waiting for the effect.
Chaos while waiting? In 2009, when the school business came up and schools were identified as failing.....a shocking number came out. The city school system was spending $2 on each failing school....while they spent $1 on each successful school. You can game the system a dozen different ways, but to say throwing money into a big pit and expecting a successful 'flip' makes sense? No....the Huntsville crowd figured that game out finally.
Adding to the mess was the continued growth of private schools, and home schooling. If you couldn't agree to the city school system method of operation.....you had options.
So, here's the tirade going on. The city education crowd says that the lines of school districts need to change because Huntsville isn't what it was in 1965. The events have changed, and there's this potential....if they don't start to fix issues....that in fifty years...most of the higher-tax paying residents may have packed up and vacated the city. Then what?
If you drive around the surrounding areas of Huntsville....going ten, twenty and forty miles away....there's new school infrastructures being built. New and nicer schools attract people. Successful school programs attract people. The folks in Athens, Madison, and such....they got smart. Real estate values are creeping up, and successful school districts matter.
Over the past month, there's been disagreements from the city council members of Huntsville over the whole matter. Some want funding withheld from the school system....to force them into cooperating and going along the old school district lines. I'd used an old Air Force term....keep things COPASETIC...meaning that you just don't change nothing, and keep smiling along the same old story.
The general problem with the copasetic mentality....you are making yourself believe that successful people still live in Huntsville....while the population continues a trend beyond the city limits. You deceive yourself into thinking that a certain political affiliation still resides in the city and controls it's destiny by casting imaginary votes every four years. You have a fantasy of a town where people still believe some mythical change will come one day....if you wait long enough and just keep praying. You fabricate a city plan that revolves around false numbers, false reality, and false outcomes.
Some people want to slant the story and say it's north Huntsville versus south Huntsville. That story worked forty years ago. Now? It's about an attitude problem. Reality has finally come, and it's old Huntsville versus new Huntsville. If the federal government and court system step into this....we move onto what I'd call desegregation version 2.0 and will simply watch an acceleration of non-Huntsville folks working in the city.....but living way beyond the city limits.
The failure of Birmingham? It runs along the same path.....the vast number of people who work in Birmingham today....don't live in the city OR the county. Yanking tax revenue from these people to pay for Birmingham infrastructure.....has yet to happen (state law strangely prevents out-of-city or out-of-county taxation on folks who folks who drive into your area to work, and leave at the end of the day). Birmingham, for all practical matters....is a dead zone. No one wants to live there. They just drive in....work....and leave. You don't even pull off to fill up with gas, unless it's an emergency.
In fifty to seventy years.....Huntsville could be another Birmingham. I doubt if anyone really desires that.