Photo | Lagniappe
State Sen. Chris Elliott, Gulf Shores Superintendent Matt Akin and Baldwin County Superintendent Eddie Tyler announced an agreement on disputed financial terms last week.
By John Mullen and Gabriel Tynes
There wasn’t a lot of love in the room for Montgomery on March 21, but when negotiation teams from Baldwin County and Gulf Shores pushed the state aside, the once-bitter rivals brought a separation agreement to an amicable end.
“We settle things better here among ourselves than we do in Montgomery,” State Sen. Chris Elliott said. “That was part of the problem. It was time for the state superintendent to step back. There were politics getting caught up in this that did not need to be involved in the conversations.”
With State Superintendent Dr. Eric Mackey out of the way, Elliott and Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft stepped in to help with the negotiations and came to a solution both sides said was a win.
“That’s the point here,” Elliott said. “They’re all winners here. There was a real potential for there to be losers, and through coming together, through compromise and working out the differences between these two parties, Baldwin County kids win, Gulf Shores kids win. These two are getting back to the business of educating our kids.”
Elliott was standing alongside Baldwin County Superintendent Eddie Tyler and Gulf Shores Superintendent Matt Akin announcing a compromise to what were contentious financial obligations as Gulf Shores prepares to formally separate from the Baldwin County Board of Education and officially open its own school system June 1.
Mackey’s proposal, Tyler said, would have taken an estimated $7 million out of his board’s budget to help Gulf Shores with startup costs. In past separations elsewhere around the state, Tyler said, systems separating from counties were responsible for their own startup costs.
But in the agreement reached locally last week, Baldwin County will continue to receive sales tax revenues through Sept. 30 under the compromise and not fund the payroll for Gulf Shores City Schools in September.
Further, where Gulf Shores was to have taken on about $500,000 of yearly debt service in the first agreement, now Baldwin County will continue to pay that debt for five years — about $2.85 million — to free up funds for Gulf Shores to make its own renovations to transferred school buildings. Baldwin County will continue to collect the sales taxes from June through September to the tune of about $1.8 million. The two boards have also agreed to, “work together to resolve any surplus personnel situations fairly and equitably.”
Both school boards have since approved the agreement.
“The money would have been taken away from what was already budgeted in the 2019 fiscal year,” Tyler said. “What would we have to do, as a school system of close to 32,000 students, had we had to handle proration in the middle of the school year? That was a concern. Through the settlement, it is not a concern.”
“The biggest compromise was let’s get this out of attorneys’ hands and into our hands and move forward for kids,” Akin said. “I think that’s what we did best.”
Initially, both sides almost immediately asked the state Department of Education to intercede because negotiations broke down in February 2018, but it was Mackey’s decree in February 2019 that drove the two sides together and ultimately achieved a settlement.
The lawsuit Baldwin County filed against Mackey is now a moot point. On Monday, Judge Joseph Norton signed an order to dismiss the case with prejudice, following a motion to dismiss by the county filed Friday.
Mackey issued his own statement March 21, saying “I have withdrawn my final order and will fully support the Baldwin County and Gulf Shores agreement as ratified by each board today … I truly appreciate all the efforts by superintendent[s] Akin and Tyler to resolve this issue, as well as those other individuals who encouraged the parties to settle this unnecessary dispute.”
Elliott admitted he recently spoke to Mackey about the disagreements and potential impact of the resulting lawsuit, ultimately deciding he and Craft should leverage their own argument to intervene.
“Education is probably the single most important driver of our growth here in Baldwin County,” he said Thursday. “We didn’t need a prolonged fight in Baldwin County. It’s not good for us economically, it’s not good for the kids, it’s not good for the housing market in this county or in the city of Gulf Shores. So it was my intention to work with other elected officials, and Mayor Craft and I have a long relationship and we were able to talk through this and come to an amicable solution.”
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