Leaders in Tuscaloosa County asked residents to vote against raising property taxes to fund the local school system Tuesday over allegations of racism at Hillcrest High and other schools in the district.

The Tuscaloosa Chapter of the NAACP called for the organized opposition during a press conference in front of the Tuscaloosa County School System Central Office on Greensboro Avenue Monday afternoon.

The problems began to surface when students at Hillcrest were reportedly planning their annual Black History Month program several weeks ago.

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Lisa Young, the president of the Tuscaloosa Chapter of the NAACP, said Hillcrest's assistant principal told students including senior Jamiyah Brown that the program should not include topics from before 1970 - including slavery and the Civil Rights movement - because they would make some people uncomfortable.

TCSS administrators have denied that conversation ever happened, calling it a rumor started by someone not involved with planning the program. Things boiled over after a series of meetings and conversations did not bring resolution, and several hundred high school students walked out of class at Hillcrest last week to protest the situation.

Superintendent Keri Johnson commented on the matter last week and promised to host earnest discussions about it all beginning Monday, but Young and Brown said they left their meetings very disappointed.

"What I want to see from the administrators and the Tuscaloosa County School System is to first admit there is a problem," Brown said. "Because throughout the whole meeting we just had, no one admitted that there was a problem."

Brown, fighting tears, said there is a culture of racial insensitivity at Hillcrest, where 55 percent of the student population are children of color, but all administrators are reportedly white.

Young said the NAACP believes what students are telling them about conditions at Hillcrest and at other TCSS schools, promising more information detailing problems at other institutions later.

Because the parties could not come to an agreement Monday, Young said the NAACP is asking Tuscaloosa County to vote no in a Tuesday special election on whether to raise property taxes to fund TCSS.

The taxes, outlined here, would generate at least $15 million annually for TCSS for the next 30 years.

"One of the requests of the students is that citizens in the county not support the tax referendum scheduled for tomorrow's vote," Young said. "We are asking people to su[pport these students by going to the polls tomorrow and voting no. While we want quality education for all students in Alabama, we cannot trust that the funds received would be used to benefit all students equally."

Young said the NAACP will also host two events this weekend to support the students -- details on those will follow soon.

Young was joined by Bernard Simelton, the President of the statewide Alabama NAACP.

"How can you, in America, talk about having a black history month where you can't even talk about slavery and history?" Simelton said. "Despite what some of our legislators have said, this county was founded on slavery and slaves are the backbone of this nation."

For more on the situation at TCSS as it develops and for the results of Tuesday's special election on the property tax increase as they come in, stay connected to the Tuscaloosa Thread.

UPDATE: Superintedent Johnson provided the following statement to area media outlets after the press conference.

This afternoon, Ms. Lisa Young indicated that the Tuscaloosa County School System is not serious about investigating the concerns of our students at Hillcrest High School. That is absolutely not true. Today, we began the process of listening to our students about their school culture and climate; how we move forward will be guided by what we learn from our students. We are serious about hearing from our students openly and honestly, and this process will not be completed in just one day.

During the press conference, there was also discussion of a student not being able to participate in the Hillcrest High Black History Program. The Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act prevents a school system from discussing details of individual student records. There may be additional details that are relevant to why a student is unable to participate in the program. However, it is against the law for us to openly to discuss student records. Ms. Young is aware of FERPA, because she noted it during her comments this afternoon.

The Black History Program at Hillcrest High School is student-led and student-created. TCSS supports our students in expressing themselves, and including all parts of history, such as slavery and the civil rights movement, in their program. We also teach these topics in our history classes, as they are part of the Alabama State Department of Education history standards. It is important that our study of Black History is inclusive and sensitive.

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