Huntsville leaders disagree on agreement to relocate alternative school

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - Huntsville is looking for a new site to host its alternative school and special education program, along with some central office personnel. The plan is to move it from the Huntsville Center for Technology to the former site of the Academy for Academics and Arts, the Cavalry Hill school on Poplar Avenue.

However, the plan drew heavy criticism from a council member who represents voters in that area which eventually led to it being postponed until May 9.

Devyn Keith, Council President, said residents were not informed this would be happening.

He added that he felt like the students were leaving one bad building and being moved into another bad situation.

"We are going to lease a building that has not made renovations specific to the aesthetic standard that we have in other places," he said. "We in every way should help the school... but this doesn't help."

He added, "It is upon us to take our time and actually develop a long term plan of investment, no matter how long it takes, to get the interests, ideas, community input, and or the nonprofits that are there," he said. "Not to say that we shouldn't take the concerns of the school system but to say we are so invested in understanding the importance of this location. This lease is not it."

The Proposal

According to the proposed lease agreement, Huntsville City Schools would lease about 56% of the Cavalry Hill building at 2800 Poplar Avenue. The school district needs to move out of its current alternative school site by the end of the school year.

Under the current lease, the district would not pay rent, but would be responsible for helping pay for utilities and some maintenance. They would also foot the bill for renovations the city claims were already identified. These include HVAC equipment replacement, re-painting, library renovation, doorway replacement, classroom entry refurbishment, and locker removal.

The lease is a 10-year lease through June 30, 2029. It was to begin on Monday, but cannot be executed now because of the postponement Thursday night.

The district would use three wings of the existing building near the auditorium. Currently, the building is being used by other agencies including Parks and Recreation, the Boys and Girls Club, and Village of Promise. Those areas are separated from one another, leaders said, and there would not be a security issue.

School board member Michelle Watkins said Tuesday at the board of education meeting that she is looking forward to finding a better situation for the students than the tech center they are currently in. She called it "embarrassing" to put them there, instead looking for a solution that gives them a sense of pride.

The board approved the lease agreement 4-0, with one member not present and therefore not voting. But the city needed to approve it, too. After a meeting Thursday, they're still waiting to take a vote on the issue.

Mayor Tommy Battle contended that the plan had been in the works for more than a year, under two different Huntsville City Schools superintendents. He said the school system came to the city to request help finding a new space for the alternative school, and Cavalry Hill was the only place that had enough space to do what they needed.

The Concern

Keith believed there was not enough community input taken into consideration.

He stated that organizations that are already on the Cavalry Hill campus do not want the alternative school to come in.

"We have taken an issue and we have conveniently covered it as care," he said. "There is no conviction behind it if money is not behind it."

He added, "If we are taking kids from one bad situation, let's put them in a great situation. Let's double down on our support to the school system. Let's decide how much that is and let's commit to it."

This is not the first time that Huntsville's alternative school program has been in the news. The district ended a controversial alternative school program with a company called Pinnacle in 2016 after disputes about contracts and costs. The company's CEO spoke exclusively to WHNT News 19 later that month. Attorneys became involved in the negotiations and spoke with WHNT News 19.  Pinnacle initiated a lawsuit days later. The lawsuit was later settled. Huntsville City Schools then started its own alternative school program and it has been at the Huntsville Center for Technology since.

Thursday, Keith said, "I never want to have a conversation, since the whole Pinnacle debacle, about these kids again because they are in a great facility and then Huntsville City Schools would never have to worry about it again. But we're not doing that. The standard we have allowed to happen at that location is sub-par at best."

Mayor Tommy Battle said the district came to the city with the idea for a new space because, "They were in a place that was untenable for them."

He added, "It is a place they could use in the meantime as they pull together their reserves to do whatever it is they want to do. We do not run the school board and we are not going to run their education system."

The mayor said they agreed to work with the school system in this.

"It has been no secret. We have been working on this for over a year.  We are here to help the schools," he said. "Is this a final answer for anything? Maybe not. But this is an answer that helps us get through what we have to get through and get to where we are going to go in the future. There is a finite amount of money out there for everybody and we work with the school systems. This is another way we can help."

The council also heard from a school board member, Walker McGinnis, who urged them to approve the lease quickly.

"What we are asking for is a place to move students that we have got to get out of where they are at right now, this year," he said. "This is the last leg we are standing on. The other problem that compounds thing is the Merts center. We need to move some offices out of there. If you want to help us, I would strongly urge you to consider doing it now. We have got the people that can plan and do the things we need to do to bring it up to the standards you're talking about, Devyn. It can be a fine looking facility. Something that would be worthy... but if you want to know my opinion and I think I speak for a majority of the board members I work with, we need this now."

"Ask for the standard to be increased and let us match the standard you have at every other facility in your school system," Keith said. "We are better than this."

"We are telling our school system, take it or leave it." He added, "In my community things like this matter."

The Decision

The council, after some proposed amendments, voted 4-1 to postpone a vote on the lease agreement until May 9.

The Huntsville City Schools system has already voted on the lease agreement. It is unclear how they plan to move forward at this latest development.

The city council will look at the budget and plans for the space. Council members said they would then have conversations with the school system leaders, Devyn Keith, other city leaders, and the groups that already have a home in the Cavalry Hill school in order to decide how to best move forward in a more agreeable way.

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