Updated: Mar 3
By Heather Morgan, Co-founder
This is the second part in a blog series about the rezoning ordinances that were passed at the last city council meeting. As part of our efforts to encourage more participation in local government, I Vote Madison is learning more about the issues that are important to residents and providing information and resources to the community. I Vote Madison neither supported nor opposed the rezoning ordinances that were voted on and passed at the city council meeting on December 28th, 2020.
Video of the superintendent's remarks at the city council meeting:
Dr. Ed Nichols, superintendent of Madison City Schools, addressed council and the mayor during the public comment portion of the meeting on December 28th regarding city growth and its relation to the school system. His remarks, along with the questions to him from council members that followed, provide insight and understanding as to why many in the community opposed the rezoning and why three council members voted against it.
I am not against growth. I would say I like growth. I think that everybody I’ve talked with in this community understands that you want to grow. The question is, how do we?
-Dr. Ed Nichols
Maintaining the high quality of our schools, particularly as it relates to overcrowding, was one of the foremost concerns expressed by residents and council members who were opposed to the rezoning ordinances that would have allowed three new developments in Madison. Echoing what we've heard residents and council members say, Dr. Nichols said, "I am not against growth. I would say I like growth. I think that everybody I've talked with in this community understands that you want to grow. The question is, how do we?"
I remind too that Triana’s residential growth is not regulated, is increasing dramatically, and is defeating our growth policy goals. We must consider that enormous influx when making our own decisions.
Mike Sheehy, Resident
With so much emphasis on our schools in relation to city growth and development, many had been wondering where the schools were in the discussion. For example, why they were not at city council meetings. The mayor and the council president spoke of this publicly during the city council meeting on December 14th after council members expressed conflicting understandings of how these new developments would impact the schools. YouTube video [00:20:38]
...I came tonight because I heard I was missed. People were missing me. Wanted to hear from me.
Dr. Ed Nichols
At least one resident reached out to Dr. Nichols after that meeting for input and clarification, while another responded to the mayor and the council president during the meeting. LeAnne McGee, a Madison resident who has children in Madison schools, spoke up and agreed that the school district needed to be heard on this issue, but she also mentioned not burdening them with it right now. "We shouldn't be making any decisions that deal with burdening our schools more, and then saying that they're not here to speak up during a pandemic,” stated McGee, who went on to say, “We all want the same things. We all want our schools and city to thrive, but we have to work together and remember that we're in a pandemic." A video of Mrs. McGee's address to council at the December 14th meeting can be viewed here.
We shouldn't be making any decisions that deal with burdening our schools more and then saying that they're not here to speak up during a pandemic.
-LeAnne McGee, resident
After mentioning what a challenging year it has been, especially for the teachers, Dr. Nichols said, “...I came tonight because I heard I was missed. People were missing me. Wanted to hear from me.” He stated that it was not his job to make decisions about residential growth but to educate the children of our community. He explained that there are currently more than 500 students in Triana, but that there will be 1,000 students when the growth according to their city plan is complete. Resident Mike Sheehy has brought up at council meetings how Triana's growth affects Madison's schools, saying "I remind too that Triana’s residential growth is not regulated, is increasing dramatically, and is defeating our growth policy goals. We must consider that enormous influx when making our own decisions." You may view Mr. Sheehy's comments here. Dr. Nichols addressed Triana as well:
Everyone wants to talk about the schools, and I'm glad. We're proud of them. All in this room should be proud of them. All of you played a part in them. I'm not here to tell you tonight how to vote on residential. I checked over the mission statement of the Madison City Schools and nowhere in there did it say the superintendent was part of making that decision. What I am in charge of is educating the children in this community. We’re charged with that and also children in Triana. You know we talk about growth in Madison, but as a school system we represent Triana as well.
-Dr. Ed Nichols
The plan that the school district has now related to residential growth does not include the two new developments that the rezoning ordinances allow. Dr. Nichols expressed his trust in the city council members to make decisions related to city growth, but he asked them how many rooftops he can expect so the schools can plan for it:
“January of this year, the district will start its new comprehensive strategic planning process. All the stakeholders in our community, emails, questionnaires, we’ll have about a 40 member committee made of citizens and school folks to develop that plan. Inside that plan, we need to know what your plan is. How many more rooftops can we expect in the next 5-10 years?”
Dr. Ed Nichols
Councilperson Bartlett, a former president of the Madison City School Board, spoke about the need to provide the school district with that data:
We have to work with Dr. Nichols. He said tonight they are about to engage in a strategic plan in January... They are surveying their parents. We should be doing the same thing, because they cannot possibly plan for the growth of the school system if we can't tell them what we want to look like when we grow up.
Dr. Nichols said that when the growth that has been planned for has been built, there will be about 14,700 students, and that the schools will be crowded:
We are crowded now, but we have two schools on books that’ll be open. But we will be crowded. We will be overcrowded down at the elementary level about 400 students. We have a plan in place to address those 400 students.
Councilperson Connie Spears, a former Madison City School Board member, questioned Dr. Nichols about the plans the school system has for growth at the elementary level. Dr. Nichols explained that there is still room for more students at some elementary schools, and that there are opportunities to add on to some existing schools. Councilperson Spears asked, "Do they give you some funding to expand the cafetorium? "We would have to build for that. They don’t give us funding to expand once we’ve already built," replied Dr. Nichols. The two discussed how too many students would force the school to start serving lunch at 9:45 am. Dr. Nichols said he does not want to have more than 1,000 students in an elementary school, and he mentioned that additional staff salaries must be covered at the local level for the first year, and after that not all positions would be state funded. Dr. Nichols again addressed his desire to have information ahead of rapid growth:
“I don’t want to spend 13-15 million dollars on an addition, and then wake up and need to add an elementary school of a thousand...So, I can’t tell you specifically where we will look at an extension yet, but I can tell you we are looking at that. But I can say that if you build another thousand [homes] in the next seven years, and they [Triana] build another thousand on top of what’s already committed, I’ll need the addition and an elementary school.”
-Dr. Ed Nichols
Councilperson Bartlett discussed the high schools with Dr. Nichols. Citing a growth impact study, she said " I didn’t hear you mention high school tonight, but it sounds like we’ve already approved, according to the information that you have at build out, the maximum that would get us a [population] threshold of possibly needing a third high school." Dr. Nichols then talked about how the rate of students choosing virtual learning due to the pandemic, and who may continue to want that option beyond the pandemic, may mitigate the need for a third high school. He also said they need to look at making sure they maximize the classroom space available in the high schools. Dr. Nichols expressed his hesitation at the idea of a third high school:
I think that we are very blessed in this community to have two outstanding high schools, and I would be fearful if we had a third one what the impact could be on one of those.
Dr. Ed Nichols
The Madison School system is highly valued in the community and has played a big role in growing our city's population. It was announced this week that the U.S. Space Command has chosen Huntsville as it's home base. Managing growth while maintaining the quality of our schools will be an ongoing challenge. Resident Grant Carodine spoke at the Dec 28th meeting after hearing Dr. Nichol's remarks:
I've said at these hearings that I didn't really have a thought about yay or nay on these proposals; however, I didn't see any harm in considering to give it some thought. Dr. Nichols did that for me tonight. Whether this property, or one that we're gonna do after, is included in this new plan or not, the reality of it is that our schools are being impacted...
Grant Carodine, Resident
The residents of Madison have supported our schools well, including Mr. Carodine who acknowledged that he will continue to support the schools even though he does not have children. Madison voters even chose recently to increase their property taxes to provide additional funding to the schools. Mr. Carodine's remarks from the Dec 28th meeting can be viewed here.
Some council members have expressed the need to diversify residential development to reduce the number of families with children. One of the passed ordinances has allowed for a development catering to young professionals without children, while another development is primarily for home owners 55 and older. Councilperson Wrobleski talked at the Dec 28th meeting about how Madison offers amenities, such as green space, that appeal to those who are not utilizing the schools. She pointed out that other council members, including herself, have chosen to remain in Madison even though their children have graduated. You may view Mrs. Wrobleski's comments here [00:24:08].
Madison is continuing to grow, but what direction that growth takes is something the city council and the mayor will have to decide. I Vote Madison hopes that residents will get involved in shaping Madison's future as well by voting in local elections, tuning in to issues and topics of interest in the city, building coalitions with other residents who share their vision for Madison, and getting involved in local government.
Note: If you find that any information published by I Vote Madison is inaccurate, please correct us. We want to empower residents, and one way we can do that is by providing accurate information to the community.