Lee Garrison to be sworn in as Board of Education chairman

Sarah Elizabeth Tooker

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After devoting the past 16 years of his political career to the Tuscaloosa City Council, Lee Garrison looks forward to serving the city in a new way.

Garrison will be sworn into his new role as Chairman of the Board of Education on Nov. 4 at the Tuscaloosa River Market.

“It’s hard to sum it all up, all of those years, because all of the terms have been different and have brought different opportunities and challenges,” Garrison said. “I would have to say the accomplishments that I’m the most proud of are the improvements to the downtown neighborhoods, the riverwalk, the school construction project from the early 2000s and the amphitheater.”

After several terms on the Council, Garrison explained one reason he decided to run for chairman was his ability to take a lot of issues and create a plan to fix them.

“We know that a 70 percent graduation rate is not where we need to be,” he said. “We know that we’ve got challenges with our city school system, but we also have a lot of opportunities.”

The biggest challenge, and also the biggest opportunity, is the tax referendum renewal of 2015, which in two years will renew the city’s current tax rate, Garrison said.

“We’ve got to put together a comprehensive five-year plan and be able to explain that plan and put some confidence in that plan to the public so that they will buy and renew their pledge to the city schools two years from now,” he said. “Without that funding, the hopes of the plan that we’re going to lay out is not going to be feasible because the funds will not be there.”

He explained the plan would include a combination of a capital plan for aging schools, an expansion of pre-kindergarten, a replacement of 75 buses that are almost 14 years old and an effort to bring in social workers.

“We know what we need to do over the next five years, and obviously we’ve got to let the public know that we know what needs to be done,” he said. “Then we have to convince the public that this is where we’re going to spend your money if you go to the polls and renew this tax that you’re already paying. We’re not raising it, we are just renewing the tax that you’ve already been paying for the last 30 years.”

Garrison said he knew he was leaving District 4 in the capable hands of Matt Calderone, who he has been in communication with for well over a year.

Elected to office in 1997, Garrison started his City Council service at 22, the same age Calderone is currently. Garrison said he experienced concerns in regards to his age and student voting participation when he first joined the Council.

Garrison also went through issues that Cason Kirby now faces, like election challenging that went to court 16 years ago and lasted for six months, he said.

“There were 200 or something students on the stand challenging their right to vote, so a lot of what is happening with Cason and a lot of what is happening with Matt. I’m not surprised so to speak,” he said.

Garrison said he is a firm believer in UA students’ right to vote.

“Number one, in the 1970s the federal government started counting college students in the city where they went to college, not where their mom or dad may live, which affects some of our grant funding in a positive way,” he said. “I mean, there you go, our federal government is saying they are a part of that city. That’s a strong statement.”

Garrison said the second reason he supports student involvement in elections is based upon the fact that the state of Alabama requires universities with over 500 students to hold annual voter registration drives.

“No one ever complains when students vote for president or senator or governor, but they all start complaining when they start getting involved in municipal politics, but you can’t pick and choose,” he said.

Garrison explained it creates diversity and balance on the Council when you bring in somebody young.

“Not to pat myself or Mayor Maddox on the back, but we were young when we ran and we had some ideas and a lot of them were things that are now a reality like the riverwalk, the amphitheater and downtown revitalization,” he said. “So younger perspective is not necessarily a bad thing, and we need to embrace it as a good thing.”

Garrison said he believes Calderone is a great listener, which will serve him well in representing District 4.

After meeting with the mayor and several City Council members upon his election, Calderone said his initial goal is to sit back, listen and absorb.

“I’m cognizant of the problems we have right now, but I would be best served, and so would the citizens, if I first sit back and listen and then move forward from there,” Calderone said. “I’ve been meeting with people and hearing their concerns, and I’ve gone out and spoke with a lot of people at the city to make sure I’m in the position to get to work right as soon as I take office. I’m the last person to tell you I have all the answers, but together we can bring Tuscaloosa to the next level.”