In its latest step toward possible independence from the Baldwin County Board of Education, the city of Fairhope’s Education Advisory Committee selected Spanish Fort-based Akribos Consulting Group to conduct a feasibility study of three supplemental school funding options, a recommendation that will go before the Fairhope City Council at its Dec. 28 work session.
According to a presentation, Akribos will consider the academic, financial and cultural ramifications of an unchanged system, then compare it to one supported by a proposed special tax district to benefit Fairhope schools as they currently function within the BCBE, or as they may function in a separate, city-governed system.
Akribos provided one of only two bids the EAC received, aside from Tallahassee, Florida-based Evergreen Solutions. Akribos’ president is former Baldwin County Superintendent Faron Hollinger, who held the title from 2002 to 2010.
Akribos told the EAC that Hollinger will lead a project team, which will include former Deputy State Superintendent Ruth Ash, former Trussville City Schools Administrator Pat Hodge, former Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama Director Jim Williams, education policy analyst Gene Murphree and facility planning specialist Stephen Salmon. Former BCBE representative Bob Callahan also works for the company but is not listed as part of the Fairhope project team.
Councilwoman Diana Brewer, the council’s liaison on the EAC, said the depth of educational experience on Akribos’ project team convinced her it was the right firm to conduct the study.
“They have a very strong background in school finance, data and curriculum,” Brewer said. “I think they will be able to tell us what makes a school system great, from academics to all the other things that round out a system.”
According to Brewer, Hollinger’s experience in Baldwin County and the group’s wider knowledge of state funding issues will allow Akribos to produce an informative and thorough study, noting its outcome is likely to affect students in the city today as well as in the future.
“Dr. Hollinger was the superintendent for eight years and he was very well liked and respected,” she said. “I think they will bring a great depth of understanding of the issues facing Fairhope and Baldwin County schools.”
Fairhope EAC chairman Kerry Flowers agreed knowledge of Baldwin County school funding issues gave Akribos the edge over Evergreen Solutions, even though Evergreen has performed studies with public-sector clients in 43 states, including one in Alabama.
Flowers acknowledged Akribos employees’ connections to the BCBE can cut two ways, since one of the EAC’s options is breaking away from the county.
“There is no doubt Akribos is the better candidate because of their expertise in education financing, but I do think it could be a double-edged sword,” Flowers said. “On the one hand, they certainly have a high level of credibility with the school system, but on the other hand, they do have that history. We will make sure the study looks at all three options in great detail.”
The study will seek to identify the top 10 school systems based on ACT Aspire assessments in reading, math and science for grades 3-8 and college readiness and compare the results to those from Fairhope’s five feeder pattern schools. It will seek to identify the possibility of Fairhope schools reaching “top 10 status” with each funding scenario.
Flowers said the EAC hopes the study will be finished ahead of the March 2016 presidential primary, when the county’s millage level renewals will appear on the ballot, but said it realistically won’t conclude until later in the spring.
Upon hearing the recommendation Dec. 28, the City Council can choose to place the selection on a council meeting agenda or table it. At last week’s EAC meeting, Brewer was the the only council member present. Despite an invitation from Brewer to attend presentations from both bidders during the previous two weeks, no other councilmembers attended either meeting.
Brewer said she is concerned that council members did not listen to the proposals, but is hopeful they will keep an open mind when the EAC makes its presentation. The council has tentatively agreed to spend no more than $50,000 on the study if approved. Brewer said if the council approves the recommendation, it will be up to Mayor Tim Kant to approve the fee schedule, which she said will likely be below the $50,000 threshold.
“I hope they just had other things going on,” she said. “We don’t bat an eye at spending $35,000 for an engineering study for a ball park, so I hope the council is willing to spend at least that much on this important study.”
Baldwin County Schools Superintendent Eddie Tyler was present for presentations from both firms. Tyler stopped short of voicing support for the EAC’s plans but said he applauds any community interest in researching ways to enhance schools and school funding.
“We have always believed we are better together and our strength is in the excellent partnerships we have with our cities throughout the county,” Tyler said.
This is not the first time Fairhope has made efforts to potentially break away from the county school system. In 2010, the City Council paid Dr. Ira Harvey $25,000 for a similar feasibility study but ultimately decided not to pursue an independent system.
In 2014, voters in Orange Beach heavily rejected a ballot initiative that would have increased taxes to fund an independent school system in the city. Across the bay, schools in Saraland and Chickasaw were recently successful in creating independent systems away from the Mobile County system.