FAIRHOPE — The Fairhope City Council is a step closer to undertaking another feasibility study of an independent school system within the city’s feeder pattern. With a unanimous vote July 13, the City Council requested the city’s Education Advisory Committee (EAC) to research the costs associated with such a study, but not every council member will support what that study might find.
At a previous work session, the EAC asked councilors to fund an update to a 2010 feasibility study to include not just the costs associated with a city school system, but also a special 3-mill tax increase to raise an additional $1.3 million for schools in Fairhope.
Before the July 13 meeting, the EAC clarified its recommendations, asking the City Council to give the EAC the authority to use a portion of its 2015-16 funds to establish an agreed-upon set of academic standards to evaluate the city’s schools compared to the state’s Top 10 schools. The updated study would also examine possible revenues generated by the proposed special tax district, the Baldwin County Board of Education’s role in disbursing those funds and how those revenues would follow students in the feeder pattern.
The new study would also examine the costs of an independent school system including capital debt assumption, estimated annual operating costs, potential tax burden for Fairhope citizens and potential tax options for funding the system.
“A new study would be different because we want to include the talk of a special tax district,” EAC Chairman Kerry Flowers said. “The first study did not go into detail about that at all, it just talked about what happens in an independent school system.”
Whatever data the study finds would then be pulled into an executive summary by consultants and used in a poll to gauge the community’s interest in educational issues such as local control and funding.
In 2010, the city funded a $25,000 study from Dr. Ira Harvey that estimated the cost of a city-run school system in Fairhope to be approximately $2 million per year and the city would have to take on more than $40 million in capital debt associated with the school buildings in the city limits. That study also showed 54 percent of the school children in the feeder pattern, which includes five schools, live within the city limits while 46 percent live outside, another issue the updated study would address.
While the city’s five councilors were united in allowing the EAC to pursue a feasibility study, members were sharply divided on what to do with the results.
“It is important that we put out as much good information as possible so that it takes away all the guesswork and the distortions and gives people good, solid information,” Councilwoman Diana Brewer, the council’s liaison to the EAC, said. “And then we can get the informed opinion from the citizens on what they would like to happen with education in Fairhope.”
Councilman Mike Ford was vocally opposed to raising taxes to fund an independent system or a special 3-mill tax district. He also said he did not appreciate a recent news article in The Courier, which said the EAC may sit out the next year if the City Council will not listen to its requests.
“Everybody has the right to their opinion, but someone on the committee was trying to bully the council, saying ‘if you don’t give us what we want, then we are going to quit for a year,’” Ford said. “If that’s so, then I say take a vacation. We can always find somebody else. I was outraged by that.”
Brewer said no one on the EAC was trying to bully the City Council, but some questioned why the committee should continue as is without any additional funding for the city’s schools at its current $350,000 annual rate.
“The EAC feels that the money the city has been giving the schools, with the situation in Baldwin County and the potential train wreck that’s about to happen, they don’t feel like it is a good use to just keep putting that kind of money into the schools without some kind of understanding of the whole picture,” Brewer said. “They feel like they can’t in good conscience go back to the City Council and say, ‘just give us the $350,000 and we’ll keep throwing money on top of bad money.’”
Councilman Kevin Boone said he does not support raising additional taxes in the city, citing the results of the March 31 referendum in which 62 percent in Fairhope’s voting district rejected an additional 8 mills in property taxes to fund a $350 million capital campaign for the county’s schools.
Councilman Rich Mueller said the March 31 referendum rejection wasn’t just about raising taxes, it was partially about citizens who did not trust the school system with the additional funds.
“I personally do not think we should have a city-run school system, but I was elected to speak for a lot of people,” Mueller said. “I can’t make an informed decision without information. Somewhere along the line, we will find out what the citizens really want. They may say they don’t want any of this stuff, or they may say they’d like their own system. I don’t want to be in a position where I can’t make an informed decision.”
Council President Jack Burrell said the City Council spends unbudgeted money on trucks and other items without batting an eye, and those aren’t decisions that affect the city’s school children.
“I don’t want to look back and say I was too stingy to spend $40,000 to study what could have been done,” Burrell said. “If we get three or four years down the road and the county school funding falls off a cliff and we don’t have any options on the table, I don’t know if we would be able to say we did our job.”