By John Mullen

The nascent city school system in Gulf Shores is facing a challenge right out of the gate as controversy swirls about what will happen to students in the high school feeder system who don’t live within the city limits.

Gulf Shores voted to form its independent school system in September and on Oct. 16 set criteria for applicants to form a five-person board. Once those are in place — officials hope to select members by the end of November — separation negotiations with Baldwin County will begin.

Daphne is also considering a split from the county and the City Council there will discuss the first part of a report from K-12 Criterion Group on Oct. 30. Councilmembers and the mayor will decide whether to pay for the second part of the report based on the initial findings.

At the center of those talks will be where out-of-city students will finish high school. Most of those are from Orange Beach, but there are some from Fort Morgan and unincorporated areas north of Gulf Shores.

“I’ve been asked about Gulf Shores High School students who don’t live in the city and will they be forced to graduate elsewhere,” Superintendent Eddie Tyler said in a video statement last week. “I am adamant that a high school student that has always been a Dolphin, they will graduate at Gulf Shores High School. This is a non-negotiable in my book.”

Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon has called on Gulf Shores to make a statement assuring students outside of Gulf Shores they won’t be shipped off to other schools.

“I requested that the mayor and council of Gulf Shores to say publicly or send out a press release saying they support our kids continuing to Gulf Shores High School until it’s time to graduate,” Kennon said.

In Gulf Shores, Mayor Robert Craft said officials there cannot make that move because it won’t be a choice for the council. But he supports allowing students enrolled now to graduate from Gulf Shores.

“I won’t make this decision,” Craft said. “This decision will be made by the board of education we are appointing. When the board negotiates the separation agreement, I am hopeful they will allow that to happen. But I’m not going to be negotiating it. The board of education will be.”

If the two sides can’t agree on this point or any other issue during the separation negotiation, the state superintendent will make a final decision. Currently, former superintendent Ed Richardson is serving on an interim basis following the departure of Michael Sentence, whose tenure lasted barely a year.

“It is a negotiating point, but in my humble opinion there is no way the state superintendent is going to allow Gulf Shores to dump students out and have them go to Elberta or Foley that’s already overcrowded,” Kennon said. “This is not a negotiable position for the county.”

Tyler believes getting the separation agreement in place with Gulf Shores taking over to start the 2018-19 year will be a tough task.

“I know there’s a ton of things to be done and that is a very ambitious timeframe,” Tyler said. “We shall see.”

Meanwhile, Craft and his council must work to get a board in place. Prospective board members must turn in applications by Oct. 30.

“They have to understand what they are getting into, be qualified to make these decisions and be passionate about doing the right thing,” Craft said. “That’s what I’m looking for when they come through.”

Each of the first five board members will serve a one-, two-, three-, four- or five-year term.

“So, moving forward once they are reappointed, they’ll be five-year terms and be staggered in that way and one will roll off,” Gulf Shores Economic Development Coordinator Blake Phelps said.

Photo | Facebook – Once established, the Gulf Shores school board will negotiate with Baldwin County school officials to determine the fate of existing students in the Gulf Shores feeder pattern.