Curriculum Alignment Report


Community Meeting, May 16, 2017, at Liberty Park Baptist Church

Thank you for attending our community curriculum alignment meeting last night. It was nice to get to discuss this important topic on our turf, without someone timing us. I want to thank Liberty Park Baptist and Pastor Scott Guffin for providing the space so we could meet as a community. They provided the chair setup and signage to direct us to the meeting room. This was so much appreciated.

There are several important meetings coming up of which you will want to be aware:

  • Wednesday (tonight), May 17, 6pm, Board of Education – Anna Velasco asked the superintendent to be placed on the agenda as a delegation representative; the superintendent will allow Anna 5 minutes to lobby the board for complete curriculum alignment for Liberty Park Middle School. If you are able, please come out as a show of support for this concern.
  • Thursday, May 18, 8:30am and 6pm, Liberty Park Middle School – The Board of Education and school administration will present information regarding new course offerings. This will be an opportunity to ask questions and get more information about the courses and scheduling process.

Helpful Links:

Meeting Report:

We had approximately 30 people attend last night, which was good for a busy school night at the end of the term. The discussion centered on our community’s desire to have a curriculum that is completely aligned with Pizitz Middle School. This concern grows from a desire to provide Liberty Park Middle-zoned students with the same academic opportunities as those provided to other student in our community and to protect our neighborhood property values. With the advent of 9th grade moving to Liberty Park Junior High in Fall 2019, the issue is time-sensitive and critical.

Anna presented information regarding her experience with Liberty Park Middle 2017-2018 course scheduling.

Anna received a letter from the school stating there had not been enough students to register for French and so the class would be provided as an online course with a proctor supervisor. The letter advised if her student wanted to change course selections, in light of this information, the school could make a course change. Anna felt the implication was that the school expected the delivery method would make their family desire a course change, since someone checked with her student to say, as a paraphrase, “We haven’t heard back from you; do you still intend to take French?” and also because the procedure for switching classes was outlined in the letter. (If the course was equivalent to what was promised initially, there would have been no need to outline the delivery method in a letter to the parent.) After further investigation, Anna discovered 6 students enrolled for French and 5 for German. Since the parent notification regarding the delivery system, the numbers have dropped for 2 for French and 1 for German.

In addition, Anna was told that the following elective classes would also not be offered due to low enrollment: Career Prep A and Coding. The school indicated Coding would be offered as Lancer Period club. (Lancer Period is a non-academic, 30-minute class offered at the end of each day for club and athletic activities.)

Anna pressed Asst. Superintendent Jane-Marie Marlin to provide more information to parents about the new course selections to boost enrollment. Parents shared there was no curriculum night or notification to parents/students regarding the new course offerings. One parent said she was not even aware her daughter had signed up for courses—there was no communication from the school to let parents know courses were being scheduled or to inform parents about the new aligned course offerings. She was unaware of the courses for which her student had applied.

In response to Anna’s concerns, the school produced a video, published on social media and sent out as a link in an email. She was told course cards would be sent home for review and possible revision, but this has not yet happened. Only a course change card has been posted.

A discussion ensued about the differences between courses offered at Pizitz Middle and Liberty Park Middle. The following are the published course guides for the two middle schools:

Notable differences are that the new courses added at Liberty Park Middle (French, German, Coding and Career Prep A) to achieve alignment had insufficient enrollment. Parents agreed that an online language course with a proctor is not at all the same as a language course with a qualified teacher in the classroom–the two experiences are not at all equivalent.

In the recently released curriculum video, VHHS World Language Department Chair Lisa Garrison explained world languages were “a vital tool all of our students need.” She said it was best to “begin this journey at an earlier age–not waiting until they are at the high school” because “starting a language early is always a benefit because their minds are set up [such that] the earlier they start learning a language, the easier the acquisition….” (At this point, the video abruptly trails off so that we cannot hear the rest of what she said.) Pizitz has offered all three world languages (French, Spanish and German) since before the beginning of Liberty Park Middle school. In its nine years of existence, Liberty Park Middle has never before offered French or German, although parents have clamored for it.

Also in the video, Brooke Brown, VHCS Director of Curriculum and Instruction, said, this year, LPM French and German would be offered through the Middlebury online interactive program, as well as through making use of “resources and experts from our community who can also enrich that experience for our students.” Liberty Park Middle will use this delivery system, but Pizitz Middle will not. One parent shared her child had been part of a pilot “French Fridays” offering this year, using the Middlebury delivery system, and that it had been a useless course. She said her child had gained nothing from the experience and the child said she did not understand why she had bothered to participate. Unless something changes, Although this will be the tenth year of LPM’s existence, unless something changes, it appears French and German will still not be offered as full electives with a teacher in the classroom.

After further discussion, parents concluded the following:

  • Course alignment must be complete: the same courses delivered as electives in both schools to all students who enroll and the courses must be delivered in an equivalent manner. (An online delivery system is not equivalent to having a teacher in the classroom; a 30-minute club period is not equivalent to an elective, academic class offering.)
  • Alignment cannot be a numbers game, because this is what has been used as an excuse for nine years, during which Liberty Park Middle students have suffered due to lack of opportunity and delivery of an inequitable learning experience.
  • Parents suggest a paid advocate (such as a junior-high administrator or ombudsman for Liberty Park Junior High) to ensure that parity is achieved, not only now, but as plans are made for the addition of 9th grade in Liberty Park.

Parents were encouraged to contact the Board of Education by email to share concerns and also attend the board meeting, May 17, 6pm, at which Anna Velasco will speak as our delegate.

Action Items:

  • Attend the BOE meeting on 5/17/17 to show support for Anna’s message regarding parity.
  • Write (email) board members and the superintendent to express the need for parity to be a priority. Please provide reasons for your concern.

  • Encourage your students (and get them to talk to their friends) to reconsider elective choices—choosing electives they think would best serve their interests without regard to fears it might not be delivered in an equitable manner. We need students to sign up to display the true level of interest in these classes before we can advocate for parity.

Report submitted by: Kimberly Cook (



Screen Shot 2017-04-22 at 10.42.23 AMori·en·teer·ing |ˌȯr-ē-ən-ˈtir-iŋ | noun:  a competitive or noncompetitive recreational activity in which participants use a map and compass to navigate between checkpoints along an unfamiliar course

“Busyness is often our temporary escape, and so we run, and we run until we have nothing left to guide us.” [D’Anna Lundstrom]

A friend, Paul Hughes, once likened our life journey to an orienteering race. Paul noted that a proficient orienteer will set her compass coordinates and run, keeping compass in one hand, map in the other, alternately raising the compass or map every few steps to avoid getting off the unmarked trail. The motion of raising the compass is an important part of the technique, because straying from the path costs more time and creates more risk than averting one’s eyes from the trail to check the compass.

Continually, repetitively, regularly, the orienteer raises her compass to check her course.

“Watch the path of your feet And all your ways will be established. Do not turn to the right nor to the left; Turn your foot from evil.” [Proverbs 4:26-27]

The orienteer sets her compass to reach the mark and she follows the path.

“…let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” [Hebrews 12:1-2]

The orienteer calculates her course correctly and checks her progress continually, reaping the reward of His steadfast love and faithfulness.

“All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his testimonies.”

“Show me your ways, Lord,
teach me your paths.
Guide me in your truth and teach me,
for you are God my Savior,
and my hope is in you all day long.” [Psalm 25:4-5]

Cahaba Heights Community Foundation Forum Answers


Want to get to know candidate Kimberly Cook’s positions on issues? The following were questions posed at the CHCF Forum.

Transparency has been a frequent topic of discussion during this election. What specific strategies would you use to inform and engage residents about Council activities and upcoming decisions?

I believe informed citizens become engaged citizens. It is important to remove barriers so that citizens know about and understand city decisions before they come up for a public vote. To this end, I believe our council should:

  • Live-stream council work sessions, because it is in these meetings that much helpful information is shared with the councilors so they can make better decisions. In fact, I would say it is more helpful to attend work sessions than it is to attend council meetings because of the volume of information shared. In these meetings, the city manager and department heads share background details that are useful in understanding problems and designing solutions. Also, information is shared about projects and activities well in advance of the project parameters being set, which gives more time for citizen input and dialogue and identification of potential opportunities and challenges. Live-streaming would give access to citizens who cannot attend in person due to work, family or physical infirmity. The city can increase engagement by citizens during live-streaming by asking questions, facilitating open chat and polling throughout.
  • Ensure the minutes from these work session meetings are complete and provide as much helpful information as possible for citizens to read at their convenience. These minutes should include helpful information and announcements for citizens.
  • Make it a priority to ensure all relevant city dates (including Chamber of Commerce and other community events) appear on the city calendar and that they are kept up-to-date with links to event information. All city meetings should be posted in this one place, and not on separately-maintained websites, for ease of access and coordination.
  • Change the city council meeting times to 6pm to make it easier for families to attend.
  • Ensure all public meetings are held within the city limits and are accessible to all citizens, with appropriate overflow seating allowed for larger-than-usual meetings.
  • Fund digital imaging of records, indexing for searchability, and posting of all records online. In particular, this should be provided for city agenda packets and minutes. Old paper records should be imaged so that there is no delay or difficulty in the city providing requested information.
  • Provide complete online access to plans, financial records, documents and any other official application, ordinance or meeting records for city entities, to include foundations and other groups that utilize city resources, receive city funding or are under the supervision and control of city employees, boards or commissions.
  • Provide a notification by subscription service on the city website for council meetings and work sessions. Use of a Google calendar or similar, would allow people to subscribe to the calendar for easy importing of events.
  • Post building permits and zoning applications online for easy citizen access and reference.
  • Post bid documents and requests for proposal online in an open data platform after the bidding is closed. Bid documents for older projects should be imaged and stored off-site to decrease access time.
  • Post contracts for professional services online.
  • Appoint a chief information officer (the person responsible for managing, responding to and fulfilling requests for information) should be identified on the Action Center, and this person should take full responsibility for ensuring FOIA requests are answered fully and promptly. Citizen requests for documents, plans, drawings are sometimes put off because they are hard to access, not already posted online or city employees have other matters to which they must attend.
  • Post meeting announcements and periodic updates on city events on social media and a website “What’s Happening” page. This should be assigned to a central communications officer who is a city employee.

How would you increase community involvement from all parts of Vestavia Hills in order to bring greater unity within the city?

For communities to be strong, they must be built on a foundation of positive relationships, which lead to trust and cooperation. Neighbors who talk over the fence don’t have arguments about whether the fence is in the right place.

Our community is fun, active and wants to engage in making our local government better. We also want to know one another better. One of the greatest benefits of running for public office has been my engaging citizens one-on-one, whether through a private social media exchange or visiting with a neighbor on his doorstep. It is surprising how much you can learn about a person in just a quick, five-minute conversation. Walking the neighborhood streets of our city and meeting new friends has taught me that we are diverse, but passionate about our community. I want to engage citizens, from kids to people who have lived in our community for 50 years.

One way to create stronger relationships is to provide opportunities for neighbors to engage in service and recreation together. This can be done through local government programs, but more effectively by assisting local community groups to promote and encourage participation in their programs. There are many groups in our community who do this well, and local government should help promote and communicate with others regarding these programs.

Here are some ways local government can assist in promoting greater engagement:

  • Maintain a list of volunteer organizations and their contact information on the city website so newcomers and those wishing to be involved can engage.
  • Provide publicity for city recreational programs and events by 1) issuing press releases before and after city events; 2) ensuring city events are on various community calendars; 3) promoting events on social media; and 4) publishing a digital subscription newsletter.
  • Make a concerted effort to reach out to senior citizens to provide access to facilities and services, including enrichment and recreational opportunities.
  • Encourage and promote local neighborhood gatherings.
  • Provide resources to and encourage community focus groups that strive to solve problems or gather information.

How long do you believe annexing should continue? Are there limits to annexing?

The city should conduct an annexation study, similar to the 2006 Annexation Study, which identified approximately 900 properties for possible annexation. This new study should include an analysis of our current school, facility and city services capacities to ensure that adequate funding and planning is conducted to accommodate new annexations. New annexations should not be allowed to fall under the median house value for our community to ensure that we are collecting adequate ad valorem taxes to pay for city services, including education.

Any future dense housing developments should undergo close scrutiny to ensure that the schools will have adequate capacity. Our schools are overcrowded and the board of education needs time to adapt and accommodate. The school board representative to the Annexation Review Committee should be a voting member of the committee and should have to sign on the application (on behalf of the superintendent) before an annexation goes before the council.

Every city has a limited budget and a seemingly unlimited supply of community needs and interests. What would be your top 3 priorities in making appropriations?

Much as I would like to play Santa Claus and just hand out new facilities, parks and sidewalks, I believe there are some significant maintenance and city services issues that should be addressed first:

  • Repair, paving and improvement of roads and streets, to promote safe passage and better traffic flow—also ensuring a proper maintenance schedule is created and followed.
  • Additional funding for fire and police protection to ensure that growth in those department budgets is adequate to accommodate city growth.
  • Redevelopment of Cahaba Heights fields and Wald Park, including the civic center.

What do you see as the benefits and/or disadvantages of the current structure of the city government? Are there any changes you would like to make in the future to our structure?

I believe the city-manager form of government has increased our efficiency and effectiveness in providing services to citizens. I would not advocate for a change to this structure, as I think it has served our city well. It is important for the council to perform its important function of setting priorities and giving direction to the city manager, since that is our role as the citizens’ representatives. We are accountable for the direction the city takes.

I have heard residents pose the question why we elect our councilors by place and at-large, instead of by district. Because of our city’s size, I believe at-large election works best. It is difficult enough to find qualified candidates to run city-wide, and if we changed it to be election by district, this would be an even greater challenge. Providing a larger pool of candidates city-wide gives us more options and also encourages councilors to consider the needs of all citizens in our city when making decisions. 

Vestavia Hills continues to experience explosive growth, but many citizens have expressed concerns about the strain of this growth on our schools. How would you as a council member/mayor collaborate with the Board of Education to ensure that all children in our city receive a high-quality education?

The city should conduct an annexation study, similar to the 2006 Annexation Study, which identified approximately 900 properties for possible annexation. This new study should include an analysis of our current school, facility and city services capacities to ensure that adequate funding and planning is conducted to accommodate new annexations. New annexations should not be allowed to fall under the median house value for our community to ensure that we are collecting adequate ad valorem taxes to pay for city services, including education.

Any future dense housing developments should undergo close scrutiny to ensure that the schools will have adequate capacity. Our schools are overcrowded and the board of education needs time to adapt and accommodate. The school board representative to the Annexation Review Committee should be a voting member of the committee and should have to sign on the application (on behalf of the superintendent) before an annexation goes before the council.

We should not annex or develop more housing until our schools have addressed current capacity issues. 

If you were given excess resources in the budget, where would you apply those resources? What projects, plans, or community needs would receive your attention first?

If we have done proper planning to establish priorities, then excess resources should be applied in the order of priorities already established by citizens. As a practice, we should ensure that existing facilities are cared for and adequately meeting the needs of our community before building adding new services and facilities.

We should build into the budget for new facilities the additional cost of maintaining those facilities. For example, if we are building a new park, the city must consider not only the cost of development, but the cost of maintaining, securing and operating that new park.

If excess funds are applied in haphazard fashion, the tendency would be to hand out gifts like Santa Claus, without taking into consideration the additional maintenance costs associated with those “gifts.” New projects, whether they are funded completely out of city funds or through public-private partnerships should reflect the desires and priorities of citizens, first and foremost.

As part of the yearly budget process, departments should establish priorities for applying excess funds, apart from approved budgeted amounts, in a thoughtful way.

Some current needs I am aware of are paving and improvement of streets, installation of sidewalks, facility improvements for our schools, increased police staffing, increased maintenance staff for Public Works and renovation or building of new recreational facilities, particularly Cahaba Heights fields and Wald Park. All athletic fields and facilities should be properly maintained and brought up to a standard that makes our citizens proud.

We should ensure that existing projects, such as Meadowlawn Park, are completed before starting new initiatives.

Once immediate needs are satisfied, then we should prioritize new facilities and improvements, such as Cahaba Heights fields, Wald Park and a new civic center.

What do you believe are the key infrastructure needs facing our city? Do you believe these needs should be addressed prior to starting new developments? Why or why not?

Our key infrastructure needs are roads, sidewalks and drainage systems. Creating an environment where businesses and citizens alike can flourish will draw more business to our area and ensure citizens’ enjoy the “life above” they have been promised. The city must invest in our neighborhoods if it wishes to continue drawing revenue.

Another aspect of infrastructure that is often overlooked is provision of city services—fire/police protection, public services, schools, and enough staff to effectively manage all these new services for more citizens.

We should not annex or develop more housing until our schools have addressed current capacity issues. 

How would you facilitate communication among the City Council, City Employees, and the City Manager?

As a professional and volunteer, I have worked to improve communications in every organization of which I have been a part, including my work as a computer systems designer, church student ministry, Boy Scouts and PTO. Whether gathering information from clients about how they do their work, writing emails, maintaining distribution lists, posting helpful information on social media or editing newsletters for these organizations, my role has been a helpful and critical one to provide clarity and engage people. Communications are a challenge for every organization, but they are, more importantly, an opportunity for engagement and problem-solving.

For our city, here are some first thoughts for improving communication:

1) Post memorandums or bulletins that establish policies and procedures or contain helpful organizational information in a central folder, accessible to all employees. Group these communications by topic or department.

2) Document and post minutes from staff meetings to help non-attendees be informed and provide a resource to answer future questions. This could take the form of an internal newsletter to engage and inform all employees.

3) Coach staff and councilors to engage in effective communications with each other and with citizens, establishing expectations for response times to emails, requests for information and action center requests. Regularly monitor response time to action requests to ensure citizens are receiving effective, timely responses to problems. Establish a high expectation of customer service within the organization to ensure all communications with citizens are positive, cordial and responsive. Provide training in how to draft effective business communications. Plan and implement meetings that are necessary, effective and stay on task.

4) Promote the Action Center Request system as a “first line of defense” for citizen concerns. Inform citizens how this can be effectively used to get a response for problems. Regularly monitor this system to ensure city staff are responding appropriately to problem calls and questions.

5) Develop a strategy for effectively using social media as a tool for improvement and citizen engagement. Ensure consultants or staff assigned in this area are communicating in a positive, informative way with citizens. Coach councilors in the best way to engage citizens on social media to promote a positive image of our city and its representatives.

6) Develop a strategy for more effectively communicating with citizens about programs and opportunities for engagement. One specific area that needs improvement is communication with seniors about services and programs. Develop specific strategies to meet the needs of this group that would tend to be less involved in social media or digital communications.

7) Make content-creation for social media and broadcast communications the responsibility of a communications or public-relations representative. Enlist the help of local media to assist with this task and ensure regular press releases inform media of special events or topics of conversation. Communications from the city should be regular, frequent and broadcast in several media forums.

I am sure there are many other ways communications can be improved in our city, as this is a challenge and opportunity for most organizations. Once I am a city councilor, I would like to examine our current methods and help develop new strategies to engage the community. I believe councilors should not only be representatives to our community, but they should also serve as ambassadors to the community, advocating for more effective communications.

Cahaba Heights borders Mountain Brook, City of Birmingham, and Unincorporated Jefferson County. How would you create effective partnerships with other municipalities on issues related to infrastructure, traffic patterns, and shared natural resources? 

 As the third largest city in Jefferson County, our city’s resources and influence can make it a powerful agent for positive change. It is important for our city to collaborate with other entities and maintain positive relationships that can lead to better services for all.

I believe the greatest challenge is identifying the highest priorities and practicing continued advocacy to move multi-jurisdictional projects forward. The re-paving of Sicard Hollow Road had been an ongoing issue and received insufficient attention until a couple of citizens, including myself, brought weekly attention to the matter. This resulted in a multi-jurisdictional agreement to fund the repaving and possible re-engineering of this treacherous road. While the project is as yet incomplete, positive steps are being taken and it will take continued diligence to ensure this project is completed in a timely manner.

Another example of where collaboration can bring solutions to multi-jurisdictional problems is traffic management on East Street, a problem caused by development of Mountain Brook City’s high-traffic Rathmell Park and installation of their fleet maintenance facility off a road that services a previously quiet, residential, Vestavia Hills neighborhood. Solving this problem permanently will require cooperation between Mountain Brook and Vestavia Hills, but it also involves creation of a temporary solution to alleviate traffic and speeding problems. Inattention to this problem has created a safety hazard to Vestavia Hills residents and has been ongoing for far too long. Because this road is a Mountain Brook City road, but it directly and mostly affects Vestavia Hills residents, this has created an impasse. It has been my experience as a Boy Scout Commissioner that problems like this can usually be resolved when you bring all the necessary players to the table so that all issues are identified, possible solutions proposed and action taken.

Projects like this take continued attention until a positive resolution is attained. Councilors should play a key role to ensure problems like this receive attention, even when they involve multi-jurisdictions.

Zoning laws have been the subject of discussion within the community. Are there any zoning laws you would like to change? Why or why not?

As a candidate, I have spent time talking to developers, city planners and zoning experts to understand our city zoning ordinances and procedures. It is important for councilors to be informed on these matters to protect the rights of property owners, whether they are commercial developers or homeowners. In the same way that I gathered information from clients in my role as a computer systems designer, I have worked to understand zoning and how it affects our community.

I do understand there were concerns about the B.1.2 Mixed Use zoning ordinance that emerged during the Cahaba Heights apartment project consideration. If I don’t know the answer to a question, I go ask someone who knows more than I do. In this case, I went to my friend, Deloye Burrell, who knows the city zoning ordinances and their history inside and out. I credit him for the following insight about some changes that would bring greater clarity to this zoning ordinance:

  • The ordinance notes a limit of three stories, but the drawing in the ordinance shows four stories. This invites an unwanted ambiguity and the drawing should be adjusted to match the wording.
  • The ordinance should be modified to include the rationale, developed during the 2008 Cahaba Heights Community Plan, for the minimum setbacks. When the ordinance was written, a pedestrian-friendly, walking community was envisioned, where shoppers could stroll and window-shop. Incuding language to explain this vision would help planners interpreting the ordinance for approval of projects.
  • Specifically list apartments as conditional use, requiring a more stringent standard for review and approval of variances.

I think it is important to understand the importance of zoning ordinances to protect both the property owner and nearby homeowners or commercial property owners. As a councilor, I would make myself familiar with zoning ordinances and their requirements.

As an article in recently described, voter interest in this election is surprisingly strong. If elected to serve on the Council, how would you engage with invested, active community members?

 I have found going door to door to visit with neighbors to be very helpful in understanding what issues are important to folks. I would seek opportunities to engage with citizens from all demographics—from young families with children to senior citizens. As a candidate, I have visited the New Merkel Senior Center and other places to engage citizens. As a councilor, I would like to continue this visitation, on a monthly basis, spending an hour or two knocking on doors to introduce myself and ask for input.

I would make an effort to attend community meetings to meet folks and find out how our community members are engaged in making our city better. When I visited New Merkel, I discovered that one of the barriers to citizen participation is not knowing about city programs and meetings. An active and updated city calendar would help citizens to discover ways to be involved and active. The city must be proactive in reaching out to citizens to inform them about community programs and events.

On a weekly basis, I plan to hold “office” hours, which might be at a local coffee house or favorite breakfast location. In this way, I can make myself accessible to residents without the intimidation of people having to ask for meetings or request information by email.

On a rotating basis, I would sponsor town-hall meetings where citizens can openly ask questions and receive answers from councilors and department heads.

I have been delighted to hear residents offer their service and involvement after my election. It is encouraging to know there are many citizens with available time and interest who desire to engage in making our city better. Not only does this benefit the city (free labor), but it creates an atmosphere of teamwork and belonging that contribute to an overall sense of well-being and positive neighborhood feeling.

I would like to see the creation of new community task forces to address problems and develop opportunities such as community park development, senior citizen program development, community service and others. It is unlikely you will have an argument with a neighbor when you are busy serving together.

All these things will contribute to community unity and a sense of fulfillment, because an actively engaged community will know they are noticed, heard and given opportunities to be involved.

Do you believe there is a conflict of interest with a single attorney representing the City of Vestavia Hills and the VH Board of Education at the same time? If so, how would you rectify that conflict of interest?

I believe that our city would be best served by having a separate attorney for the city and the board of education. In order to bolster trust in our community and faith in our local government, I think an important step to take is to employ two different attorneys for these positions. In past matters that have involved both the city and board of education and where a conflict of interest exists, Mr. Boone has recused himself and the city has employed other legal help to assist. I believe it would be best if we never have to do that. It is apparent a conflict of interest exists, with Mr. Boone serving both the board of education and city as chief legal counsel.

As a business owner and a parent in the community, I would like to know how each of you plan on attracting desirable and sustainable economic development in Vestavia, specifically Cahaba Heights.  How will it be supported, encouraged, incentivized, and executed in a way that benefits not only developers and business owners, but also the interests of the taxpayers of Vestavia Hills?

Economic development is vital to a community and necessary for our city to provide the services our citizens expect. Our goal as a city should be to build and maintain a strong, vibrant local economy.

Our city has other goals as well. Our citizens want to preserve the character and beauty of the communities we love and create rich environments where our children, working adults, parents and seniors can thrive.

So, what is the best way to achieve a balance where we support business and not only preserve, but improve the neighborhoods we love?

After knocking on more than 2000 doors and holding meetings with a good number of people, including developers, retail business owners and citizens, I have a few observations:

  • Our city councilors need to be in touch with the desires of the communities they serve. This involves respectful listening to people from multiple perspectives and weighing all options. Effective dialogue involves not just listening to community concerns, but responding to them as well. It is the responsibility of the councilors to communicate these desires to the city manager and other key staff to ensure the plans made fit with community priorities.
  • Our city should develop a specific plan for development that incorporates existing master plans, such as the 2008 Cahaba Heights Community Plan, and identifies steps required to meet the chief objectives of those plans. Plans must be revisited periodically to ensure progress is being made and goals met. Plans should include infrastructure, staffing and facility improvements to accommodate projected growth, especially as it impacts schools and roads.
  • Our city should invest in proper infrastructure, such as sidewalks, safe streets and adequate drainage systems, such as in the Dolly Ridge Rd. area of Cahaba Heights and the lower part of Hwy. 31. The 2008 Cahaba Heights plan noted these public improvements as a priority, but few of the goals of this plan have been met in 8 years. These improvements not only benefit citizens, but they benefit developers as well. These type improvements make our city more desirable to new development, increase commercial land values and ensure the highest, best use of the land. Infrastructure also includes provision of adequate city services—fire/police protection, schools, and public works.
  • Our city must ensure zoning ordinances are appropriate and are followed by our boards and commissions. This protects the rights of property owners and citizens as well—everyone wins.
  • Our city councilors must maintain an appropriate relationship between city and developers, ensuring that conflicts of interest do not impede objectivity. While I am in full support of smart economic growth, I wonder about the motives of big money development PACs.

We often hear the words “smart development” passed around like mints at a dinner party. What do we mean by smart development? I think this means city planning that is responsive to citizen desires and, at the same time, encouraging to new business and development. We will best achieve this with a plan that incorporates long-range planning, investment in community infrastructure and open dialogue about development plans.

Getting What You Want

dissatisfaction-michellegathrenwordpressEver had a bad experience at a restaurant–a waiter who was rude, food that arrived late, fire alarms that went off through the night in a hotel or an expensive steak that was not cooked as requested? I am that person who always lets the manager know if there is a problem with any product or service, and I almost always get satisfaction.

First, remain calm. Getting agitated, using abusive language or waving your arms around in front of other patrons will not get you far. It might make you feel good to see someone else acting that way, but it will rarely achieve the result you desired.

I observed this once in the Addis Ababa airport, 3am, when people were shouting in at least five different languages and gesturing angrily at the person behind the ticket window who was calmly shuffling papers and doing absolutely nothing to rebook tickets from our canceled flight. I remained calm, thinking others were getting plenty upset on my behalf. The only flight to Europe that was leaving any time within the next 12 hours was departing in 15 minutes. In this particular case, a couple of French nationals managed, by some miracle, to get to the ticket window. (Three people had been helped in three hours.) The couple and I had been chatting in line about how we both hoped to make the last flight to Paris. After getting their seats on the near-empty jumbo-jet, they pointed at me, six places back in the line and yelled, “She needs that flight too.” The counter person yelled for me to throw our passports to the front of the line. She quickly stamped our tickets and we ran through the airport, luggage in tow. We were the last persons on the plane before the door closed. This didn’t happen because I yelled, but because I made friends in the line.

Second, remain firm. Keep asking until you get what you think is an appropriate remedy for your problem. If they offer free dessert, but you don’t want dessert because you are on a diet or are full, ask for a complimentary entree or gift certificate for a return visit. If they offer you $50 off your hotel room, but you got no sleep because the fire alarms went off every hour, keep asking for them to take the night off your bill. If the counter person says they are not authorized to help in that way, tell them you will wait while they find a manager. Even in snooty Boston hotels, this will work.

Third, if all else fails, be prepared to leave the restaurant or hotel. Even if I am at the number-three stage, I am persistent. I follow up, after an uncorrected bad experience, with a note to the corporate office or owner. Except when dealing with bad airlines, this has always gotten a response.

I have a great track record of getting free meals, free nights in hotels and other complimentary items because I complain when things are not to my satisfaction or expectation. The business wins because, rather than becoming the victim of an internet troll or losing a customer irretrievably, they redeem the opportunity to win me back. If I get a satisfactory customer experience, I tell lots of other people about it.

My family knows this is my specialty. When the food doesn’t come within 30 minutes, they look my way. I always win.

Community Engagement – The Final Chapter


As I go around our city meeting people, I often have the experience of encountering a Facebook friend whom I have never met face to face. It always happens the same way: she says her name; I take a moment to think through the list of profile names who have commented on my posts recently and then there is the smile of recognition, followed by a spontaneous hug. My existing, virtual connection is made more intense because I have now made real contact. Regardless of the lure of social media, with all of its safe anonymity, people desire personal interactions. As human beings, we get our context from each other. Without face-time (the real kind, not the application), our social media interactions are like talking to paper dolls.

For communities to be strong, they must be built on a foundation of positive relationships, which lead to trust and cooperation. Neighbors who talk over the fence don’t have arguments about whether the fence is in the right place.

So, how can cities better provide opportunities and facilities for citizens to play and connect?

“You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.”  Winnie-the-Pooh; A.A. Milne


  • Renovate the Civic Center to provide classroom, recreational and exercise facilities at a reasonable cost to citizens.
  • Provide banquet space for special city events such as the Dogwood luncheon.
  • Update the sidewalk plan to prioritize installation of sidewalks in areas near schools, city facilities, parks and retail areas.
  • Develop more entertainment districts within our city and provide incentives to retail developers to provide more green and community gathering spaces.
  • Encourage and promote neighborhood social gatherings.
  • Maintain a list of volunteer service organizations and clubs, including city groups, for newcomers.
  • Promote generational recreation and learning programs to meet needs of underserved groups such as seniors, empty-nesters and young professionals.
  • Promote youth manners and dancing classes.
  • Provide better publicity for city recreational programs and events by 1) issuing press releases before and after city events; 2) ensuring city events are on various community calendars; 3) promoting events on social media; 4) publishing a digital subscription newsletter.
  • Develop a comprehensive, interactive, subscription calendar to include all city events in all city departments;
  • Administer annual surveys to find out what services are most important to citizens.
  • Publish results of annual Parks and Recreation surveys through press releases.
  • Establish a focus group as a subsidiary of the Parks and Recreation Board to assess and improve programming.
  • Provide adequate transportation for seniors, so they can participate in city programs.
  • Attend senior events/gatherings to find out if needs of senior citizens are being met.
  • Promote through community organizations and various avenues of communication our annual, city-wide Day of Service.
  • Assess recreational sports programs to ensure they are affordable and accessible to all, regardless of athletic talent, physical ability or income level.
  • Cooperate with Parks and Recreation Foundation to develop an athletic scholarship program for indigent youth.
  • Survey to determine what services are most desired in different parts of our city and develop a Parks and Recreation master plan to address needs of various neighborhoods; budget to ensure equitable distribution of services across the city.

Mr. McBeevee

LifeOnTSS TAGS MrMcBeevee6One of the most difficult things in sharing a personal testimony regarding your experience with God is to relate something that is very personal and very spiritual to another person who may or may not have had a similar experience.

In the book The Giver, Jonas experiences memories that are part of a world that is not evident to most of the inhabitants of the community.  Trying to express what color is to a person who only sees in black and white or sunshine to a person who has only known artificial light would challenge our language of expression.

Using a mainstream example, in the Mr. McBeevee episode of The Andy Griffith Show, where Opie meets a lineman and describes him to his Paw, Opie’s description sounds outlandish because he doesn’t know what to call Mr. McBeevee so that Andy would understand who he was.  Opie tells his Paw that Mr. McBeevee can climb trees and wears a large silver hat.

In a similar way, it is a challenge to share your salvation experience in such a way that others can relate to the person you are trying to describe.  It is also important that your character and integrity are such that the person hearing your testimony feels he or she can trust what you are saying to be true.  I think the following lines from the Mr. McBeevee episode says this very well, when Barney questions Andy accepting Opie’s assertion that Mr. McBeevee is real in spite of what seems to be obvious:

Barney: Yeah, but how can you explain it all?

Andy: I can’t.

Barney: But you do believe in Mr. McBeevee?

Andy: No… no… no. I do believe in Opie.

Fortunately, I believe God expresses himself to every individual who seeks Him.  “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”  [Hebrews 11:6, NIV]  If we start the conversation by testifying to what we know, God will finish it.

We must keep this in mind when interacting with friends and nonbelievers.  Do not be afraid to share your faith, for fear that the receiver will not believe you or will have questions.  God will take what you offer and will answer the receiver’s questions, if the person to whom you are witnessing has enough faith to ask the questions.

Community Engagement – Part II

courthouse_andy_1024I grew up in a small town, in Southwest Virginia, that only had one main street. I lived in the same house for 15 years, so that, riding my bicycle, I knew every bump and dip in the road. I knew where everyone sat in the pews on Sunday. As a first grade student, when I accidentally got off the wrong stop on the school bus, miles from my babysitter’s house, an elderly stranger took me in and fed me buttermilk and crackers until my mother could come from work to get me. (To this day, I have an acquired taste for buttermilk.) Every Friday night, I spent the night with my grandparents and every Sunday afternoon, I sipped sweet, iced tea on my grandmother’s sofa. This was life in a small town. This was my Mayberry.

After graduating from college, I desired to see the other side of the fence. I got my first job in Washington, D.C.—about the furthest place removed from Mayberry one can imagine. I learned to navigate traffic circles, drive six-lane interstates and read a subway map. I experienced coming home to an empty apartment because I knew few people in a large city. I eventually found my community and met my husband, Greg, at First Baptist of Alexandria. As a redneck, Alabama boy, he felt as much an alien as I did in D.C.

Even further removed from Mayberry was Boston. Greg and I moved there right after our marriage so he could attend law school. I worked for Electronic Data Systems at a GM plant in Framingham, MA, supporting a car manufacturing production system. I parked my shiny, red Honda Prelude in a parking lot full of GM cars every day, and not once did anyone threaten me with a baseball bat. I learned the difference between blue collar workers and management. (Management eats in a dining room and workers eat in a cafeteria.) I met people who played recreational ice hockey. I learned how to understand a Yankee accent and they learned to interpret my Southern one. My husband and I attended a Baptist church service where they served Kool-Aid and animal crackers for communion. (Yes, we drank the Kool-Aid.) We attended a Passover Seder with upstairs apartment neighbors hailing from California and New York who became close friends.

After law school and our adventures in the frozen North, Greg and I decided to return to his roots, so we picked Birmingham as the best place to start our family. In 2002, we moved to Vestavia Hills because we found a beautiful home in Liberty Park, where our children could walk to and attend a great school. At first, we knew few people in the Vestavia Hills community, but I engaged right away in PTO and local Scout groups and soon found connections, making lifelong friends from all parts of our city. We can’t imagine a better place for our children to have grown up than Vestavia Hills.

Thank you for indulging my recitation of the places I have lived. My point is I grew up in Mayberry, where “everyone knew my name” (and my mama’s name and my granddaddy’s name); but, I have also lived in Raleigh, where I was a small Barney Fife in a big city pond. Probably all of us have had these experiences, however temporary, where we were the outsider—the alien.

In talking to all sorts of people in Vestavia—both those who grew up here and those who “are not from around here”—there is a common desire: we want our community to continue to be a wonderful place to live and raise a family.

So, what is the best way to make that happen? How do we connect pride in our city’s heritage and the desire of everyone in the community to continue moving forward? How do we engage our newcomer residents and help them form connections with their Mayberry neighbors?

Below is Part II of my COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT platform. Here are my ideas about how we can WELCOME others to our community and make it easy for newcomers to engage:

  • Organize “Welcome to the City” receptions on quarterly basis.
  • Enlist the help of realtors, apartment managers and school board to distribute “Welcome to Vestavia Hills” packets of information to new residents; include voter and school registration information; helpful information about city services (libraries, parks and recreation programs, garbage pickup, police and fire protection); helpful links (QR codes) to city website resources.
  • Organize voter registration drives before city elections and provide sample ballot/issue information.
  • Provide comprehensive publicity for community events through a variety of methods such as email (by subscription); social media; newsletters (digital and paper); community events page on website).
  • Provide a community events calendar on city website to which residents can subscribe for regular updates.
  • Establish a “Newcomers” page on the city website to include links to: Action Center, city services index, FAQs, contacts for city council and school board representatives, city volunteer opportunity index. (Link to this from Chamber and PTO websites; provide a “contact” for newcomer questions.)
  • Encourage partnerships between community business leaders and schools to provide enhanced learning opportunities through mentor relationships, work-study programs, and enrichment studies.
  • Establish city directory of opportunities for service and engagement (for example, Friends of the Library, youth athletic leagues, Sunrise Rotary Club, Toastmasters, city boards, Help for the Hills, Leadership Vestavia Hills); allow citizens to add to the directory, upon moderated approval.
  • Establish a moderated, online “suggestion box” where citizens can post recommendations for ways to improve our city.
  • Work with schools to ensure prospective students visiting our schools have a good first impression.
  • Work with schools to institute student ambassador program for new students in the first month of school.
  • Encourage the school system to allow foreign exchange students to attend city schools.