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Photo by Jon Anderson.
Numerous people in the Hoover community are hoping Vestavia Hills will keep the stadium at the former Berry High School named after the popular Berry Coach Bob Finley, who died of a heart attack while doing field maintenance at the stadium in 1994.
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Photo by Jon Anderson.
The “Quest for Knowledge” mural on the side of the former Berry High School is a source of pride for many people in the Hoover community, and the Vestavia Hills schools superintendent said it will be treated with honor and respect.
Ever since Hoover school officials announced they were considering selling the former Berry High School campus to Vestavia Hills, some Berry alumni and former teachers have worried about what would happen to the giant mural on the building that faces Columbiana Road.
The tile mural, designed by a former Berry High art student and completed in 1965 with more than 138,000 tiles, covers a 20-foot-by-42-foot brick wall and depicts five fields of education: the humanities, sciences, arts, mathematics and athletics. Five silhouetted individuals holding symbols of those fields surround a torch shining as a beacon for those who seek the truth through education. The various hues of the figures represent the diversity of races among mankind.
Wayne Wood, a retired teacher and coach for Hoover City Schools who worked at Berry High School under the popular Berry coach Bob Finley, said the Berry mural and campus should be a source of pride and respect not only for people in Hoover, but also in Vestavia Hills, the Birmingham/Jefferson County area and state as a whole.
“It is certainly a landmark worth preserving for future generations, but more importantly a symbol for unity in society through education and cooperation,” Wood said.
Before Vestavia Hills formed its own school system in 1970 and Hoover formed its school system in 1988, students from the two cities attended Berry High School together as part of the Jefferson County school system. Wood said he hopes Vestavia will not only save the mural but also keep Finley’s name on the football stadium.
Vestavia Hills schools Superintendent Sheila Phillips said Vestavia officials recognize that the Berry campus is a place brimming with history and pride.
“If Vestavia Hills acquires the Berry campus, we will treat the facility, its historic mural and the Finley name on its stadium with the honor and respect they deserve,” Phillips said in a written statement. “Our goal in purchasing this facility is to meet the educational needs of our students, not to tear down the legacy of a school that once served both our communities.”
The Vestavia Hills Board of Education offered the Hoover Board of Education $11 million for the property, including $2 million that came from the city of Vestavia Hills. The Hoover City Council on May 16 de-annexed the Berry property from the city of Hoover so Vestavia Hills can annex it. State law prohibits city school systems from operating schools outside of their city limits.
The Hoover City Council could have used that requirement to block the sale of the property and keep it in Hoover, but council members said they wanted to cooperate with the wishes of the Hoover school board.
Council President Jack Wright said it’s the school board’s property and needs a lot of money spent on it, and if the school board can put $11 million in the bank and that’s the board’s desire, the council will honor their desire. The campus never had adequate parking for a school and is on the edge of Hoover anyway, Wright said.
The city of Hoover looked at the property long and hard and even offered to pay $9 million for it in April 2015, with the idea of turning it into a sports complex.
School officials did not act on the city’s offer because Superintendent Kathy Murphy wanted to first consider all potential educational uses of the property first, and the City Council rescinded its offer in November, having identified a better site for the sports complex, Wright said.
Councilman John Lyda said clearly the Hoover Board of Education has no interest in the property. He thinks it would be bad business “to pull the rug out from under the Board of Education” by refusing to de-annex the campus.
Councilman John Greene said he had mixed emotions about de-annexing the property because it has been with the school system and city for so long. His wife, Assistant Superintendent Melody Greene, graduated from Berry High School and his children went there when it was a middle school, he said.
However, even though part of the campus is being used as the Crossroads alternative school and for office space for some central office employees, much of the building is in disrepair and it would cost a lot of money for the school system to get it back up to code for use again, Greene said.
“I think we’re at the point now where the best thing for the school system is to sell the property,” he said.
Councilman Brian Skelton said that because the school board wants to sell the property, he will support it. However, he personally believes at “some time in the future, we’ll probably wish we had it back.”
Meanwhile, Vestavia officials still are trying to figure out exactly how they want to use the Berry campus.
Phillips said they don’t yet know which students the Berry campus will serve, but it’s easy to see the district needs more room for students. Schools such as Vestavia Hills Elementary Central, Louis Pizitz Middle School and Vestavia Hills High School have been operating at capacity for some time, she said.
“We believe the purchase of the Berry campus coupled with available space at other facilities in the district may present us with the option of reconfiguring our middle schools into junior high schools,” Phillips said.
The idea of moving away from Vestavia’s longstanding commitment to the middle school model requires more than just space, Phillips said. It also requires the district to rethink its approach to curriculum and instruction, athletics and extracurricular programs, she said.
“These issues require thoughtful consideration and input from our stakeholders,” she said. “This process is still in its infancy. We will ensure that our stakeholders have the opportunity to make their voices heard in the conversations that take place in the months ahead.”
Some parts of the Berry campus need renovation before they can be used, Phillips said.
In addition to spending $11 million to buy the Berry property, Vestavia officials likely would need to spend $20 million to $21 million to renovate the school in phases, Phillips said in March.
The shell and structure of the building is strong, but some parts are better than others, she said. Because the school dates back to the 1960s and is so traditional in its design, a lot of redesigning may be necessary to meet current needs, Phillips said.
She knows discussions about campuses and facilities are sensitive topics for residents in the two communities, so she’s thankful that Hoover officials have worked collaboratively with Vestavia officials in this endeavor, she said.