Students, parents and educators filled the Daphne Civic Center Nov. 13 with roaring cheers and applause during the third annual Baldwin County Education Summit, where school officials presented a $350 million plan aiming to construct several new schools in the Baldwin County Public School System.
Just prior to the summit, the Baldwin County Board of Education passed a resolution to propose an 8-mill increase in ad valorem tax, for a referendum likely to be seen on ballots countywide in March.
Officials said the $28.6 million in additional annual revenue from the proposed increase would stay in Baldwin County and be used solely for building and maintaining facilities 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.
Communication Director Terry Wilhite said the probability of the tax increase referendum passing is “very high,” though he noted it will take work to sufficiently inform county residents in order to gain approval of the plan and garner enough votes. Wilhite maintained the school board has committed to using any extra money from a millage increase exclusively for building and maintaining schools.
Chief School Financial Officer Josh Wilson presented a 19-slide PowerPoint presentation to the summit audience, detailing the school system’s current financial situation, its long-term capital plan, current ad valorem revenues along with state funding figures and a breakdown of estimated costs. Wilson cited close to a $12 million, or 22 percent decline in ad valorem revenue and almost $1 billion less in state funding since 2008.
Wilson said Baldwin County currently receives 12 mills of ad valorem property tax for education, which falls way below the amount collected by other area systems. For example, Mobile County receives 29.5 mills within the cities of Mobile and Prichard and 21.5 mills outside the city limits, he said. Furthermore, Mountain Brook receives 52.9 mills, Vestavia Hills 52.02 mills, Hoover 46 mills, Homewood 37.5 mills, Jefferson County 30 mills, Shelby County 30 mills and Huntsville 27.5 mills.
Wilson also addressed whether or not the existing 1-cent sales tax could be used for education, which he said was a frequently asked question. Because the temporary sales tax expires May 31, 2018, it cannot be used to pay for a capital projects bond, Wilson said.
“We cannot pledge a 5-year tax to pay for a 30-year construction bond,” he said.
Wilson told the audience the penny tax was put in place to help restore the cuts in state funding, and if state funding is restored to pre-recession levels, the county will have comparable funding to allow the tax to expire.
Lastly, Wilson explained how much an 8-mill increase would cost taxpayers. With $184,900 being the average home value in Baldwin County, taxpayers would see an average increase of $148 per year, which breaks down to $12 per month or 41 cents per day, he said.
Assistant Superintendent Russ Moore discussed the current infrastructure and overcrowding problems faced by each of the district’s seven feeder patterns while Baldwin County native and Interim Superintendent Robbie Owen detailed the school board’s plan to eradicate those issues over the next 10 years.
The capital building plan is as follows:
A new Bay Minette Elementary School for grades K-6 will be built within the next three years, replacing the current elementary school dating to 1921. Additionally, eight new classrooms will replace an older wing at Perdido Elementary School and Baldwin County High School will see an addition to its Career Tech Center as the North Baldwin Career Tech Center will move to the high school’s campus within the next five years.
A new elementary school for grades K-6 in the Belforest area was named an “immediate need.” Short term goals include additions at both Daphne Elementary School and Daphne Middle School along with upgrades to Daphne High School’s Trojan Hall, Owen said.
Fairhope has seen a 21 percent student increase in 10 years, representing 827 new students. Owen said it is essential for a 20-room addition to Fairhope High School, currently the second largest high school in the county, to be built within the next three years. Additionally, the former downtown K-1 Center will be renovated and reopened. Fairhope Middle School will also see an addition within five years, he said.
According to the plan, a new 13-acre land purchase will allow Foley Intermediate School to expand to accommodate grades K-6 while an addition will be made to Foley High School, the largest high school in the county with 1,819 students. Foley Middle School may also see an addition with the renovation of the old auditorium to a fine arts wing.
Additionally, an expansion at Elberta Elementary School will accommodate grades K-6 and a renovation at Elberta Middle will accommodate grades 7-12, essentially creating a new high school to alleviate the growing number of students at Foley High School.
Perhaps one of the most exciting moments for the audience during the education summit was the announcement of a new high school for the city of Gulf Shores, which, according to Moore, has seen a 40 percent increase in 10 years, representing 814 students. The new Gulf Shores High School will accommodate 1,600 students. Orange Beach Elementary will receive an addition to accommodate grades 7-8 and a new elementary school will be built within 10 years, Owen said.
Plans to expand Robertsdale High School include a larger cafeteria, the addition of career tech classrooms, upgrading the track and field with lights and resurfacing, moving practice fields and creating additional parking.
At Elsanor Elementary School, an addition will replace seven portables with 10 new classrooms. Baldwin Middle School will also see 10 new classrooms. Owen also said Loxley’s “Golden Triangle” area could develop into its own feeder pattern in the next 7-10 years, creating a new elementary, middle and high school.
Spanish Fort, the fastest growing feeder pattern with a 71 percent increase in 10 years representing 1,465 new students, will see multiple additions to Spanish Fort High School, including a two-story, 40-room addition, which includes a gymnasium, a cafeteria addition, a gym remodeling and additional parking areas, Owen said. He said the additions were immediate needs to take place within the next three years.
Overall, the system’s main goals are to remove all portable classrooms and provide long term sustainable schools for the growing student population.
Currently, the system utilizes 100 portables to accommodate a little more than 30,000 students. In nine years if this plan does not pass, the system projects having 36,000 students and need of 447 portables, which would cost about $17 million, Moore said.