Birmingham City Council delays BSC funding decision until at least mid-April

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A sign on the Birmingham Southern College campus shows the school's seal and reads "Birmingham Southern College 1856."

Zoe McDonald, WBHM

The Birmingham City Council needs more questions answered before it will officially lend its support to the financially struggling Birmingham-Southern College.

A “resolution of intent” on the agenda for Tuesday’s council meeting would have seen the city promise to provide financial support to BSC — if the college could also secure binding funding commitments from the state of Alabama and the Jefferson County Commission.

But some councilors were reluctant to make that commitment without further discussions with college administrators first.

Birmingham-Southern College has been in a financially precarious position since at least 2010, when then-President David Pollick resigned over accounting practices that had tanked the school’s credit rating and winnowed its endowment from $114 million to $60 million. Though Pollick’s successors — most significantly Gen. Charles Krulak, president from 2011 to 2015 — managed to restructure the college’s debt and temporarily stabilize its finances, things have remained uncertain.

In December, BSC President Daniel Coleman announced that the college was seeking public funding to ensure “sound financial footing for the long term” for the college. An official press release stated the college’s predicament plainly: “Without a healthy endowment, the economic model under which BSC operates is simply not sustainable for the long term.”

Part of Coleman’s plan to save the college was to seek $12.5 million in American Rescue Plan Act Funding from the Alabama Legislature — which it did not receive. Now, Coleman is seeking a one-time investment of $30 million from the state’s Education Trust Fund, as well as $7.5 million from local governmental entities — $5 million from Birmingham and $2.5 million from Jefferson County.

Coleman said that BSC’s board of trustees must decide the college’s future by the end of March “to give students time to decide where to transfer and help faculty and staff prepare for a change none of us want to make.”

Birmingham City Councilor Hunter Williams during the Sept. 27, 2022, council meeting. (Facebook livestream)

District 2 Councilor Hunter Williams, who recommended Tuesday’s resolution of intent along with District 8 Councilor Carol Clarke, said that the city’s vote of support would “give a nod to the other governmental agencies as well as to potential private donors … that the city is behind them.”

District 3 Councilor Valerie Abbott added that BSC closing “would be a disaster for Birmingham.” City action, she said, “has been long overdue. We’ve been muttering about it but we haven’t done anything.”

But other members of the council would not be rushed. Council President Pro Tempore Crystal Smitherman, while repeatedly asserting that she is “not anti-Birmingham-Southern,” argued Tuesday that councilors had not been given adequate opportunity to question Coleman about the college’s, sustainability plan and other funding sources.

“I want us to kind of slow down for a minute,” she said. “Let’s be effective with this decision and not just do this because it’s a feel-good (resolution).”

Birmingham City Councilor Crystal Smitherman (Source: Council’s Facebook page)

District 1 Councilor Clinton Woods concurred, saying that conversations with the college about its financial situation had begun last year and “need to be completed,” particularly regarding the institution’s sustainability plan and its diversity initiatives. “Doing this at this time is not in my mind the best way to handle this,” he said. “A lot of us were honestly blindsided by this. … I don’t think the citizens that we represent have been given the opportunity to understand the situation that (BSC) faces, how they got there and their plan to get out.”

The council voted to delay discussion of the proposed resolution until its next committee of the whole meeting, which is scheduled for April 19 at 3:30 p.m. Clarke and District 5 Councilor Darrell O’Quinn were the only votes against that delay.

 

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