BY JOHN MULLEN
Two Baldwin County officials are at odds over who knew what and when they knew it.
Either way, the Baldwin County Board of Education fast-tracked a decision to build a new $14.9 million middle school in Orange Beach. The school will house all seventh and eighth graders in the Gulf Shores High School feeder pattern. In the same meeting, the board OK’d a new $13.4 million elementary school in Bay Minette.
Folks in Gulf Shores were less than pleased with how quickly the plan came about, saying city officials were told about it just hours before Superintendent Eddie Tyler (pictured above) publicly announced it.
“Mr. Tyler had said in the past he was going to have town hall meetings and come to the public for input,” Kevin Corcoran, co-chairman of the Island Task Force for Education, said. “Instead, we hear 48 hours before the vote what the plan is. I don’t see any transparency there.”
Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft said he only heard about the plan about two hours before Tyler presented it to the Orange Beach City Council on Sept. 19. Craft said the move, passed in a 5-2 vote by the board on Sept. 21, “was an unexpected surprise to me and the members of our City Council.”
Craft said he expected more notice for him and parents in Gulf Shores about the plan. In the 2016-17 school year, 67 percent of the students at Gulf Shores Middle School lived in the city, according to school board numbers. Others were from Orange Beach, Ono Island, the Fort Morgan peninsula and other unincorporated areas within the feeder pattern.
“The complete absence of communication while this plan was being engineered is perplexing,” Craft said in an emailed statement. “While I am encouraged that the Baldwin County Board of Education now has $15 million available to invest in our feeder pattern, their neglect to incorporate any input or involvement from our community into the development of a plan of this magnitude is extremely disappointing.”
Tyler said the possibility of a middle school in Orange Beach was discussed numerous times in meetings during the past year. He and leaders from Gulf Shores and Orange Beach were working to hammer out the details of forming a special tax district in the Gulf Shores High School feeder pattern.
The plan would have let voters decide if they wanted to pay an extra 3 mills in property tax with all the funds being used for new buildings in the Gulf Shores feeder pattern.
“For Mayor Craft to say there has been no communication is simply not so,” Tyler said, also in an emailed statement. “In fact, the idea for a new middle school located in Orange Beach came about in a presentation that he and his team, Kevin Corcoran and others, presented to me and members of my staff when presenting a new 3 mill tax increase they wanted to pursue.”
During talks about the tax district, Tyler said Gulf Shores leaders asked the county to hold off announcing construction plans in the current $60 million pay-as-you-go effort.
“We waited,” Tyler said. “When they decided not to move forward, I immediately put Gulf Shores on the priority list for new expansion and we rushed to get something done. One week after we announced our plans, the city announced the idea to begin a city school split, which again froze everything. The word ‘blindsided’ was mentioned at Thursday night’s board meeting. How ironic.”
Island representative Angie Swiger was one of two board members to vote against the Orange Beach plan. She made a motion to table it for a month and take time to hear from the community. It died for a lack of a second.
“If it had been done in a different way and the residents had some time for some input and hear the plan and ask questions, I think it could have all gone differently,” Swiger said. “Now they’re angry and it’s harder to reach them. The Gulf Shores side, which is the majority of the students in that building, is very, very upset.”
At the Orange Beach presentation, Tyler said he had the backing of Swiger for a new Orange Beach school. Both say she was told about the plan on Sept. 14.
“To say that I was 100 percent on board, which is what I was told he said, was not accurate,” Swiger said. “He did meet with me and told me about the plan, but he did not tell me he was making a public presentation to Orange Beach. I told him I understood what he was trying to do and I would like to talk to the principals and some Gulf Shores citizens about the plan.”
Originally, the school board was going to spend just under $4 million to add a wing of 12 classrooms and a gym to Gulf Shores Elementary. It is one of the most overcrowded schools in the system and on the same campus as the middle school. The new plan moves the middle school to Orange Beach in August 2019 and the elementary school will take over the former middle school.
“This solves a myriad of problems,” Tyler said. “Relocating the Gulf Shores Middle School students to the new middle school campus will greatly alleviate the traffic congestion at Gulf Shores schools.”
The city of Orange Beach donated land for the school at the site of the former wastewater treatment plant on Canal Road. Tyler said the land is worth an estimated $5 million.