Baldwin County residents appear to be divided on a $350 million long-term capital building plan for public schools, which calls for an 8-mill increase in ad valorem tax.
Prior to announcing the plan Nov. 13, the Baldwin County Board of Education passed a resolution to propose a referendum, and it will likely be seen on ballots countywide in March.
According to a telephone poll sponsored by WKRG, 50.5 percent of Baldwin County residents oppose the plan while 49.5 said they would vote “yes” for the tax increase.
Further, the poll indicated residents with children or grandchildren in the public school system favor the plan 53 to 47 percent, but the numbers flipped for the opposition for people without children in the system.
“We recognize this is going to be a challenge,” Terry Burkle, executive director of the Baldwin County Education Coalition said. “If you look historically across the state, we live in a very, very conservative county in a very, very conservative state.”
Burkle cited a similar situation when Auburn city schools recently attempted to pass a property tax referendum and were unsuccessful. Additionally, there have been several other tax initiatives that have failed in Baldwin County throughout the years, including one as recently as October, when Orange Beach residents defeated a 5-mill ad valorem tax to create their own city school system.
“I think it’s going to be really close,” she said. “We absolutely do not feel overly confident. We know the only way we are going to be successful is making sure everybody is informed and getting the message out.”
Baldwin County Public School System spokesman Terry Wilhite was more optimistic, saying the probability of the referendum passing is “very high,” though he also noted it will take work to sufficiently inform county residents in order to gain approval of the plan and garner enough votes.
“What we recognized is that now that we are starting to share the message, once people hear it, they understand it,” Burkle said. “So all we are really asking voters is to please take the time to be informed. Don’t just assume things you might hear are true. I feel like there are some people who assume that the district is not accountable with the resources they are given.”
According to Burkle, the school system was audited by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, an independent third-party, and were found to be operating at a 97 percent best practice rate.
“They are one of the most efficiently run school districts in the state of Alabama, where the school system has replenished the reserve fund when so many districts across the state have depleted it,” she said.
Burkle even noted that many chief financial officers from other school districts are referred to Baldwin County to learn about how their system operates financially.
“This is absolutely not a matter of just throwing money at something or asking for more money, that some people would like to assume,” she said.
School officials have said the $28.6 million in additional annual revenue from the proposed increase would stay in Baldwin County to accommodate the rapidly increasing number of students in its school system, which has seen a 25 percent increase in 10 years, representing about 6,158 new students.
Wilhite said the school board has committed to using all the additional money made available through the millage increase exclusively for building and maintaining schools.
Currently, the Baldwin County Education Coalition is forming campaign teams in each community to promote the “Build Baldwin Now” campaign, an initiative launched in collaboration with the school system as a call to action.
“We are creating a master schedule for taking this show on the road and sharing the message with everyone,” Burkle said.
According to Burkle, the campaign is aiming to present the school’s plan at faith-based organizations, community centers, civic organizations, chambers of commerce and “to anyone and everybody who will open their doors.
“We welcome the opportunity to come and communicate and share that message,” she said. “And that’s what we will be doing as much as we can.”
Every community is unique in its needs and each message in the campaign will be tailored to those needs, Burkle said.
While Burkle said the coalition has not seen any formal opposition as of yet, she has seen residents who are undecided and may be uninformed about the school system’s goals.
“I think what we have seen are people who kind of have their doubts or maybe have their guard up, but once we sit down and communicate the message and actually understand, we’ve been very pleased with the response,” she said.
Cori Yonge, executive director of Fairhope Educational Enrichment Foundation, also noted that she has not personally seen any opposition to the proposed tax increase.
“What I see is a very excited community,” she said. “Personally, I hope it would pass so that we can move our schools forward. As a taxpayer in Baldwin County, I support it.”
Yonge, whose daughter currently attends Fairhope High School, said overcrowding is definitely an issue, especially in the intermediate and elementary schools. According to Yonge, Fairhope Intermediate School is “very, very crowded,” and Fairhope Elementary School, which opened several years ago, is already over capacity with 1,100 students.
“I think it’s critical to have this tax pass,” she said. “It’s critical that we invest in our children … I think anywhere around the country, for all Americans, raising taxes is a difficult thing to wrap your head around.”
Burkle said the coalition gained experience getting the vote out with the previous two “penny tax” initiatives, but said those do not really compare to what is proposed.
“This is very different,” she said. “We knew going into the penny sales tax that people are more likely to support a sales tax increase over a property tax increase.”
If the referendum does not pass in March, Burkle said she and the Baldwin County Education Coalition will support and advocate for any decision the district might make in the future.
“Although we are very hopeful and need for this to be successful, we aren’t overly confident,” she said. “We know we’ve got our work cut out so we’re going to do whatever possible from now until whenever the date is set to make sure we succeed.”
According to Wilhite, more portable classrooms will have to be purchased if voters do not pass the referendum. Currently, the system utilizes 100 portables to accommodate a little more than 30,000 students. In nine years, the system projects having 36,000 students and a need of 447 portables, which would cost about $17 million, Assistant Superintendent Russ Moore said during the third annual Baldwin County Education Summit.
“Portables are not an investment,” he said. “Portables are an expense. They’ll never be worth a dime more than the day we buy them.”
With the proposed building plan, school officials said BCPSS could do away with all portable classrooms and eliminate any future use.
“If you want to prepare students for college, you have to have the space and ability to hire teachers,” Yonge said. “You can only go so far on a limited budget.”
A brief history of tax initiatives in Baldwin County
A brief history of tax initiatives in Baldwin County
October, 2014 — Orange Beach residents defeated a 5-mill ad valorem tax to create a city school system by a vote of 1,842 to 928.
November 2012 — 62 percent of Baldwin County’s voters renewed the one-cent sales tax for schools. The tax brings in about $28 million to the school system each year and will last five years.
November 2010 — More than 87 percent of Baldwin County voters rejected what was characterized as a “rain tax,” or a fee added to property tax bills to fund watershed restoration projects.
September 2010 — Orange Beach voters rejected a 2-mill property tax to head off decreased revenue from declining property values and a drop in tourism spending.
May 2010 — The Orange Beach City Council approved a one year, 1-mill property tax increase for general budget purposes.
March 2010 — Baldwin residents voted to levy a three-year, 1-cent sales tax to add about $28 million to the school system’s budget.
June 2008 — Baldwin County voters rejected a Pay-As-You-Go road-improvement plan to raise the county’s property tax rate by 4 mills for five years, to generate about $70 million for a specific list of road projects. In the same referendum, voters gave seniors a property tax break.
March 2007 — After more than three years of discussion, more than two-thirds of voters in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach rejected a proposed 7.5-mill property tax hike that would have supported a joint, independent school system in the two coastal cities.
Information compiled by Gabriel Tynes.