Agreeing to a few minor revisions last week, the Spanish Fort Town Council became the second Eastern Shore municipality within a month to send a resolution to the Baldwin County School Board to approve a special election to establish a special tax district to benefit schools within its city limits.
The school board approved a similar resolution from the Fairhope City Council May 16 and both referendums are tentatively scheduled for votes on Sept. 17, pending approval from the Baldwin County Commission. In Fairhope, City Councilman Robert Brown said everyone in the Fairhope school feeder pattern will have the opportunity to vote on the plan. It will be the only item on the ballot.
“I’ve had comments from some people that would be on the fence about it or against this referendum, but if you look at the history of the city of Fairhope voting on it I think it’s a good indication of support overall,” he said.
A similar proposal in 2016 received a majority of votes in both Fairhope and Spanish Fort but failed on a countywide ballot during a general election. According to a report on The Fairhope Times’ website, the city’s Educational Advisory Committee (EAC) met with Terry Burkle of the Baldwin County Education Coalition last week to discuss the referendum. Burkle said she anticipates opposition from the Common Sense Campaign, a local Tea Party group.
If approved, it will establish a 3-mill property tax increase within the district to generate around $1.9 million annually for programs in Fairhope Elementary School, Fairhope Intermediate School, Fairhope Middle School, J. Larry Newton School and Fairhope High School. The average cost for a property valued at $300,000 will be roughly $90 per year.
The tax will be remitted into a special account controlled by the city’s EAC and the superintendent of schools must review and approve all allocations. According to the agreement, expenditures must be for “district public school purposes” including “educational, vocational and technological programs of instruction, athletics, arts and extracurricular activities and programs.”
The tax will sunset after a period of 30 years.
In Spanish Fort, the 3-mill levy will generate an estimated $800,000 annually for Spanish Fort Elementary, Rockwell Elementary, Spanish Fort Middle School and Spanish Fort High School and it will sunset after a period of 10 years.
“If you talk to any of the principals the last couple years have been kind of a trial period,” Brown said. “The school board, principals and EAC have been on the same page regarding early intervention on math and reading skills, two areas that were deemed weak according to one study.
“So they spent all the funds the city appropriated on early intervention and test scores in each school increased, showing the benefits. I would say Fairhope has done a good job with the EAC being an oversight committee — the money will go into a special account, not county coffers. If it does pass, recommendations for expenditures have to go through the EAC and principals so there is local oversight and control measures.”
Editor’s note: This article originally stated “athletic programs” would benefit from the tax in Spanish Fort. Spanish Fort Mayor Mike McMillan clarified that organized team sports were ineligible to receive any proceeds of the tax. Rather, along with academic programs, the funding will be available for special activities courses and physical education enhancements such as archery.
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