By Carl Carter, APR
When the Birmingham suburb of Hoover formed its own school system in the late 1980s, the city immediately faced a problem that threatened the system’s very existence: The school facilities inherited from Jefferson County were old, run down and only had room for less than half the students we had to serve.
We needed money — a lot of it. We had a vote coming up in just a few weeks on a tax referendum for 17 mills to build new schools. If it had failed, there would have been no money to build Hoover High School or Spain Park High School, among others. Today, they’re two of Alabama’s biggest high schools, but few remember how close they came to not existing at all.
The city was at war. The new superintendent hired by the system had managed to get on the wrong side of the mayor and several city council members. The mayor and council remained on the sidelines, unwilling to openly support the tax. One councilman in particular kept introducing resolutions to dissolve the system and ask Jefferson County to take the city back in. He and others were closely allied with a local printer, who churned out flyers opposing the effort.
There were charges that the school system had spent too much money on rented offices, cell phones and staff. School board members were unresponsive to the council. Tempers were running high.
Meanwhile, the clock was ticking, and the vote was looming. From all appearances, the tax was dead in the water. We had commissioned a poll a few weeks earlier, and we were seven points down. An out-of-town consultant told us it was hopeless. An advisory referendum just a few months earlier had failed by a few votes, and that one didn’t even involve a tax.
It’s worth noting that in those days, people over 65 still paid property taxes, and they were actively campaigning against the tax — and the school system. Supporters had been quoting statistics that showed how badly we needed more space, but the message wasn’t sticking.
There’s never money for ongoing polls in local elections, so we were flying blind, but it was clear the school tax was in trouble. A massive gamble on a different strategy was our only hope.
The loose-knit committee working for the tax made a critical decision: We called a unilateral cease fire in the war with the council. We ignored the charges of overspending and poor management and streamlined our message to one word: Overcrowding.
When a councilman called for the school system to be dissolved, our answer was “overcrowding.” We refused to re-litigate the creation of the school system. We let accusations go unanswered.
Instead, we started telling stories.
We took pictures of kids who were meeting in hallways, stringing crayon pictures on strings between hat racks to form something that at least felt like a wall. We set up interviews with a chemistry teacher who was working out of a closet and rolling her equipment from room to room, because the old Berry High School had no space for a chemistry classroom.
We escorted reporters in to see for themselves. We blanketed the neighborhoods with flyers that showed leaky roofs. We called radio talk shows. We told overcrowding stories to everybody who would listen.
Then election day came, and school buses loaded with senior citizens began showing up at the polling places. (Who authorized the use of city school buses for this anyway?) At one point, I stood in the parking lot of my polling place and very nearly vomited as the demographics scared me to death. My kids were four and six, and we’d just bought a house. Now what?
All we could do was hope the stories had worked and reached enough people. There were a few hopeful signs. The mayor and council members who had been tepid in their support had started saying the right things as we shifted the conversation from politics to overcrowding.
As the polls closed, we gathered at the school board offices for what we hoped would be a celebration. I forget exactly how close it was, but the kids won by a whisker. We would have money to build Hoover High and a new middle school, while expanding and renovating most of the others.
As we were waiting for results, campaign chairman Jim Hopes asked me to write a victory speech for him. It was the shortest speech I ever wrote. The room was full of TV cameras and reporters, and Jim walked out and delivered the message:
“The winners tonight are all the people of Hoover, and especially the children.”
Jim and his family moved away, and we lost touch, but my wife and I saw them a few years later in the Uno Pizza restaurant in Orlando. We left the kids to themselves and got a booth for some adult conversation. Hoover High and a middle school had been built, and Spain Park was in the planning stages. We speculated on what Hoover would look like without the new schools.
We remembered how hard it was to convince people that we had to quit fighting and start telling stories. Some had even refused to help us, thinking we had gone crazy or soft. After a while, the conversation fell silent; there was little else to say. We’d moved on.
The kids had won, and not much else mattered.