Baldwin County Schools Superintendent Eddie Tyler declared Tuesday that the permanent penny sales for public schools passed by the County Commission was the start of a new partnership between the two bodies.
During a school board work session at Silverhill Elementary, Tyler asked for a unanimous vote in favor of the second piece of plan: giving the County Commission 55 percent instead of 40 percent of a second penny sales tax dating back to 1984. The county would receive some $5 million in additional revenue for roads and bridges, and the school board would receive the 40 percent split.
The board is scheduled to vote on the matter Thursday.
On Jan. 3, the commission unanimously enacted a 1-cent sales tax for the public schools that would take effect when the current temporary tax expires May 31, 2018. Tyler, who had declined to speak about his role in the process until Tuesday, 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.”
In contrast, Tuesday’s discussion was marked by unusual public participation. 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.
Although he did not say how he would vote on Thursday, board member David Cox 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, will 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.
If the school board approves the new revenue split between the county and the school system, it still must go to the Legislature for approval. However, the penny tax enacted by the County Commission would not be affected.