Last week the voters of Orange Beach responded to a series of proposed tax increases with a resounding “no,” effectively ending the second attempt to create a city-run school system in seven years.
After all the votes were tallied, those opposed to leaving the Baldwin County School System almost doubled the number of those supporting a city-run operation in Orange Beach. The certified results showed 1,842 voting “yes” and 928 voting “no.”
Following the referendum, Baldwin County Interim Superintendent Robbie Owen wasted no time reaching out to Orange Beach and Mayor Tony Kennon, a man who was very vocal about his concerns with the system in the weeks leading up to the referendum.
“I met with Mayor Kennon last (week), just trying to bridge the gap between the school system and Orange Beach – mend some fences,” Owen said. “Some of the things I don’t think I can completely talk about yet, but he gave me some of their concerns and we’re going to be considering and addressing some of those.”
Though Owen didn’t get into specifics, he did say city leaders desire a new middle school in Orange Beach to help with some of the crowding and traffic problems at Gulf Shores Middle School and Gulf Shores High School.
Those types of requests aren’t anything new for Owen or the system. Currently, the residents of Elberta are making a similar plea for a high school in their city to alleviate overcrowding in Foley.
In fact, Owen doesn’t deny either of the two main points many in Orange Beach gave for wanting to leave Baldwin County Schools. The school system is continuing to see rapid growth, has limited space and doesn’t currently have the finances or bonding capability to build new schools.
According to information released by the system last year, enrollment at Baldwin County schools has grown 33 percent since 2000. At an average of just over 2 percent each year, the system is on pace to be one of the state’s largest in the next decade — adding more than 500 students in each of the last three years.
Currently, the system is also using more than 90 portable classrooms at its various schools.
Owen said the Gulf Shores, Foley and Spanish Fort areas have seen the most growth in recent years and as a result, Foley, Rockwell and Gulf Shores elementary schools have seen the highest influx of student population.
“The issue we have in Baldwin County is revenue,” said Communications Director Terry Wilhite. “We’re in solid financial shape and we have more than $40 million in our reserves, but there’s no money to build facilities.”
In Alabama, all public school systems are required to send 10 mils of the ad valorem taxes they collect to the state. Systems are allowed to keep whatever they collect over that 10-mil mark, but according to Wilhite, Baldwin County only collects 12 total mils, not very much compared to systems like Mobile County that collect more than 20.
Like many systems, Baldwin County also took a big financial hit after the 2008 recession.
The electorate in Baldwin County passed a one-cent emergency sales tax in 2010 and then elected to extend it again in 2012, a vote that kept the school system from losing $28 million of annual revenue and potentially closing the doors at some of its facilities. However, that five-year agreement is set to expire in 2017.
Wilhite said the unreliable nature of that temporary income makes it difficult for the system to borrow from a bond program because it can’t show a 20-plus year stream of sustainable income.
“In 2008 we completed a $150 million construction program, wiped out all of our portables and redid an elementary school. That didn’t last very long,” he said. “The population continues to grow and though that means more money from the state, that funding primarily goes to hire employees. It does not include an allocation for school buildings.”
Because of those issues, the Baldwin County School Board has hired Steve Salmon, an expert in facilities management and planning out of Atlanta, to analyze the system and determine where growth is happening currently and where it’s anticipated to happen in the future.
Owen said Salmon’s work would help the board prioritize what is needed in the system and where it’s needed the most. He said the board has set a goal of releasing some kind of plan in November based on the information Salmon has gathered.
“The first thing I wanted to address was seeing if there’s any overspending,” Owen said. “We’ve tried to look at anything that could be cut back, but I don’t want any misconceptions, it won’t be personnel. We’ve just looked at programs we might have that are duplicates or no longer useful.”
Owen said money saved from those types of cuts wouldn’t be nearly enough to build schools, but he said it’s important the board do its part.
He didn’t get into any detail about how the school system might try to make up for its lack of facilities funding because the school system has yet to prioritize what its greatest needs are and what they might cost.
He did say the system’s primary focus is quality, in both its instruction and its current faculties, which have seen some recent improvements.
According to Wilhite, the system has recently completed around $34 million in improvements to several schools, including a 25-classroom addition to Rockwell Elementary School and a new cafeteria at Rosinton Elementary School.
Wilhite also said the Baldwin County Commission has been working with the school board to address the continuing growth in county, which he called a “community challenge.”
“The (school) board has no tax-levying authority, the county government does,” he said. “That dialog and knowing what issues they have on their front is helping us as we move forward.”