Daphne is the latest city in Baldwin County to explore having a separate public school system, but the City Council has only begun talking about it.
The initiative came from Councilman Robin LeJeune. LeJeune said that during his first term on the council he focused on parks and recreation. With many improvements are under way in those areas, he refocused on the public schools.
LeJeune has three children in Daphne public schools. He said the best systems in Alabama are smaller city school systems. “It just seems what with the growth we have we should be able to take that responsibility on,” he said.
At a work session in early January, council members informally decided to gather up existing studies and plans from other cities in Baldwin and Mobile counties that have considered or implemented their own independent systems. Daphne itself looked at the idea 10 years ago and commissioned a study, but did not move forward with a split.
None of the municipalities in Baldwin County that have considered breaking away have accomplished it. In addition to Daphne, the list includes Fairhope, Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. Only Saraland and Chickasaw in Mobile County have successfully gone independent.
Most recently, Orange Beach voters overwhelmingly rejected the idea in 2014. Mayor Tony Kennon said it hasn’t been an issue since then.
Still, LeJeune favors more local control over public schools through a local school board. “We need to invest into our school system, and we need to invest instead of being in a waiting line holding our hands up saying, ‘Hey, we need help over here.’ ”
At this point, LeJeune wants the city to gather information and see if citizens support the idea. If there isn’t sufficient interest, that’s OK, he said.
Further discussion is expected at the council’s next work session on Feb. 13. Already, the discussion has generated some controversy.
David Tarwater, the Baldwin County school board member representing Daphne, said he started getting phone calls and emails from parents worried that the board was going to rezone Daphne schools. That wasn’t the case, and Tarwater spoke at a Feb. 8 PTO meeting at Daphne East Elementary School to clarify the situation.
“Baldwin County schools has no intention of rezoning anybody in the Daphne area at this time.” he told Lagniappe. “Parents were getting the message for some reason that the Baldwin County schools were in the middle of rezoning.”
He said he was surprised to learn the city was even discussing an independent system without telling him. But at the PTO meeting he showed a map of what the county zones would look like if Daphne did break away.
“I think people now need to take it up with the city,” he said.
At Monday’s night’s council meeting, LeJeune called the map a “scare tactic” on the part of the school board.
Scare tactic or not, a breakaway presents some logistical problems that would have to be resolved. Tarwater said 20 percent of the students in Daphne schools don’t live in Daphne. On the hand, some subdivisions within the city limits of Daphne are zoned for other schools.
Students in Malbis and Timber Creek attend Spanish Fort schools, while those in the Dunmore and Oldfield subdivisions along Highway 181 go to Fairhope schools. All of those students are in the Daphne city limits and would have to transfer to Daphne schools in the event of a split, Tarwater said. “It would be a huge upheaval.”
Nor is there unqualified support among Daphne’s elected leaders as yet.
“The real question is funding,” said Mayor Dane Haygood. “To commit to taking on that, it has to be a success. You can’t afford to let it fail. We’ve got to have real numbers if we want to have that evaluation.”
The city already is trying to deliver more services, especially in parks and recreation, and is trying to deliver them more efficiently, Haygood said. He’s also skeptical that citizens would be willing to support the increased revenue a separate system would take.
“I think we have a fundamental problem with funding our schools here in Baldwin County. And if you don’t fund something and make it a priority, it’s not going to operate at the level you want it to.”