Hoover will have four new City Council members in November after voters Tuesday chose political newcomer Curt Posey over former Hoover City Councilman Trey Lott in the runoff election for City Council Place 1.
Posey won 2,555 votes, or 77.35 percent of the votes cast in the Oct. 4 runoff. Lott garnered 748 votes, or 22.65 percent.
Alabama’s Largest Cities, By Population
Source: U.S. Census Bureau estimates as of July 2015
The City Council Place 1 runoff wraps up a municipal election in which voters unseated the long-time mayor; elected four new council members; and returned three incumbent council members who faced stiff competition, with one winning by 24 votes.
In the Aug. 23 election, Posey won 41.21 percent of the votes; Lott won 40.59 percent; and incumbent Joe Rives, who was appointed to fill Lott’s seat when Lott moved to Alabaster in 2015, received 18.20 percent.
Many residents, school officials and city leaders say this hard-fought election was a referendum on issues inextricably tied to each other–school funding and growth management. Candidates also said voters were facing the reality that Hoover is Alabama’s sixth-largest city, no longer a typical suburb, and must define its identity going forward.
Hoover is larger, and also has become more diverse. While the city’s population remains mostly white (75.1 percent in the 2010 census, 87.7 percent in the 2000 census), larger percentages in 2010 were black (14.8 percent) and Asian (5.1 percent.) A bigger proportion in the 2010 census (6 percent) identified as Hispanic, which can be any race.
What Brocato Heard
While campaigning, Frank Brocato – a retired Hoover fire marshal who defeated incumbent Mayor Gary Ivey and Hoover City Schools Foundation President Steve McClinton in the mayor’s race – said he heard about issues ranging from union ties and campaign contributions to subdivisions and schools.
“But I really think the school (funding) issue was bigger than anything else in this election,” Brocato said. “That’s because there’s a domino effect. If the schools are doing well, the city does well, property values are good and businesses want to come here.”
The mayor-elect said the concern for the health of the Hoover City Schools system was something he heard from single young professionals and married senior citizens as well as a very vocal contingent of parents with school-age children. “I heard it across the board—not just from families with children,” he said.
That concern is something some Hoover residents have been talking since the Hoover City Council decided to replace the allocation of 16 percent of the city’s sales tax revenues to the schools with a flat annual contribution. Since 2009, the City of Hoover’s contribution to its school system has been $2 million a year.
“When you’re running an operation with a multi-million dollar budget—monthly—a $2 million contribution seems like a disconnect to me,” Hoover City Schools Superintendent Kathy Murphy said. “I say that with all respect but my job is to advocate for the students.”
Murphy said the impact of the city’s decision to reduce its funding to the school system was felt on Sept. 12, when the Hoover Board of Education approved a budget for fiscal year 2017. The 2017 budget projected a deficit of $1.9 million, down from the $10.4 million deficit projected in the 2016 budget. That means the school system had to make cuts across all departments, including eliminating jobs, reducing salaries, shortening contracts and consolidating bus routes, Murphy said.
Running out of School Room?
Bus routes have been a point of contention in Hoover since 2013 when then-Superintendent Andy Craig and the Hoover Board of Education voted to eliminate bus service for most students and later, to charge for bus services. But the bus plans were met with strong objections from parents and questions from the U.S. Department of Justice, and Murphy recommended rescinding the plan shortly after becoming superintendent.
Another question is whether schools have enough space for the city’s children. Hoover City Schools currently has about 13,943 students in 17 schools; Hoover’s Deer Valley Elementary School is at capacity and others are nearing capacity, including Rocky Ridge Elementary School, while Trace Crossings is under-capacity, said Hoover schools spokesperson Jason Gaston in an email.
A rezoning proposal still being considered by federal judge Madeline Haikala is capacity and growth-driven, Gaston said. It also can help Hoover’s school system gain unitary status through the U.S. Department of Justice, which means the system would no longer need federal monitoring for school zoning changes, he said. The Justice Department monitors some school systems’ changes, such as attendance rezoning, to assure those changes don’t result in racial discrimination.
Already, Murphy said, some schools in Hoover are feeling the effects of running out of growing room.
“A good example is the Hoover High School band,” she said. “The band can’t even meet in the same room. If the whole band wants to practice together, everyone has to go outside because the band room is just not big enough for the whole band at once.”
While it’s great that so many students want to be involved in the Hoover High School band, Murphy said the band room issue makes her think about the city’s responsibility to Hoover’s students.
“What are we supposed to say to them? We can’t afford (to build) a band room big enough for all of you who want to play in the high school band?” she said.
The figures on school spending
While Hoover spends more per pupil— $10,732 in 2015—than any of the five other largest cities in the state—that figure was second-lowest among four neighboring Over the Mountain suburbs. Hoover’s spending was fairly close to the $10,513 per pupil Vestavia Hills and the $11,371 Homewood spent in 2015. Spending was highest in Mountain Brook in 2015, at $12,162.
Speaking on spending comparisons with other larger Alabama cities, Gaston said Hoover’s additional revenue pays for, among other things, more teachers, which means smaller classes and more differentiated instruction.
“Parents expect, and rightfully so, for our schools to be safe, clean, efficient, full of quality instruction and to offer unique programs from the arts to athletics,” Gaston said. “Quality schools maintain property values for a city.”
School Spending Per Pupil, Largest Cities
Birmingham City Schools: $9,933
Montgomery County Schools: $8,420
Mobile County Schools: $8,937
Huntsville City Schools: $10,620
Tuscaloosa City Schools: $10,495
Hoover City Schools: $10,732
Source: Alabama State Department of Education as of 2015
School Spending Per Pupil, Over-the-Mountain Cities
Homewood City Schools: $11,371
Hoover City Schools: $10,732
Mountain Brook City Schools: $12,162
Vestavia Hills City Schools: $10,513
Source: Alabama State Department of Education as of 2015
Although he declined to be interviewed for this story, Mayor Gary Ivey, who lost his bid at re-election, said at a forum over the summer that the school system’s reserves mean it’s in “pretty good shape.”
But Murphy said even though it has about $90 million reserves, the school system also has nearly $175 million in debt.
“In this budget alone, $10 million goes to pay our bond obligations, with $7 million of that going to interest and only $3 million actually paying the principal,” Murphy said.
New View from Mayor’s Office
Brocato said he wants to work with Murphy and the community to find a way the city can contribute more money to Hoover City Schools.
“We feel like the city can do better than allocating just 2 percent of its budget to the schools,” he said.
Brocato said the fact that that almost all of the city council races were tight—with the Council Place 6 race decided by just five votes and Council Place 2 decided by 24 votes—shows that Hoover residents are passionate about their school system.
“I think one reason some of the incumbents were able to come back (to the City Council) was their strong stance on better funding our schools,” Brocato said.
At an election forum over the summer, City Council run-off candidate Lott said he thinks there should be a citywide vote on bumping the city’s sales tax up by 1 percentage point. (Repeated attempts to reach Lott for comment for this story were unsuccessful.)
Posey said his research shows that the city has an average of $11 million going into a capital projects fund, some of which is not earmarked for specific projects. The un-earmarked money could be allocated to the schools, he said.
“It would at least help pay down some of the school system’s debt,” Posey said. “But we would still need a long-term solution.”
Murphy said she would welcome more conversations on finding a long-term solution to school funding from the city.
“We’re on the same team. It’s not Us versus Them,” she said. “What’s good for the school district is good for the city.”
Hoover Growth: Too much, too fast?
Runoff contender Posey, a father of two, said it was initially a proposal to redraw school attendance zones to make room for growth that made him take a fresh look at his hometown.
“What I learned is that things in Hoover are not like they were when I was a kid,” he said.
When Posey graduated from Hoover High School in 1995, the population of Hoover was about 53,180. As of July 2015, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates the City of Hoover has 84,848 residents, an increase of about 63 percent over a 20-year period.
“Now we’re the sixth largest city in the state,” Posey said. “And we don’t have a concrete plan in place for growth and development.”
Posey said Hoover residents need to think about how large they want their city to grow.
“We need to ask ourselves if maybe we should slow it down for four or five years instead of adding house after house,” Posey said.
As of Sept. 23 of this year, the city has issued 314 single family home building permits for newly constructed houses. A sample of other election years shows Hoover issued 359 permits in 2012 and 306 in 2008. The city issued 952 single family home building permits in 2004 before the recession took its toll on the housing market. Hoover issued 554 permits in 2000.
Brocato has pledged to take steps toward developing a new Hoover master plan in his first 30 days in office, to help make sure Hoover can provide public safety, fund schools and support infrastructure in the long term. He said he’d oppose doing anything close to issuing a building moratorium.
“There is a need to manage our growth but I have no intention of stifling our growth,” Brocato said.
Posey said he thinks the city has taken a piece-meal approach to growth and just can’t afford to do that anymore.
“For example, look at Ross Bridge. It was designed in 2002 to have a fire station in place when it was built and we finally built that fire station in 2015,” Posey said. “We’re doing it backwards.”
At a forum leading up to the municipal election, Ivey said the city now uses a master plan from 2003 that has never been officially adopted by the City Council.
Campaign Contributions Prompt Questions
Posey said the issue of managing growth and development is also tied to another issue brought up in the 2016 Hoover municipal election.
“You had candidates in this election who received a lot of money from Political Action Committees tied to developers,” Posey said. “It made me question who is really driving all the development in Hoover. Is it our city leaders, who are supposed to represent the residents’ best interests, or is it the developers?”
Campaign finance records filed with the Jefferson County Probate Office show that Ivey collected about $125,000 in cash contributions this year, while Brocato took in about $93,000 in the mayor’s race. Ivey collected $15,000 from the Alabama Builders Political Action Committee, $13,500 from AL Dev PAC, $5,000 from Embassy Homes, $2,500 each from Signature Homes developers Dwight Sandlin and Jonathan Belcher and $1,500 from the Alabama Realtors PAC.
Brocato’s largest contribution was the $13,900 in free services he was given by American Printing. His other major donations included $5,000 from David and Susan Silverstein, Birmingham, and $3,200 in in-kind services from Infomedia, Birmingham.
Brocato also received a $5,000 donation from U.S. Steel but returned it.
Mayoral candidate McClinton received—and kept—a $5,000 donation from U.S. Steel. He collected about $15,000 in cash contributions, with his largest donations coming from a $3,000 self-loan and $1,500 from Birmingham’s Ifediba Law Group.
Big city or suburb?
Posey said the issues brought up in the 2016 Hoover municipal election show the city is having an identity crisis of sorts.
“We’re not the small, little suburb we pretend to be,” he said. “We’re a big city and we have some big city problems that we’re going to have to address.”
Posey said Hoover is often still compared to its immediate neighbors in the Birmingham metro area – like Vestavia Hills or Homewood or Mountain Brook.
According to U.S. Census estimates as of July 2015, the population of Vestavia Hills is 34,018, Homewood’s population is 25,165 and Mountain Brook’s population is 20,691. Hoover’s population is 84,848, behind Birmingham, Montgomery, Mobile, Huntsville and Tuscaloosa.
Hoover is playing in a different league now, Brocato said.
“We’re competing with Nashville and Mobile for national businesses, not smaller suburbs,” he said.
However, the city, which encompasses about 43.65 square miles, doesn’t have much more room to grow, Brocato said. “We have to start looking at redevelopment and revitalization and making sure we can support public safety and schools and all the other things our citizens relate to a superb quality of life.”
That quality of life was what tied all the issues of the 2016 municipal election together in his mind, Brocato said.
“This election was a reminder to me that our citizens love our city, they are involved in it and they appreciate the quality of life that’s provided here,” he said. “They want to continue to make it the best place in Alabama to live.”
In order to do that, Posey said the once-small suburb is going to have to ask itself some big city-sized questions.
“Our city is changing and maybe the needs and wants of the residents are changing and that’s why we need an open line of communication between our city government and our schools and our residents,” he said. “The big question for Hoover is ‘What do we want to be?’”
Keysha Drexel is an award-winning journalist who has reported on community news for more than 20 years. The University of Montevallo graduate worked as a staff writer at The Selma Times-Journal and as a staff writer and editor at The Western Star and The Birmingham News.