After Baldwin County voters shot down a special-election property tax referendum last week, school officials, members of the board of education and elected leaders are looking ahead to determine what’s next.
Public school officials were optimistic about an 8-mill increase in ad valorem tax proposed by the Baldwin County Public School System to fund a $350 million capital plan, before voters took a strong stand at the polls and overwhelmingly defeated the tax March 31.
The plan, focused on alleviating growing pains resulting from the school system’s rapid influx of students, would have funded the construction of new elementary schools in Bay Minette, Daphne and Gulf Shores. Long term, the school system said there was potential for the creation of a new Belforest feeder pattern, including new middle and high schools, as well as a new feeder pattern in Spanish Fort’s “Golden Triangle.”
However, those plans were sidelined when only one of the county’s 48 precincts – in Spanish Fort – voted in favor of the increase. Not only did the nearly 70 percent of Baldwin County residents vote against the new tax increases, which was divided into separate 3-mill and 5-mill tax items on the ballot, but they also created a close race for the one 1-mill and two 3-mill tax renewal items.
“It’s disappointing, of course,” BCPS Superintendent Robbie Owen told a crowd of supporters and media after the election results started to become clear during a gathering school officials hoped would be a celebration party than defeat.
In addition to losing new tax revenue, the school system lost a total of 4 mills, or $14 million per year, decreasing its acquired millage from 12 mills to 8 mills. According to Baldwin County Commissioners Tucker Dorsey and Chris Elliott, 1 mill equates to about $3.5 million; however, state law requires the commission keep the system’s millage at 10 mill, leaving BCPS’s final loss at $7 million.
During a special-called Baldwin County Commission meeting Wednesday afternoon to certify the results of Tuesday night’s vote, Dorsey said he and the commission are currently trying to determine what exactly the results mean in regard to equity funding and the 10-mill mandatory required by the state constitution.
“We don’t know exactly what our requirements are. We are crossing the bridges as we get to them and figure out what we’re going to do next and how to deal with the issue,” Dorsey said. “Unfortunately, the state constitution, the way it seems … wants to force us to go against the will of the voters, which doesn’t leave a good taste in the commission’s mouth or the voters’ mouth to send money to other counties for their education systems. So, it’s a tough spot. We’re doing our homework to figure out what we can do and what we can’t do. BCBE has got some serious decisions to make as well.”
According to a financial summary by BCPS Chief Financial Officer John Wilson, the school system currently receives 12 mills; whereas, 10 mills must be used to match the state and be placed into a state funding pool distributed to other systems – leaving only 2 mills available in Baldwin County.
“Does that get in the equity funding debate? We’d sure like it to,” Dorsey said. “ … Quite frankly, for me personally, it comes down to the issue of current use. We’re basically funding Wilcox County and their ability to have current use … so, it’s a conversation we’ve got to do our homework on and figure out what’s up and down.”
Either way, Dorsey said the BCBE is down about $25 million in renewals alone if the last tax item in question, a 3-mill renewal tax, ultimately fails.
“Significant money is being pulled from BCBE,” he said. “They’re going to have tough decisions to make based on what we are faced with. We’ll work together to solve the problem one way or another.”
With about 440 provisional ballots still left to be counted, the fate of the lone 3-mill, to close to call tax renewal still remains unknown; however, Baldwin County Probate Judge Tim Russell said results of the provisional ballots are “very unlikely” to flip the vote in the opposite direction.
“It’s mathematically possible, but very unlikely that the 3-mill won’t pass,” he said, noting provisional ballots typically come from new citizens who haven’t registered or people who recently moved into the county. “Only about 40 percent average to be valid votes … it’s probably going to be split pretty much the way the other vote went, so the 3-mill I think will pass.”
As far as the school board’s next move, Russell said BCBE could request another tax referendum as they deem fit and could tack it on the March election ballot next year, which would be a presidential primary.
While Russell said he was “not really” surprised by the election results, he believes the campaigns could have been better presented to adequately inform Baldwin County residents.
“As a lifetime citizen of Baldwin County, I just don’t think that all the information was out there that was needed by the voter to understand how serious this matter is,” he said, again citing Baldwin County as one of the fastest growing counties in the state. Russell went on to praise the BCPS, having himself been a product of the county’s public school system.
“If we lose any part of that educational system, and we want continued growth and vitality, it concerns me,” he said.
Elliott, who openly encouraged residents to vote in agreement with all five items on the ballot, said the decisive vote clearly indicates what taxpayers want — a significant reduction in the amount of funding they’re providing to schools.
“It puts us in a very tough spot, and I say us … it’d be very easy for me to say this was a school board problem, but that’s not really how i look at it,” he said. “This is all of Baldwin together, and it puts us in a rough spot moving forward as we try to address the very real funding needs that the school system has.”
Elliott went on to say that the election results “undoubtedly” put the county in a bind.
“The county was in a bind,” he said. “Even the ‘no’ vote folks will tell you that the county was in a bind beforehand with the growth challenges we’re facing.”
School officials and members of the BCBE are expected to reconvene after spring break. The next school board work session is scheduled for April 14 and the next regularly scheduled board meeting is April 16.