Seven years after failing to break away from Baldwin County Schools in a joint venture with Gulf Shores, Orange Beach is once again seriously considering starting its own public school system.
In January, City Council members approved a $50,000 feasibility study through Ira Harvey’s Decision Resources, LLC.
Harvey has created similar feasibility studies for systems across the state including Chickasaw and Saraland city schools, which have both broken away from the Mobile County Public School System.
Each of those cities have historically had less ability to generate local revenue than Orange Beach, which means it is highly possible Harvey’s study will support the sentiments of the Committee for Orange Beach Education Excellence.
On March 18, the Baldwin County School Board held a special-called meeting to make a presentation suggesting otherwise.
The program, titled “Better Together,” focused on additional tax revenues Orange Beach would need to maintain the current level of education available through BCPS at Gulf Shores High School.
According to the presentation, Orange Beach would need an additional 7.8 mills in ad valorem taxes, a 3.8 percent increase in lodging taxes or a 2.4 percent increase in sales taxes to create a system on par with the per-pupil funding available in BCPS.
Christina McInnis, a spokesperson for the OBEE, said the city is capable of meeting whatever additional revenues might be needed.
“Residents of Orange Beach have no problem paying a little bit for what we’ll get, because we all understand the investment,” McInnis said. “We want to do this for our educational system here, but this would also bring long-term residents and stability to our businesses.”
Another point raised by BCPS was nearly $3 million in debt the city would assume if it took over the Orange Beach Elementary School facility.
However, McInnis said those numbers are based off a pre-set amortization through 2037, and the city would likely pay the actual debt of $2.2 million at one time once assuming ownership of the facility.
McInnis is one of many residents in the OBEE, including Mayor Tony Kennon, who think Orange Beach could get more for its money by creating its own school system.
Currently, the BCPS system comprises every public school in Baldwin County, which includes 45 campuses and nearly 30,000 students.
Based on tax revenues provided by OBEE, Orange Beach generated $12.35 million dollars for education in Baldwin County last year.
However, the city only saw about $3.6 million from countywide taxes at its elementary and middle schools in 2014 expenditures.
“The fact of the matter is Baldwin County Schools can only do what they have the money to do,” McInnis said. “They have a lot of things they have to take care of with limited funding.”
A large portion of education funding comes from the state level, but local units are typically funded through city sales taxes and county ad valorem taxes. Ad valorem taxes are a form of property tax that generates mils, each of which is equal to 10 cents for every $100 of assessed property value. A mil in Orange Beach is equal to $800,000, which is the highest in the state.
McInnis said creating a top-tier school system would only increase the value of property in Orange Beach and entice families to relocate to the area.
“When you look at other places that have done this like Madison and Saraland, the track records show that kind of growth could happen here,” she said.
Bill Silver, president of the Saraland Board of Education, said Orange Beach is dealing with some of the same issues Saraland was when it decided to create its own school system.
“We were sending millions of dollars in tax money to Mobile, but we were only getting a small fraction of that back,” Silver said. “We also had students from our city zoned to go three different high schools and three different middle schools.”
Those similarities are exactly what led members of the OBEE to reach out to Silver and the other community members who pushed for Saraland to separate from the Mobile County Public School System. A feasibility study recommended a half-cent sales tax increase, which was pitched to the citizens and approved by 74 percent in a referendum vote.
Saraland opened its doors in 2008 to 1,518 students, but enrollment in the system has since increased to 2,525 students served by 287 teachers.
“There’s been a tremendous amount of relocation to Saraland,” Silver said. “The school system is the economic engine that is driving Saraland’s growth.”
According to data collected by the Mobile Association of Realtors, 2013 saw 294 homes sold within Saraland’s two districts of the Gulf Coast Multiple Listing Service.
Those home purchases equated to approximately $6.7 million in total sales, and the combined areas showed the second-highest concentration of new home purchases in Mobile County, second only to West Mobile.
Several properties surrounding Saraland have also been annexed into the city, which Silver likes to attribute to the new school system. With only a half-cent sales tax increase, Saraland has built a $14 million elementary school, a $38 million high school and has also made $5 million in renovations to its middle school.
Silver also said more individualized attention has led to an increase in test scores since leaving MCPSS. In 2013, Saraland was recognized by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama for shrinking the achievement gap between students in different socioeconomic and racial groups.
In its fifth year as system, Saraland was also ranked nationally for its accomplishments in Advanced Placement scores. However, it is important to note that racial and socioeconomic demographics in Saraland are not identical to what they were when those schools was a part of MCPSS.
Silver said student growth, the increased test scores and an increase in school spirit are the reasons a separation from Mobile County was the best move for Saraland’s students and the city as a whole. He also told the citizens of Orange Beach they can bank on the results of Harvey’s feasibility study.
“Dr. Harvey is a guru of finance,” Silver said. “If he says you’ve got enough money to run the system, you’ve got enough money to run the system.”
As Orange Beach waits for the results of the feasibility study, the city is already looking at what options it has for creating a functioning system.
OBES already houses students in grades K-6, and wings could be added to accommodate middle-school students currently at Gulf Shores Middle School.
The idea to build a high school facility across the street has also been tossed around, though none of these plans are finalized.
Alabama law allows city with a population of 5,000 or more to establish a school system through a city council decision, which is how Chickasaw City Schools was created in 2012.
Orange Beach hasn’t decided whether a referendum would be used to approve a separation from Baldwin County, but aside from a one-mil increase in ad valorem taxes, any funding means would likely require a citywide vote.
Though it’s possible the system could open with less than 1,000 students, McInnis said, like Saraland, Orange Beach City Schools should grow very quickly.
The feasibility study is expected to be complete by the end of April and in the hands of Orange Beach City Council members by the first week of May.
Updated at 2:11 p.m., April 4, to reflect new information from the Committee for Orange Beach Education Excellence.
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