Next Tuesday Orange Beach will hold a referendum vote aimed at creating a city-run school system, but some residents still aren’t sold on the idea or the increased taxes separating from Baldwin County Schools would require.
Rumors and what some have called “deliberate misinformation from Baldwin County Schools” have become an issue in the waning days of the campaign launched by city leaders in January.
The committee for Orange Beach Educational Excellence (OBEE) was created earlier in the year and has been at the forefront of the push for a “yes” vote in the coming referendum.
Still, some residents feel the idea has been pushed on them by a “well organized and well-funded” effort from the city’s leadership only seven years after residents voted down a split from the county school system with the City of Gulf Shores.
“This was attempted in 2007, and there was something of a landslide vote against it,” resident, and city school system opponent John Stever said. “Then, it just came up again out of the blue this January. The residents weren’t polled, surveyed or even addressed during the meetings, and people are also really unhappy that they’ve already spent a small fortune on it.”
Stever was referring to the feasibility study commissioned from Decision Resources LLC earlier in the year, which combined with the “potential budget” drawn up by Carr, Riggs and Ingram has already cost the city around $50,000.
When it was released in May, the Decision Resources study suggested a new school system was possible, but would require 5 mills of additional ad valorem tax revenue — which is the real question in Tuesday’s vote.
A mill amounts to about $1 in property tax for every $1,000 of assessed value, so a 5-mil increase on a $100,000 home would only raise the owner’s property taxes by $50 annually or $500 for a $1 million home.
Valued at more than $700,000, a mill in Orange Beach is already the most valuable in the state, but the city currently has the lowest municipal millage rate in Baldwin County, around 4 mills.
According to the plan the city unveiled earlier this year, even with the additional 5 mills Orange Beach will still have a lower millage rate than Daphne, Fairhope, Bay Minette, Spanish Fort and Silverhill.
If the 5-mil increase is approved, the city will also implement a one percent lodging tax increase and a half-cent sales tax increase, which the city has estimated will generate around $6.25 million annually.
The one percent lodging tax increase would only affect those temporarily staying in Orange Beach, raising the cost of $100-a-night room by $1.
“If the ad valorem tax increase passes, then everyone knows there’s an additional package that would happen fairly immediately to create the operating capitol we need,” Kennon said. “That way we’d have cash immediately to begin the process of forming the school board and starting construction as soon as we possibly can.”
Based on numbers provided by Baldwin County, the feasibility study estimated an Orange Beach school system would launch with around 946 students with a funding plan allowing more than $15,000 per student — almost twice Baldwin County’s $8,000 per-pupil expenditure in 2013.
Although Ono Island students were included in those students numbers, kids on the island would have to pay a tuition fee to attend the school because they would exempt from the increase in property taxes.
“I think (the tuition) could be around $500 per student, which is less than the $1,500 Saraland charges, but we honestly don’t know,” OBEE spokesperson Rebecca Wells Wilson said. “It would be a very minimal tuition, but the exact cost would be up to the school board.”
Kennon said that once a school board is in place, the city wouldn’t have anything to do with the operation of the school system other than the appointment of future board members.
Though Kennon said state law requires a council-appointed school board, some residents like Stever, and the members of the group “Protecting Our Orange Beach Lifestyle” have taken issue with the amount of power it would give the city council.
“Whether it’s required or not, people aren’t comfortable with this at all,” Stever said. “It’s brought up a lot of issues about faith and trust in the city council. It’s about control.”
No matter what side of the argument residents find themselves on, the decision has caused some contention between Orange Beach residents and between the city and the County school system.
According to the committee for OBEE, there have been threats made to boycott stores supporting a city school system, and others have accused supporters of using their children to push for a “yes” vote in public businesses.
Baldwin County Schools even held a press conference last month to refute the findings of the aforementioned feasibility study, suggesting Dr. Ira Harvey’s revenue projections were based on “aggressive and unsubstantiated assumptions in direct conflict with federal, state and local education funding laws.”
“Orange Beach citizens should not be induced to form a new school system with increased taxes only to later learn that far more additional taxes will be needed to adequately fund their public schools,” School Board President Norm Moore said. “Even though Harvey had actual data related to student enrollment within Orange Beach, he chose to ignore this and in doing so, inflated the student enrollment totals based on an unsubstantiated student count.”
At the same press conference, Moore went on to detail several more issues with Harvey’s study based on its student calculations, expected payments to the State Education Foundation fund, Title I federal funding and the city’s portion of a special tax he said is “specifically designated” to the Baldwin County Board of Education.
Based on the calculations of Chief School Financial Officer John Wilson, Moore said the system could expect to be $4.5 million short of the revenue suggested in the feasibility study — leaving the system with only $3.5 million to operate.
Orange Beach was quick to respond, denying each of the claims made by the county school system. The city also said it stood by Harvey’s study 100 percent, calling him “the recognized expert” in this particular field.
Harvey has indeed created similar feasibility studies for systems across the state including Chickasaw and Saraland city schools, which have both successfully broken away from the Mobile County Public School System.
“After Orange Beach separates, the county may face similar attempts by other cities, cities that are just as concerned over the condition of the county system as we are,” a press release from the city reads. “We also believe the county is attempting to enhance its position in the negotiations that will follow our separation by making public statements regarding funds that they do not want us to receive.”
Both Baldwin County’s press conference and the rebuttal from Orange Beach can be read in their entirety on our website lagniappemobile.com.
With only five days to decide, both sides believe they have the momentum, but — if Facebook is any indicator — the OBEE page has more than 600 “likes”, while “Citizens Opposed to a School Split/Tax Increase” has only 139.
“I would say we have tremendous support, but we’re working really hard to get all the facts out,” Wilson said. “Baldwin County has put out a lot of misinformation.”
Baldwin County School administrators, including Interim Superintendent Robbie Owen, were asked to contribute to this report. However, their responses were not received by press deadline.