The city of Fairhope’s Education Advisory Committee (EAC) presented three options to the Fairhope City Council June 22 to seek guidance on the committee’s efforts to improve funding and help the city’s feeder pattern reach the council’s oft-stated goal of having a “Top 10” school system in the state.
The first option is to continue the city’s annual $350,000 cash commitment, which comes from a utility fund account divided among the five schools in the city. EAC members believe the current level of funding will not get the schools to the “top 10” level given the county’s loss of millage increase from a failed tax referendum March 31.
The second is option is to create a special tax district to raise an estimated $1.3 million annually, which voters in Fairhope would have to approve a three-mill property tax increase to fund.
The third option is for the council to fund an update to the feasibility study on an independent school system, a study that initially cost the the city $25,000 in 2010. Mayor Tim Kant said the study indicated the city would need an additional $4 million to $5 million in tax revenue to fund its own school system.
The committee also warned that current funding levels, assuming millage rates and a penny tax are renewed in March 2016, will not be enough to improve Fairhope’s schools. The Baldwin County school system has approximately 29,500 students this year and projects increases up to 36,000 within the next few years, an enrollment EAC chairman Kerry Flowers called unsustainable.
“If we get back to 12 mills and renew the penny tax we won’t improve revenue at all, we will just keep it the same,” said Flowers, who led the presentation. “We hope to get the revenue back up, but what are you going to do when you have 6,500 more students?”
Flowers also displayed college readiness statistics indicating Fairhope’s score of 20.6 was 16 points lower than the state’s highest performers.
“When you stack us up against the top 10 in the state and having that gap already, knowing there’s not going to be more revenue, we are concerned,” Flowers said.
Flowers asked the council to consider updating its 2010 study on the feasibility of creating an independent school system and to study the implications and facts of creating a special tax district. He said the 2010 study needs to be updated because of the budgetary constraints the county school system has been subjected to in the last five years.
At the EAC’s separate meeting June 16, committee members expressed frustration with projections the county school system used in its Build Baldwin Now campaign, which they said underestimated the population growth in Fairhope’s schools. At a feeder pattern meeting at Fairhope High School in April 2014, school officials said growth was steady in Fairhope, but not enough to warrant construction on new schools or the expansion of existing properties without additional revenue.
Council President Jack Burrell questioned why the EAC believes Fairhope voters would approve a tax hike in light of voters’ rejection of tax proposals for schools in March.
EAC member Hill Robinson said voters in Fairhope were close to passing the millage increase despite being told by the school board the feeder pattern growth did not warrant additional class space and new buildings.
“During the campaign we were told we had very few needs opposed to the rest of the county, but if you look at the voting precincts we were among the highest ‘yes’ votes,” Robinson said, noting that Fairhope voters might approve new taxes if they believe their schools will benefit.
“It boils down to leadership,” Flowers said. “If we just put it out there that the EAC wants this, it will have a very similar lifespan to the referendum. But if the citizens are educated and the city council and the mayor can help convey that, it will lend it credibility. I think Fairhope has traditionally responded well to education initiatives.”
Currently, the city provides the $350,000 annually in cash for the EAC as well as $500,000 “in-kind” donations to the city’s schools, according to Burrell. He said he would support using leftover EAC funds combined with city dollars to fund an updated study.
“You are not just talking about education, you are talking about the community,” Councilwoman Diana Brewer, the council’s liaison on the EAC, said about the study. “You are talking about a way of life in a community. To me this is very little money to spend on something so important.”
Kant said he was interested in investing in the current system, not “getting in the school business.” He said the city’s options for funding an independent system would have to come from higher sales and ad valorem taxes or cuts in other areas of the budget.
“Once you are in the business, there is a never ending battle for more money for the schools,” Kant said. “You are never going to have enough money for education. At the end of the day I don’t see what the study will accomplish unless we know the citizens are willing to raise their taxes. This is a major, major economic impact for the city if we go down this path.”
“With all due respect, you are the one who several times has said you want Fairhope to be in the top 10 in the state,” Brewer said. “What we have said to you is there is no path forward to get there in the current situation we are in.”
Councilman Kevin Boone asked if the city would be able to use the current feeder pattern buildings for schools in an independent school district, and questioned which students – those who live inside and outside the city limits – would be allowed to attend. Brewer said it would be up to the city school system to determine who is allowed to attend the school, and the city would be able to use the school buildings that are in the city limits.
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