The city of Fairhope’s Education Advisory Committee (EAC) is preparing a pitch to the city council that will seek guidance on the committee’s efforts to improve funding and help the city’s feeder pattern reach the council’s goal of being a “top 10” school in the state. At its meeting on Tuesday evening at the Fairhope Public Library, the EAC discussed three options for funding the schools in the city’s feeder pattern.
The first option is to continue its annual $350,000 funding, which comes from community development money from a utility fund account and is divided among the five schools in the city. The EAC has funded schools at that level for three years with textbooks, Promethean boards, science lab equipment and funding for tutors among the items purchased with the money.
That option is the least desirable for EAC members, who believe the current level of funding will not get the schools to the “top 10” level in light of the county’s reduction in millage levels from the March 31 tax referendum.
The second is option is to create a special tax district to raise approximately $1.3 million annually, which voters in the district would have to approve a three-mill property tax increase to fund.
The third option is to ask the city council to fund an update to the feasibility study on an independent school system, which the city spent $25,000 on in 2010. The EAC has expressed interest in using a different consultant and seeking a less expensive option this time around.
The EAC will present these options to the council at its June 22 work session, with the hope that the council will add funding for a new independent schools study to a future council agenda.
“We are risking everything that is here now if we don’t explore these options,” committee member Hill Robinson said. “It is like we have this beautiful Saturn 5 rocket sitting on a launch pad, but we have no fuel to boost it.”
Committee members expressed frustration with the projections the county school system used in the Build Baldwin Now campaign, which they said underestimated the population growth in Fairhope’s schools. At a feeder pattern meeting at Fairhope High School in April 2014, school officials said growth was steady in Fairhope, but not enough to warrant building new schools or expansion of existing properties without additional revenue.
Figures provided at the meeting showed a five-year projection of 211 new students at the high school, 75 new students at the intermediate school, 57 more at the middle school, 48 at J. Larry Newton Elementary and a loss of two students at the elementary school. The Baldwin County school system uses a combination of birth rates, four-year cohort averages for every school and grade, the average age of citizens in each feeder pattern, housing permits and development data to determine projections for future growth.
“We were basically told we were getting very little from the vote yet we were so close, our community believes in education so much, we were within just a few points of voting this in,” Robinson said.
Voters rejected the school system’s proposed $350 million capital campaign that would have required an eight-mill ad valorem tax increase and also rejected the renewal of the current level of funding, leaving the county short of the 10 mills the state requires. The property tax renewals could be placed on the “Super Tuesday” presidential primary ballot in March 2016.
Councilwoman Diana Brewer, who is the city council’s liaison to the EAC, said the committee needs to present a clear picture of what it needs to get the city’s schools to the “top 10” level.
“What you need to say to the council is, ‘this is the reality’,” Brewer said. “There is nobody in the community that can make a decision about where we are going to go other than the council and the mayor. You can’t put this on the backs of the schools, you can’t put this on the backs of the committee or the citizens. Nobody can make a decision about this but the council.”
In other business at the Tuesday evening EAC meeting, the committee invited principals from schools in the Fairhope feeder pattern to discuss how they have spent funds allocated for 2015, which must be spent by December 31. Fairhope Elementary principal Terry Beasley, Fairhope Intermediate principal Carol Broughton and Fairhope High School principal Jon Cardwell were present.