Last November, a boisterous roar of cheers and applause filled the Daphne Civic Center during Baldwin County Public Schools’ third annual Baldwin Education Summit, where school officials unveiled a $350 million capital plan aimed at alleviating growing pains resulting from the school system’s rapid influx of students. Today, weeks before a related March 31 countywide tax referendum, the sound of enthusiasm isn’t quite so loud.

Since January, BCPS officials have promoted their efforts by holding a number of informative education summits throughout the system’s seven different feeder patterns — Bay Minette, Daphne, Fairhope, Foley, Gulf Shores, Robertsdale and Spanish Fort — but along the way, the plan has garnered criticism and opposition. In addition to the summits, members of the BCPS administrative staff and school board have also made appearances at meetings organized by groups — like the Common Sense Campaign Tea Party —openly and strongly opposed to the system’s proposed 8-mill ad valorem tax increase.

School officials maintain the increase will create an additional $28.6 million in annual revenue, which would stay in Baldwin County and be earmarked for building and maintaining facilities to accommodate its growing student body.

According to officials, BCPS has seen a 25 percent increase in students over the past decade, representing about 6,158 individuals. Spanish Fort represents the county’s fastest growing feeder pattern with a 71 percent increase, or 1,465 students, in nine years. In the same time, Gulf Shores experienced a 40 percent increase, or 814 students; Foley had a 36 percent increase with 1,794 students and Robertsdale an 18 percent increase with 711 students. Further, Daphne has seen a 19 percent increase with 649 students since 2008.

Currently, the school system utilizes 100 portables to accommodate a little more than 30,000 students. In nine years, if the tax referendum does not pass, BCPS officials project a student enrollment of 36,000 and a need for 447 portable classrooms, which would cost an estimated $17 million.

If Baldwin County residents vote “yes” on March 31, BCPS would fund construction for new elementary schools in Bay Minette, Daphne, Gulf Shores and Bay Minette, in addition to a new Gulf Shores High School. In a more long term plan, the school system said there is a potential for the creation of a new Belforest feeder pattern, including new middle and high schools, as well as a new feeder pattern in Spanish Fort’s “Golden Triangle,” with the potential construction of new middle and high schools.

COST TO TAXPAYERS
With the average home value in Baldwin County hovering around $184,900, BCPS Chief School Financial Officer John Wilson has said an 8-mill increase would cost taxpayers an average increase of $148 per year, which breaks down to $12 per month or 41 cents per day. However, a new anti-tax website launched just last week disagrees with numbers presented by the school system and urges Baldwin County residents to vote against the referendum.

“Educate Baldwin Now” (www.educatebaldwinnow.com) was named in opposition to the school’s pro-tax campaign “Build Baldwin Now,” which is supported by both the BCPS and the nonprofit Baldwin County Education Coalition. Educate Baldwin Now argues the proposed tax will apply to homes, businesses, vehicles, trailers and other taxable property and result in an average of $400, rather than $148, in additional taxes per year for each household in the county.

The website says that with 73,283 households in Baldwin County, according to U.S. Census data, and $28.7 million in expected tax revenue from the proposed tax, the calculation reveals each household would actually pay $392 in new taxes per year.

John Howard, a private school teacher who takes credit for the website along with “a small group of concerned Baldwin County citizens,” believes the school board is misleading by telling county residents the proposed tax hike is only applicable to homes.

“Unfortunately, that ad valorem tax applies to luxury items like cars, boats and other items people own,” he said, citing the BCPS’ failure to include in their numbers the cost of the county’s penny tax.

“It’s somewhat disingenuous, I think, on their part,” Howard added.
In November 2012, 62 percent of Baldwin County voters opted to renew the five-year, 1-cent sales tax for schools, which currently generates about $28 million for the school system each year. Baldwin residents first voted in 2010 to levy a three-year, 1-cent sales tax to add the $28 million to the school system’s budget.

Educate Baldwin Now also claims the school system is being “mismanaged,” suggesting the penny sales tax could be used for capital improvements. However, BCPS said the penny tax funds are used to offset the cost of more than 500 personnel staff and teachers.

“The school system just came and asked us for $30 million a year in the penny sales tax and now they are asking for more! It is time for the school system to clean up its pocket book,” the website reads.

Advocating for the capital improvement plan around Baldwin County, Wilson addressed whether or not the existing 1-cent sales tax could be used for education, which he says is a frequently asked question. He explained that as the temporary sales tax expires May 31, 2018, it can not be used to pay for a capital projects bond.

“We cannot pledge a five-year tax to pay for a 30-year construction bond,” he said.

Wilson also noted that the penny tax was proposed as a means to counter state budget cuts, and if state funding were restored to pre-recession levels, the county would have comparable funding to allow the tax to expire.

According to Wilson, Baldwin County has seen close to a $12 million decline in ad valorem revenue and almost $1 billion less in state funding since 2008.

CAMPAIGN CONTROVERSY
Terry Burkle, executive director of the Baldwin County Education Coalition, compared the school board’s use of taxpayer money to fund their promotional campaign to that of a publicly owned company’s relationship to a shareholder, where a company would be required to inform shareholders about how company dollars are spent.

“This, in my mind, is no different,” she said.

Burkle suggested taxpaying, voting citizens of Baldwin County are like shareholders in the public school system and the BCPS has a responsibility to inform and educate those shareholders, even if it means spending their money to do so.

“I wish people would see that,” she said. “They have an obligation to inform me of the fiscal condition of the school, and that’s exactly what they’re doing. What if it were reversed and things were going on and they worked in isolation and never communicated with us?

“I just don’t understand that argument at all,” she added.

However, Howard, along with other opponents, believes the school board is using taxpayer money to push an agenda that the school system is in an immediate crisis, to essentially get the tax referendum “railroaded” through.

“I am concerned that it seems to me that there’s somebody, and I don’t know who it is, on the board that’s really pushing this ‘we’re in a crisis situation’ when a crisis doesn’t really exist,” he said. “I don’t know who’s behind it, but I think the citizens of Baldwin need to give due diligence as citizens and check out some of the facts.”

While Howard said he thinks there are “wonderful” people on the school board and that BCPS Superintendent Robbie Owen is an “outstanding” selection for the school system, he believes an 8-mill ad valorem increase over the next 30 years is simply too much for too long.

“There is no doubt we need to build buildings,” he said. “We’re not opposed to capital improvements. We need those, but the capital improvements could be done at a fraction for what the school board is asking.”

Meanwhile, Howard said he would not be opposed to the school board asking for a 2-mill, pay-as-you go type program, but the 8-mill increase is “just unacceptable.”

“We feel they are using this quote crisis and overcrowding, but they’re using that as a catalyst for this unreasonable tax increase,” he said.

Members of the Common Sense Campaign Tea Party have also questioned the possibility of a pay-as-you-go plan, but Wilson said the school system could only use a pay-as-you-go plan if it already had enough money in reserves. While $140 million is needed to cover immediate needs and “just to get caught up,” over the next three years, the board would utilize pay-as-you-go as much as possible, Wilson said at Common Sense Campaign meeting last month.

During the same meeting, Wilson addressed residents’ concerns and desires for an itemized, detailed estimate of costs to each feeder pattern’s proposed projects over the course of the 10-year facilities plan.

So far, school officials have presented a list of proposed construction work but have yet to provide an itemized list of costs.

“We didn’t pull this out of the sky,” Wilson said. “You’ve just got to trust us here.”

OPPOSITION AT THE POLLS
Historically, Baldwin County residents tend to be unsupportive of tax increases. The most recent “no” vote came last October when Orange Beach residents defeated a 5-mill ad valorem tax to create its own city school system by a vote of 1,842 to 928.

In May 2010, the Orange Beach City Council approved a one year, 1-mill property tax increase for general budget purposes, but later that year, the same voters rejected a proposed 2-mill property tax aimed at heading off decreased revenue from declining property values and a drop in tourism spending.

That same year, more than 87 percent of Baldwin County voters rejected what was characterized as a “rain tax,” or a fee added to property tax bills to fund watershed restoration projects.

Burkle admitted Baldwin County residents historically have been more supportive of sales tax, but she said the Baldwin County Education Coalition, with its focus on a grassroots campaign, are doing everything physically possible to inform citizens of why the public school system needs the additional revenue.

“I think it’s going to be a very tight race. The only thing that’s going to win it is the grassroots advocacy,” she said. “People can’t sit idly by — they need to work harder in getting the message out. If you support it, you need to be part of the team and part of the solution.

“We’ve all got to work together. We’re all in this together.”

THE 5-PART BALLOT
The special school tax election ballot will have five items, requiring five separate votes. Residents will vote on the renewal of an existing 1-mill tax and two 3-mill taxes in addition to the proposed 8-mill increase that is divided into separate 3-mill and 5-mill taxes. New and reinstated taxes will be applicable through 2045, at which time voters may again decide on whether to renew them or not.

Baldwin County residents have also raised questions about the ballot, as two items are only for District 2 — the renewal of a three-mill school tax and a new three-mill school tax, which is part of the system’s requested 8-mill increase.

While Burkle said there does not seem to be a “real good” explanation as to why there are two districts, she said the Baldwin County Education Coalition has asked and could not find anyone who could explain the real history behind the split. However, District 1 is comprised of approximately 100 voters, with no schools in the district, and is mostly timberland, she said.

Further, Burkle said she has contacted Baldwin County Probate Office, including Probate Judge Tim Russell, who could not give an explanation as to why those 100 voters have been excluded.

“It just has to do with our state constitution and when these amendments were passed. And it also has to do with how the county is divided in these two districts,” Burkle said. “It really does seem to complicate it, but we’re trying to help people understand that.”

According to Baldwin County Commissioner Tucker Dorsey, Alabama law requires each county to have two tax districts, and District 2 represents the “meat” of the Baldwin County. Currently, District 1 pays the state’s required minimum amount of property tax at 10 mills while District 2 pays 12 mills, he said. Dorsey added the first 10 mills from each district goes to the state, but everything after 10 mills stays local in Baldwin County.

“The additional 8 mills do not go to Montgomery,” he said.

If the upcoming referendum passes, District 1 will pay 15 mills in property tax and District 2 will pay 20 mills. If the referendum does not pass, Dorsey said he speculates legislation will convert to seven tax districts, one for each of the school system’s seven feeder patterns, allowing residents in each individual school district to vote whether or not they want a property tax increase to fund building and maintaining schools.

Baldwin County currently receives 12 mills of ad valorem property tax for education, which falls significantly below the amount collected by other area systems like Mobile County, which receives 29.5 mills within the cities of Mobile and Prichard and 21.5 mills outside city limits. 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.

Despite a seemingly growing number of those in opposition to the proposed tax increase, Burkle said grassroots advocates will be going door-to-door throughout Baldwin County and participating in neighborhood canvassing in support of the referendum up until the vote on March 31.

A parade and rally is planned for Sunday, March 22 in Foley, departing from Foley Middle School and taking a similar route as previous parades held for the penny sales tax and its renewal, Burkle said.

“We just want to remind everybody it’s easy to get distracted, as all these facts and figures are being thrown out and don’t let those distractions take away from what this campaign is really about and that is for our children,” she said. “Our focus has always been our children’s future and what’s good for the whole of Baldwin.

“This is a defining moment for Baldwin County.”