After a letter sent out Thursday by the Baldwin County Public School System urged bus drivers and other transportation department employees not to use two area gas stations owned by a county resident openly opposed to the upcoming school tax referendum, BCPSS Superintendent Robbie Owen three days later retracted the instructions.
“Our purchases should always be based on the best economic decision for the school system, and I’ve worked hard since becoming superintendent to stress to all of our employees that we make the best business decisions based on good judgment. Fuel is no different,” Owen said in a prepared statement provided to Lagniappe Monday morning. “The school system uses vendors who accept our Fuelman Card and bus drivers and other employees who have the Fuelman Card should always make the best business decision in choosing where to fill up. Any and all Fuelman locations should be in consideration, including Mr. Sprigg’s locations that the previous administration did not include.”
Kevin Spriggs, owner of the Malbis Shell Station at State Highway 181 and U.S. Highway 90 and the Jubilee Shell Station at U.S. Highway 90 in Daphne, said a BCPSS school employee informed him about the letter but also noted as of Friday morning, he has not been personally contacted by school officials.
Friday evening, BCPSS spokesperson Terry Wilhite released a statement to Lagniappe saying there had been no recent decision made about what gas stations to use in Spanish Fort, and the letter sent to employees was intended to be a “simple reminder” of a decision that was made in 2013 under the direction of former superintendent Dr. Alan Lee.
Further, Wilhite said there are hundreds of gas stations in Baldwin County and many of them are not used by BCPSS, emphasising Spriggs’ two gas stations in Spanish Fort were not being exclusively singled out.
“I regret I didn’t know more about the fuel procedures so I could address them at the outset, and I’ve let Mr. Spriggs know that I want to be fair to everyone,” Owen’s statement read. “I regret this has become a distraction for him. I know we all want to move forward in doing what’s best.”
According to the letter sent by BCPSS Transportation Coordinator Michael Vivar, bus drivers and department personnel “CANNOT” fuel school buses and vehicles at either locations, per the superintendent. The letter provided two alternate gas stations to use as fueling sites in the same vicinity.
“It appears to be like a command letter,” Spriggs said.
Spriggs, who has owned and operated the gas stations for about 15 years, said he does not believe the letter has anything to do with the fuel program between his gas stations and Baldwin schools, as the school system’s discounted gas prices are based on a negotiated price with a card service in which BCPSS had agreed.
“So, it doesn’t have anything to do with the price. That’s set with their negotiated price,” Spriggs said. “I can’t say for sure, but it just looks like if you disagree with this tax, then you end up on a blacklist. My question is, ‘who else is on the blacklist?’”
The school system’s proposed 8-mill tax increase in ad valorem tax would bring in an additional $28.6 million in annual revenue to ultimately fund a $350 million capital plan to accommodate a growing number of students. With the embattled property tax vote looming, groups like the Common Sense Campaign Tea Party and organizers behind Educate Baldwin Now, a website launched just last week, have openly voiced their opposition to the tax hike.
“If they’re willing to use those types of political tactics, what about teachers, employees and parents? This is a political issue,” Spriggs said. “I really think it’s wrong to use the school system to campaign for political issues. It doesn’t smell right to me.”
According to Wilhite, BCPSS received reports of picketers and sign-holders shouting at the entrances of Spriggs’ Malbis Shell Station, which has ultimately “caused some worry and angst” with personnel.
“We know this will end when the referendum is over,” he said.
Spriggs admitted he does put political signs on the right of way near the road by his business and has a table set up in the far corner inside Malbis Shell, where customers can pick up yard signs and informative literature if they choose to do so. However, he assured there is no active campaigning or protesting.
“There’s no pressure. We don’t have cashiers campaigning. There’s nothing on the gas pumps,” he said. “I won’t tolerate that from any of my employees.”
While Spriggs said some people have told him he should seek legal recourse, he said he’s not interested in pursuing any formal charges at this time.
“No, I’m not going to do that,” he said. “This is a political issue. We’ll get the information out there and let the public go out and vote.”