By Robert Carter
North Jefferson News
MT. OLIVE — As tensions mount between opposing sides of the Mt. Olive annexation issue, the board governing the community’s fire protection service has decided to take a wait-and-see approach.
The Mt. Olive Fire and Rescue Board announced in its monthly meeting Monday that it would not take a stand for or against annexation at the moment, but would instead wait until Gardendale makes its next move in forming a new city school system.
The board’s stand came in the form of a prepared statement, which was read aloud by president Dwight Sloan before about three dozen residents, who were tightly packed into the small meeting room and overflowing into the hallways at the district’s main fire station.
“At this time, the Board is willing to listen to anyone and consider their concerns. But, the Board is not ‘working with’ any group pro or con,” Sloan’s statement said. “The Board has been and will continue to research and gather information in order to plan out a strategy that they believe would be in the best interest of the entire community.
“As this strategy begins to formulate, the Board will actively inform the residents of Mt. Olive of the information we have gathered and the conclusions we have reached. Hopefully the Board will start communicating with the community by the end of January. But we want to be clear, this could be a long drawn-out process covering many months and any information received in January will just be the beginning.”
(The full statement is posted on the board's website),
Sloan also said in the statement that some members of the board had met with Gardendale City Council President Stan Hogeland and Mayor Othell Phillips several weeks ago about annexation plans, and the financial ramifications to the city and the fire district. So far, that has been the only “direct communication” that the board has had with city officials, Sloan said.
After presenting the statement, Sloan opened the floor for those in attendance to ask questions or make comments — a give-and-take that lasted more than half an hour. Most of those who spoke appeared to oppose annexation.
The action by the board stems from Gardendale’s move to break away from the Jefferson County Schools and form its own system. By state law, any city which follows this path must establish a school district that is defined by the city limits.
That presents a problem for many families in unincorporated Mt. Olive, whose children attend Mt. Olive Elementary and are zoned to attend Bragg Middle and Gardendale High schools. To guarantee that those children would stay in that feeder system, those areas would have to be annexed into Gardendale.
A group called MO Matters has formed to propose annexation of just the area zoned for Bragg Middle and Gardendale High. Other areas, where students are sent to the Mortimer Jordan, Fultondale or Corner feeder systems, are not included in the area proposed to be annexed.
No formal group has been formed to oppose the annexation effort, but a Facebook group for those opposed has seen lively discussion, as has MO Matters’ own Facebook group. Signs for and against annexation already appear in numerous yards in the community.
MO Matters proposes that annexation be put to a vote, which is the most common way for annexing a large area into a neighboring city.
There is also the possibility that the board of the new Gardendale system could allow students from outside the district lines to attend by paying tuition, or otherwise be “grandfathered” into the new district. But the new system does not even exist yet as a corporate entity, and applications for the new board will not be closed until mid-January with members chosen in March, Phillips said Monday night.
The fire board did approve a retainer for the law firm of Ward Wilson to advise trustees on all of the various legal actions that may be a part of this process. Sloan said it’s the first time their board had ever had to put a law firm on a formal retainer.
Sloan said that the fire district’s trustees would communicate with those in the district by letter when they knew something more.
“Just don’t send it by bulk mail,” one resident joked, a reference to the county schools’ mailer to voters in Gardendale regarding their referendum for a property tax increase to fund the new system. The mailer, which spelled out the county system’s opposition to the breakaway, was sent by bulk mail instead of first class and did not get to most voters before the referendum was held.
In the meantime, the trustee board of the Mt. Olive Fire District is asking the opposing sides in the annexation issue to play nice.
“The Board asks the residents of Mt. Olive to be patient and give us the time we need to make good decisions,” Sloan’s statement concluded. “We also ask the different groups to be kind and considerate of those with opposing points of view. Believing and hoping that in the end the community of Mt. Olive will emerge from all of this, united in our resolve to make Mt. Olive a better place to live and raise our children.”
[Edited at 12:12 a.m. to correct the timeline of selection of members for the new Gardendale school board.]