Jasper City Council

Bevill, City talk funding to help high school students

College also wants additional $10,000 a year


Bevill State Community College has asked the Jasper City Council to give the college a one-time payment of $100,000 and increase its annual contribution to the college from $50,000 to $60,000. 

The matter is scheduled to be taken up on the council's agenda Tuesday, and was reviewed at Friday's council work session. Council members agreed to introduce it Tuesday as a budget amendment, without action, and then hear more research at the next work session on March 26. 

"This contribution will support the College's plan and commitment to expand dual-enrollment work force and career technical programs for the benefit of Jasper City High School students in preparing them for high wage, high demand careers," Bevill State President Joel Hagood said in a March 2 letter to Mayor David O'Mary, which was released after the work session Friday. 

"We want to assure you that any funds not expended for dual-enrollment workforce training will be used in coordination with the City of Jasper's High School leadership (Principal and Guidance Counselor) to support programs for dual-enrollment academic courses for socio-economically disadvantaged students. The College plans to designate funds for these specific purposes," Hagood wrote. 

At the end of the discussion at the work session, City Attorney Russ Robertson said Bevill officials "are certainly pitching this to the county. There was a meeting last Thursday, and they pitched it at length to the county." He said Bevill officials probably want to make this available throughout their service area, not just in Walker County or Jasper. 

O'Mary kicked off the discussion earlier noting attorney Charles Tatum had made an impassioned plea recently before the council to find ways to improve technical education for local students. 

O'Mary said that Hagood told O'Mary in a recent meeting that the state two-year college system is "really ramping up on technical education, and that's a good thing in my opinion." The college has reached agreement with Jasper High School, part of the city school system, to provide dual enrollment to Jasper students involving technical education courses. 

Hagood told O'Mary that a tuition has to be paid for those technical courses, but that the college probably has enough money to give scholarships to everyone who would participate. 

"The reason they ask for a one-time gift of $100,000 is they want to build a reserve, if they fell into proration, so they could pay the tuition for the young folks who want to go into those programs," O'Mary said. 

He said dual enrollment would mean local students would simultaneously earn high school and college credit toward a degree in applied science. 

"They could walk away from our high school with almost enough credit for an applied science degree, and have a high school diploma as well. I think it is a great step in the right direction for technical education," he said. "I think you will see Bevill State going into the Walker County facility and upgrade that and raise it to their standards, which benefits our young folks." 

By making the one-time contribution, the annual contribution would only go up by $10,000, he said, adding the contribution is not "a bailout" of the college. 

He said it was also not tied to the city's negotiations with Bevill State concerning city acquisition and demolition of the men's dorms next to Gamble Park - which now appears to be in trouble over concerns about requirements the land never be used for any residential property. O'Mary indicates he wants free and clear use to the title, without the restriction. 

District 4 Councilwoman Jennifer Williams Smith said the American Rescue Plan Act - the new coronavirus relief bill signed by President Biden Thursday - has provisions for schools, and suggested the $100,000 might come out of that. O'Mary said he made a "quick read" on that section. 

"I don't think there is a drop dead date on this," although Hagood would like to know in forming plans for the next year, O'Mary said. 

O'Mary said the $50,000 has gone toward the Jumpstart program, which O'Mary said students get involved with for a year after they graduate from the high school. The new overall proposal allows students to have a chance to get ahead starting in the 10th grade, with the chance of a scholarship. 

He also clarified the additional $10,000 would not go to Jumpstart but into a "technical education pool." The Jumpstart funding would continue. 

District 3 Councilman Gary Cowen said the city used to give $100,000 before the 2008 recession, which created financial problems, forcing the council to cut it to $50,000, with the thought the city might could go back to $100,000. Officials did it at that time as the city had met a 10-year requirement. 

Cowen said  adopting the proposal would address the need for trained technical workers. The mayor said it would be a "big selling point" to industry. 

District 5 Councilman Willie Moore, who is on the city school board, asked if the money would also be used for dual enrollment for the county students. O'Mary said the city's contribution would just be for city students. 

After Council President Danny Gambrill, who represents District 2, asked if the local Jumpstart program is countywide, Cowen said he understands "city first, and then county," later explaining that there has usually been leftover funds for county students. Moore said that is what he understood, and suggested doing research to see how many Jasper students are taking advantage of the program. 

Gambrill backed helping technical education, but said he was "like Willie, to the extent that if our Jasper City (Board of Education) is looking at this amount of money, then our students should have a priority over - and I'm not trying to take anything away from anybody." He later said he didn't mean to "sound selfish," but he said he wanted Jasper students taken care of, noting the proposal would bring the type of outcome the city is looking for. 

O'Mary said, "The college would run it, but it would tie into our Jasper city students." 

District 1 Councilman Jed Daniel said only a few technical programs are offered at the high school, including culinary arts. "If it were not for the county, the city kids would not have any - correct me if I'm wrong, the city students wouldn't have any chance of doing any kind of technical education. Am I right or wrong?"

Daniel later said the contribution should be $150,000, and then the college should be given $20,000 a year, again repeating that city students would not have a chance for technical education in most programs without the county system. 

Moore said, "If we're going to have to pay, maybe the other little towns and cities ought to be asked to give. They can't give what we give, but they can contribute ... Everybody can contribute. It is for everybody's students. It is for everybody's benefit. That's the way I feel." 

O'Mary said the funds could "sit dormant for years" as the college has enough now for scholarships. 

"This is a rainy day fund if you have problems financially, and he has to reach into the pot. He wouldn't have to start drawing out of this fund on Day 1. He said, 'We've got enough money now. But if we did have proration, we would have something where we could bridge the gap,'" he said.