The Baldwin County school board has agreed to a tax tradeoff with the County Commission, and the next move is up to the local legislative delegation.
In return for the commission enacting a penny sales tax to replace one that will expire next year, the school board Jan. 19 approved restructuring a second, older penny sales tax to provide as much as $5 million a year more to the commission for roads and bridges. In contrast to the commission’s action earlier this month, the school board’s action was marked by extensive public debate.
The second penny tax dates back to 1984. It originally was split among the school board, the county and Faulkner State Community College, with 55 percent of the proceeds going to the Baldwin public schools, 40 percent to the County Commission and 5 percent to Faulkner, now known as Coastal Alabama Community College.
The school board, by a vote of 4-2, agreed to flip-flop the percentages between the schools and the county, giving the county more money and the school board less. Board members David Cox and Tony Myrick voted against the change. Board member Cecil Christenberry was absent.
The penny sales tax enacted by the County Commission replaces a temporary tax expiring on May 31, 2018. Although part of the deal, it is not affected by the school board’s decision. The changes in the second penny tax, however, must be approved by the Legislature and will have to be pushed forward by the seven-member Baldwin delegation.
Sen. Trip Pittman, for one, has reservations.
The temporary tax had been extended previously by a vote of the citizens. “My preference was that they get a chance to vote on it again,” Pittman told Lagniappe.
Pittman also said the County Commission acted at “the 11th hour” in making the tax permanent. He said the local delegation will have to evaluate the school board resolution passed Thursday.
Regardless, Pittman thinks some action may be needed to amend the allocation of the second penny tax because Faulkner State is now the flagship of the Coastal Alabama Community College system. Not only has the name changed, Pittman said, but the Baldwin delegation needs to ensure that the 5 percent allocated to the former Faulkner State remains in Baldwin County rather than going to other schools in the new system.
Rep. Steve McMillan said he thinks the delegation will ratify the school board’s action, but will have to discuss it together. “I think there’s room for discussion, but I don’t think there will be any significant changes,” he said.
Prior to the school board’s vote, members of the public were given the opportunity to speak not only at the Thursday meeting, but earlier in the week during an unusual work session at Silverhill Elementary.
At that work session on Jan. 17, School Superintendent Eddie Tyler declared that the permanent penny sales for public schools passed by the County Commission was the start of a new partnership between the two bodies.
Tyler had declined to speak about his role in the process of passing the tax until then. He described the event as “surreal” and something he did not expect until he learned that at a least a majority of commissioners favored the idea.
“I had a hard time believing this because we live in the most conservative county in Alabama. We do not often see such bravery among politicians that runs contrary to the general anti-tax policies of the South,” Tyler said. “Boy, was I wrong.”
The temporary penny tax has been in effect for several years but had been subject to renewal. The $38 million to $40 million it brings in annually was critical to the school system, but the system could make no long-term financial projections that included it, school officials said.
They were working on how to make drastic cuts, including elimination of teaching positions, when former Superintendent Larry Newton came up with the idea of asking the commission to enact a permanent tax. Tyler said even he did not know about it initially.
“It has been suggested that this proposal, this resolution, was done in the darkness of night. This did not and could not happen because of the Open Meetings Act,” Tyler said. “Until the day of the County Commission meeting I had not discussed this matter with the board. In fact, I mentioned to [Commissioner Frank] Burt, when he and I met, that I had not discussed this proposal with my board because, again, it would violate the Open Meetings Act.”
In fact, the vote was taken publicly, but those involved have come in for criticism because it was not discussed publicly until the day of the commission meeting, and the agenda item was not posted until Friday afternoon before the New Year’s holiday weekend.
Tyler, however, said legislators, commissioners and school board members had been meeting about the tax issue for a year.
“This issue has been covered in the press for well over a year,” he said. “There should be no surprise to anyone that resolving the penny tax and creating long-term stable funding are the priority No. 1 for this system.”
Board President Shannon Cauley said members of the public are usually not allowed to speak during a work session, only in the regular board meeting. On Tuesday, she let anyone who wanted to speak up on the tax plan have his or her say.
“The school board has no authority to levy our own funding,” Cauley said. The permanent tax provides stability to the system and lets board members focus on improving the schools, not on how to get through the latest financial crisis.
Cox, who voted against the plan two days later, expressed reservations about the loss of the nearly $5 million that would go to the county. That, plus the rejection by voters of a 1-mill property tax that will expire in 2018, would not leave enough money for capital projects such as classroom additions or new schools, he said.
Tyler said the sales tax money wasn’t a loss to the school system, but an investment in safe roads and bridges on which school buses and children travel. He also said the school system was saving $7 million a year by switching to Google Chrome laptops for students from the MacBook laptops in which the system previously invested.