By Robert Carter
North Jefferson News
MT. OLIVE — After a contentious fight between Mt. Olive residents over the annexation issue, opponents of merging a large portion of the community into Gardendale are breathing a sigh of relief, while annexation supporters are left to ponder what happens next.
Gardendale Mayor Othell Phillips announced last week that a compromise effort to bring Mt. Olive students now zoned for Bragg Middle and Gardendale High schools would not pass legal challenges, and that the city could not afford to annex that large a part of Mt. Olive.
That brings to an end the opposing campaigns, and at least for the moment, neighbors who battled neighbors over the issue can pause, and churches who dealt with division within their congregations can return to normalcy.
The pro-annexation group MO Matters released a prepared statement Monday evening, expressing their disappointment in the outcome. The statement was given in response to a request from The North Jefferson News for reaction by MO Matters leaders to the failed compromise.
“We believe that the efforts put forth by the city and our state leaders were genuine and meant to be exactly what it was described as, a compromise plan,” read the statement issued by MO Matters leaders Tracy Calvert and Craig Goolsby. “Unfortunately the people of Mt. Olive will not be provided the opportunity to vote on any plan; the city declined to proceed with their efforts because of concerns expressed by attorneys and the opinion of the State Board of Education. Because these opinions were not favorable, and some thought they could jeopardize the city’s separation efforts, the city leadership made a decision not to proceed with their plan for Mt. Olive.
“We are still of the opinion that annexation is the ONLY permanent solution that guarantees school zoning and protects our property values. The city leadership has firmly said that annexation is not financially feasible. We have asked on numerous occasions when the city planned to be in the position to find it financially feasible; based on the response, we do not anticipate that to be an option in the near or distant future.”
Opponents of the annexation were loosely organized, coming together for a forum at the Mt. Olive Community Center that was financed by a collection basket at the door. Yard signs were similarly paid for out-of-pocket. The closest thing that opponents had to a leader was Gene Paul Branham, who served as moderator of the forum.
Branham was glad that the issue of annexation appears to be dead, but sympathizes with Mt. Olive families who still want their children to attend Gardendale schools after the new system breaks away from the Jefferson County Schools.
“I was tickled that they said they were not going to annex, but I was not surprised that the [Gardendale mayor] said that they couldn’t afford it,” Branham said. “I said the whole time that I didn’t see how they thought they could afford it when they couldn’t afford fire protection over in the New Castle area as it is.”
Branham had been skeptical all along that the city could make the numbers work for annexation.
“Doing the math in my head, I just didn’t see how they could afford to provide the city services. With the lack of businesses [to provide sales tax revenue], I didn’t see how it was financially feasible,” he said.
The end of the annexation efforts, at least by any method other than traditional parcel-by-parcel annexation, brings the MO Matters group to a crossroads. For now, they must hope that the new Gardendale Board of Education, whose members have yet to be appointed, will be willing to grandfather their schoolchildren into the new system somehow — and that the Jefferson County Board of Education will be willing to let them go.
“We think it is important to note that if the city and our state officials cannot get us to a solution that is permanent and acceptable for our community, the chances of the school boards making it happen are far less,” the MO Matters statement concluded. “As far as next steps for MO Matters, that has not yet been determined. The city leadership has suggested that we work diligently with the yet-to-be-announced Gardendale School Board membership, and the Jefferson County Board membership to help drive a favorable result for Mt. Olive. At this time we have not determined how, or if, to proceed with this suggestion.”