2014 Ballot Statements from the Fair Ballot Commission

by Bill Poole

Below is the ballot language as drafted by the Fair Ballot Commission related to the five constitutional amendments that will appear on the November ballot for a statewide vote. Please be sure to vote! Read the rest of this entry »

UAB ranked one of nation’s Top Up-and-Coming Universities

by admin

The University of Alabama at Birmingham continues to boost its reputation after recently making a list of top up-and-coming national universities.

UAB finished No.14 in the rankings, which were compiled by U.S. News and World Report. Universities were selected based on their peer group and how progressive the school is in terms of academics, faculty and student life.  With a growing student body of 11,500, UAB is a modern university located on a 323-acre urban campus, which helped the school make its way onto the list.

“At University of Alabama–Birmingham, 59.5 percent of full-time undergraduates receive some kind of need-based financial aid and the average need-based scholarship or grant award is $4,602,” the report said.

Birmingham Business Journal

September 16, 2014

Ryan Phillips

Alabama Power among nation’s Top 10 in Economic Development

by Bill Poole

Leslie Sanders rushed into her Alabama Power Co. office just in time for a Wednesday morning meeting. She had just left the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce, where she serves in a key economic development role.

Waiting for her was the Chamber’s Ellen McNair, who spends a lot of time working with Sanders and others to help bring new companies here and keep them happy.

They both had to go back to the Chamber after the meeting.

A lot of people may be surprised to learn that Site Selection magazine just named Alabama Power one of the nation’s top 10 utilities in economic development.

McNair wasn’t surprised.

“Alabama Power is just the best partner,” McNair said. “Utilities play a huge role in where a company can go and how a company can expand, with the availability of that infrastructure. Where can they go and get the power? That drives a lot of projects.”

The Site Selection rankings are determined mostly by results — the amount of new corporate activity in the utility’s area over the past year. Site Selection credited Alabama Power with helping to create 1,810 new jobs in 2013 with a total capital investment closing in on $2 billion.

The company has made the top 10 three of the past four years.

“This year’s top utilities feature some familiar names,” said Adam Bruns, managing editor of Site Selection. “That’s because they not only continue to turn in the numbers year after year, but continue to invest in doing more, and in innovative new approaches to partnering with both companies and communities.”

Sanders, the vice president of Alabama Power’s Southern Division, also serves as the chairwoman of the Chamber’s Board of Directors.
She admitted that economic development may not be the first thing that comes to mind when most people think of the company.

“The majority of people, they go into their house and flip the switch on, and they want the lights to come on,” Sanders said. “That’s where it stops.

“What people really don’t realize is that we were founded on the belief that economic development was one of the key drivers. (Former Alabama Power President) Thomas Martin realized that the best way to grow his company was to grow Alabama.”

Both Sanders and McNair emphasized that the company was just one of many partners who help keep the wheels of economic development churning in the River Region and elsewhere. But McNair said Montgomery-area recruiters regularly rely on the company to help find new businesses that make sense for the area and then find sites that would be a good fit for them.

“We have limited resources and limited staff, so all of our partners bring something different to the party,” McNair said.

Still, Sanders said it’s rewarding simply to play a role in bringing in new industries and then watching as friends and neighbors find a job or a career because of that work.

“(The company is) a major player, but we’re certainly not THE major player,” Sanders said. “But when Ellen is successful, lives are changed, and it doesn’t really get any better than that.”

Montgomery Advertiser
September 14, 2014
Brad Harper

Link to economy emphasized in Education Summit in Tuscaloosa

by Bill Poole

Schools today must embrace new technologies and challenge students to think on their own if they want graduates who will be ready for the jobs of tomorrow.

That’s the word from Tommy Bice, Alabama superintendent of education and lead speaker at Tuscaloosa’s Education Summit on Tuesday.

Bice said the old ways of teaching did not always adequately prepare students for college and careers.

“We spent a decade teaching kids to take tests rather than teaching them how to think,” he told several hundred people a luncheon at the Hotel Capstone.

Since becoming state superintendent three years ago, Bice said, he has encouraged state school systems to be innovative and creative.

The State Department of Education is not telling local schools what to do, he said. Instead, it sets the bar and expectations, offers ideas and suggestions and then lets local school systems develop their own plan and see what they accomplish.

“What may be innovative and creative in Tuscaloosa (city schools) may not be innovative and creative for the needs of Tuscaloosa County (schools),” he said.

For years, schools taught students without getting them to apply the knowledge. Under what Bice called the old standard, a student being taught math in an elementary school usually was given three sets of digits and told to add them up.

“At the end of the day, they could do the sums for math problems,” he said, but they did not understand how that fit into the real world.

Now, students are being taught to take the math result and apply it to a real-world problem – to try to solve the problem by coming up with possible solutions to discuss with classmates.

Bice said that involves problem-solving, critical thinking and explaining the solution to a team of classmates.

He noted the state is seeing more programs like distant learning and virtual schools that can be accessed at any time. Both technologies are changing education and “are causing us to rethink what schools should look like.”

When asked by reporters after the luncheon what Alabama schools would be like in 10 years, Bice said he did not know because of still-unseen technologies. But he said educators must be ready to embrace those future technologies for students to succeed in careers that will use those technologies.

The summit also featured annual state-of-schools addresses from Elizabeth Swinford and Paul McKendrick, the respective superintendents of Tuscaloosa County and Tuscaloosa City school systems.

Swinford, who has headed the 17,700-plus-student county school system for a year, said one of the things she did was divide the 34 schools into three regional clusters – north, south and east – “because the needs of Brookwood High School are not the same as those of Holt High School.”

She said the school system’s new mission statement calls for it to prepare all students for college and careers in a real-world environment.

McKendrick, whose school system has 10,300-plus students in 24 schools, said the city schools innovative programs include its high school career academy and its anti-bullying campaign.

“The one thing I love about him (Bice) is he gives us the opportunity to look at doing different things,” he said.

Industry needs better-educated workers and turning out students with the skills and knowledge is the key to economic development, he said.

“No one wants to move to a city unless it has good schools,” he said. “When businesses come and talk to industry recruiters, they ask, ‘What kind of school system do you have?’

“We all need to work together to make sure our school systems are better. If we do, then we can help you and our community to be better.”

The Education Summit, which was sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama, also included a pre-luncheon presentation by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama on the State of Schools.

Jim Williams, executive director of the nonprofit organization that’s based at Samford University, said education is the key to economic development and the rising personal income it brings.

“You don’t find high-income states with low educational attainment,” he said, noting job growth depends on having a qualified work force.

By 2020, 65 percent of all jobs will require postsecondary education and training, which includes increased demand for workers with associate, college and graduate degrees.

But Alabama is not keeping pace with the potential for job growth, he said.

In specifically looking at the Tuscaloosa market, he noted that in 2013:

— The graduation rate was 72 percent for Tuscaloosa City schools, 77 percent for Tuscaloosa County schools and

80 percent for the state.

— High school graduates attending college was 51 percent for Tuscaloosa City Schools, 56 percent for Tuscaloosa County Schools and 51 percent for the state.

— High school graduates enrolled in remedial courses in math and/or English to prepare for college were 31 percent for Tuscaloosa City schools, 21 percent for Tuscaloosa County schools and 32 percent for the state.

A link to PARCA’s full report can be found at the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama’s website.

Tuscaloosa News
June 17, 2014
Patrick Rupinski

New Legislation helping Students and Local Business Owners

by Bill Poole

Dual enrollment programs allow students to complete college courses while still enrolled in high school. Next year will bring new changes to the program; the state is calling it The Alabama Future Work Initiative.

“Through this tax credit which will be given by individuals and or businesses, they can get a tax break for that,” said Alabama Representative Paul Lee. “Those monies that they give 80 percent of that money can be designated to exactly what their business needs are.”

The state is expecting 10,000 students to take advantage of the scholarship opportunities. Business owners will also be able to benefit from the new legislation. They can receive a tax break up to 50 percent of their total giving’s, while also recruiting specialists for their businesses

“There’s a skills gap in this country and there simply aren’t enough people to do the jobs we have available and I think it’s critical we get more people enrolled,” said Rob Rhoades, local business owner. “I think one of the keys to doing that is to get them started earlier, let them get credit in high school and put them into the workforce sooner.”

Rhoades says there’s a huge demand in the wiregrass for career techs specializing in electricity, plumbing, heat ventilation and air conditioning.

Students who are currently enrolled in the program say the only downside is learning time management.

“It’s really valuable experience and you learn so much and its a way to get college out of the way without high school. So, when you get out of high school you can get done with college faster and you can jump right into a job,” said Brandon Rice, a dual enrollment student.

The initiative will create 10 million dollars in scholarship for the high school students.

June 17, 2014

State gets a No. 1 ranking: Alabama bests other states in advanced placement

by Bill Poole

Alabama might not be first in many positive rankings, but when it comes to advanced placement testing, high school students are doing it right.

The State Department of Education’s A-Plus College Ready program has provided a major boost to AP programs in high schools across the state by providing funding to cash-strapped systems that couldn’t otherwise afford to offer advanced courses.

Alabama high school students had the largest percentage increase in qualifying math, English and science AP test scores in the nation from 2008-13.

The number of qualifying scores achieved by students in the three areas grew by 118 percent, compared to a nationwide growth of just 42 percent.

As a result, the program will receive an additional $4.27 million to expand to an additional 21 schools this year.

The program began with a $13.2 million grant from the National Math and Science Initiative.

Among the area’s schools being funded through the program are the three Colbert County high schools, Colbert Heights, Cherokee and Colbert County High School; Florence High School and Russellville High School.

Muscle Shoals High School was designated an A-Plus College Ready school in 2010 with the three-year grant expiring at the end of the 2012-13 school year. The district has seven advanced placement courses with plans to add an eighth, AP computer science, as soon as it becomes a designated course. Now the school is a partner with A-Plus. Though it doesn’t get full funding with training and bonuses for students and teachers, the school is eligible for matching grant funds to continue helping offset costs.

Muscle Shoals Principal Chad Holden said AP is the best route a student can choose in preparing for college.

“The A-Plus program certainly helped grow our enrollment in these courses,” Holden said. “It is expensive for school systems, but it’s good for students.”

The Florence district now offers 19 AP courses, including the three added by this year’s acceptance into the A-Plus program. The school is getting $80,000 for the upcoming year and is adding AP physics I, AP physics II and physics C mechanics.

Florence Schools Superintendent Janet Womack said the program allows her district to provide the kind of academic rigor necessary for college success.

But for school districts such as Colbert County that have long wanted to offer AP courses but couldn’t afford to, the grant is coming at the perfect time, according to Assistant Superintendent Jeff Cornelius. At the start of the 2014-15 school year, all three high schools will offer AP biology, calculus, language/composition and literature. In addition, Cherokee High School will add AP chemistry. Each course is allotted $2,000 in funding.

“The lack of funds is the main reason we haven’t offered these courses in the past,” Cornelius said. “It’s very expensive.”

The grant covers teacher training for two summers for AP courses as well as Pre-AP. While it doesn’t provide for textbooks, the grant covers the costs of special equipment for the classes.

“The big payoff is that the kids can get college credit up to 15 hours for qualifying test scores and that’s a whole semester they won’t have to pay for,” Cornelius said. “The students ultimately are better prepared for the ACT, which means higher scores and more scholarships, and the teachers are better for having gone through the training as well. It gives them new strategies for the classroom.”

Cornelius said the initial expense of implementing AP courses is the greatest. By the end of the grant period, he said, it should be less expensive to continue the curriculum.

“It’s just a win-win situation and we’re grateful to be in on this funding,” he said. “It’s going to make a big difference with our students, with our district.”

Times Daily
June 12, 2014
Lisa Singleton Rickman

New Tax Credit expected to increase funding for state’s Career Technical Dual Enrollment program

by Bill Poole

State lawmakers and representatives with the Alabama Community College System predict a new tax credit will help boost funding and enrollment in the state’s career technical dual enrollment program for high school students.

Terry Waters, executive director of economic and workforce development for the Alabama Department of Postsecondary Education, said taxpayers can contribute as much as $10 million annually under the new tax credit program.

“In my opinion, this is the beginning,” said Rep. Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa.

Poole was among legislators and officials with Shelton State Community College, the Department of Postsecondary Education, and Mercedes-Benz U.S. International who discussed the dual enrollment program Monday, using a lab filled with mills and other precision machining equipment at Shelton as a background.

The bill enacted during the regular legislative session earlier this year would give an income tax credit beginning in 2015 to individuals and businesses that make contributions to cover tuition, fees, books and other costs associated with participation in the Career Technical Dual enrollment program. The act allows the contributors to direct as much as 80 percent of their donations to a particular career technical program or courses at a specific two-year campus. The two-year system will work with business and industry partners, the state’s workforce training council and the Regional Workforce Development Councils ensure the donations for the dual enrollment program address regional workforce needs, according to the speakers.

Terry Waters, executive director of economic and workforce development for the Alabama Department of Postsecondary Education, said taxpayers can contribute as much as $10 million annually under the new tax credit program, which allows them to receive a credit for as much as 50 percent of their total contributions. The tax credit cannot exceed 50 percent of the taxpayers’ total state income tax liability or $500,000 in any year. The act caps the annual tax credits given by the state at $5 million. The bill was sponsored during the 2014 regular session by Rep. Mac Buttram, R-Cullman.

Waters, Poole and State Sen. Gerald Allen said there has been an ongoing conversation between two-year officials and lawmakers during the past couple years about the growing need for additional funding for the dual enrollment program, which allows high school students in grades 10-12 to enroll career technical courses at community colleges.

This year, the program was only able to award 2,100 scholarships, Waters said.

“We hope to be able to expand career technical dual enrollment scholarships to 10,000 annually,” he said.

In a best-case scenario, the tax credit could lead to as many as 300 to 350 scholarships and waivers per two-year campus in the state, with a third being needs-based awards, according Allen.

Waters said the combination of an additional $5-million line item for the program included in the fiscal year 2015 education budget for the dual enrollment program and the tax credit are expected to allow the program to expand. The $5 million will help buy new equipment and assist with transportation needs in rural areas, Waters said

“What a difference this program is going to make in Alabama,” Waters said.

Tuscaloosa News
May 19, 2014
Ed Enoch

Alabama’s Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten Program Leads Nation in Quality for the Eighth Year in a Row

by Bill Poole

MONTGOMERY— Alabama’s First Class Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten Program leads the nation in quality for the eighth year in a row, according to a new study released Tuesday. Alabama is one of only four states in the country to meet all 10 quality benchmarks established by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER).

“A strong foundation is critical to a child’s education, and Alabama’s First Class voluntary pre-k program provides that to the children who are able to participate,” Governor Robert Bentley said. “By participating in our voluntary pre-k program, families can ensure their children will be well-prepared for success in school and throughout their lives.”

Alabama’s voluntary pre-k program is managed by the Alabama Office of School Readiness. The office is part of the Alabama Department of Children’s Affairs, which is overseen by Governor Bentley.

“Governor Bentley’s leadership has been critical to shaping the vision for the future of Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program,” DCA Commissioner Jeana Ross said. “The NIEER study recognizes Alabama’s commitment to the quality and design of our pre-k program, and the results show that this program is a powerful investment with short-term and long-term benefits for children.”

Currently, nine percent of Alabama’s four-year-olds are enrolled in the First Class program. Thanks to Legislative support last year, Governor Bentley announced nearly 100 grants across Alabama to provide access for more children. In Governor Bentley’s budget recommendation this year, he included a $10 million increase in funding to Alabama’s pre-k program to again expand access.

Over 100 new grants were approved Tuesday in 40 Alabama counties for the 2014-2015 school year. Six counties in Alabama’s Black Belt region received new pre-k grants. The grants will expand Alabama’s First Class voluntary pre-k program to more schools, preschools, child care centers and Head Start locations. Grants were awarded based on several criteria including local needs, local demand and high quality standards.


The grants announced Tuesday represent approximately $7.4 million of the additional funding approved for voluntary pre-k. With the new grants, over 1,800 more children will have access to a voluntary pre-k program in Alabama.

“These grants are one of the best investments we can make to improve the quality of education in Alabama,” Governor Robert Bentley said. “These grants will give more families the option of enrolling their children in Alabama’s nationally recognized voluntary pre-k program, and I will continue my efforts to expand access to First Class in future years.”

“Our goal with these grants is to provide access to voluntary high quality pre-k to every four-year old child in Alabama whose parents choose for them to attend,” added Ross. “The grant process was designed to strategically add new classes and enhance the quality of programs serving our state’s four-year olds. Thanks to the support of Governor Bentley, we are working to allow more students than ever before to have access to a quality pre-k program in Alabama.”

New Alabama laws help fight ‘scourge’ of synthetic drugs

by Bill Poole

MONTGOMERY, Alabama — Part of law enforcement’s challenge in attacking the “scourge” of synthetic drugs is keeping pace with scientists who tweak the chemicals to stay a step ahead of the law.

Officials said today that two new laws in Alabama should help prosecute those charged in today’s raids in 10 counties across the state.

Barry Matson, deputy director of the Alabama District Attorneys Association, said legislation passed this year banned about 160 new synthetic drug recipes. The new law will also help prosecution in cases involving an analog drug, which is slightly different from a listed illegal drug but is used to achieve the same effects, he said.

“It really put us ahead of the bad guys,” said Matson, who worked with the Legislature to help pass SB 333 by Sen. Arthur Orr of Decatur.
Authorities in Alabama today made 38 arrests and seized more than 200 pounds of synthetic drugs, commonly called spice, as part of a nationwide sweep called Project Synergy.

Gov. Robert Bentley, Law Enforcement Secretary Spencer Collier, and other officials spoke at a news conference this afternoon at the State Capitol to talk about the raid, Alabama’s new legislation and the dangers of the drugs.

[Related: DeKalb County authorities make 7 arrests in connection with statewide, national drug raid].

Spice is typically smoked by users and is sometimes called synthetic marijuana. But officials describe effects that are much harsher than those from smoking cannabis. Spice can result in paranoid delusions, overdoses and deaths.

“Spice is a growing scourge,” Keith Brown, DEA Special Agent in Charge, said. “It’s a poison.”

Brown said Alabama is ahead of most states in making its laws flexible enough to apply to the evolving drugs, which are typically made in China and other Asian countries. Brown said when a version of spice is outlawed, makers adjust the formula in an effort to make it technically legal.

“There are scientists at companies overseas waiting for the phone to ring and someone to say, ‘Oh, they just outlawed ABC. Can you make it ABC and a half?’” Brown said.

A second new law, which was SB 333, also by Orr, will help prosecutors win forfeiture cases against the sellers and manufacturers of synthetic drugs, Matson said. He said the drugs are so profitable that they are often produced and sold by those affiliated with what appear to be legitimate businesses. Seizures and forfeitures can help pay restitution to victims, he said.

Matson said the law enforcement community tried not to draw attention to the synthetic drug legislation when it passed. He said they did not want to attract the attention of those in the spice business that they had new tools to employ for efforts like today’s raid.

“We didn’t say, ‘Come see us sign a bill’ or wave a flag or anything because we had this operation that was ongoing,” Matson said.

– Mike Cason
– AL.com

More New Jobs Coming to Alabama

by Bill Poole

MONTGOMERY, Alabama — Gov. Robert Bentley today announced plans by Verizon Wireless to expand operations at its call center in Huntsville.
The company plans to add more than 300 full-time customer service positions at the call center, said Michelle Robinson, vice president of government affairs for the company’s 11-state south region.

Verizon will also hire about 100 people for full-time positions at its retail stores in Alabama, she said.

The 400 new jobs will bring Verizon’s employment in Alabama to about 2,000, Robinson said.

She did not give a salary range, but said all the jobs came with benefits, including health insurance that begins on the first day of employment.

The governor’s office said no state or local government incentives were provided to Verizon for the expansion.

Bentley and Robinson made the announcement this afternoon at the Old House Chamber in the State Capitol.

They were joined by Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle and Madison County Commission Chairman Dale Strong.

Officials had kept the details of a coming economic development announcement secret until today, only saying that the announcement would be significant for the Tennessee Valley.
Madison County Commission Chairman Dale Strong speaks at the announcement that Verizon Wireless is hiring 400 people in Alabama, including 300 at its call center in Huntsville. From left are Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle, Gov. Robert Bentley and Michelle Robinson, Verizon’s vice president for governmental affairs for the south region. (Mike Cason/mcason@al.com)

It’s not the first good economic news for Huntsville this year. Remington Outdoor announced earlier this year it will open a $110 million manufacturing plant and create up to 2,000 jobs in Huntsville.

And late last year, Boeing announced it would build a research center in Huntsville that would employ 400 people in engineering-related jobs.

Former Alabama Gov. Bob Riley announced in September 2006 the state had landed the Verizon Wireless Call Center on a 25-acre site in Thornton Research Park in Huntsville.

The $44 million facility accepted its first customer call one year later. The 152,000-square-foot state headquarters covers all aspects of customer service, including technical support, customer retention and quality service delivery.

Robinson said the call center employs about 1,000 people now.

The company will also be hiring about 100 people for its retail stores. Most of those jobs will be in the Huntsville area, including Decatur, Madison, Florence, Guntersville and Cullman, according to the company. Verizon is also hiring in Birmingham and Dothan, mostly in retail sales.

People can apply online at Verizon.com/jobs.
Alabama Media Group staff writer Lucy Berry contributed to this report.

– Mike Cason
– AL.com

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