Saraland City Schools on Thursday held the first of several presentations aimed at informing citizens of the district’s recently proposed $20 million capital improvements plan.
The 10-year plan includes additions to Saraland High School, a modernized bus fleet, enhanced technology for every student, expansion of athletic facilities and future construction of a Saraland Early Education Center.
The Saraland City School Board Nov. 6 unanimously approved the resolution for a 7.5 mill property tax increase referendum, set to appear on a special election ballot within city limits Jan. 27.
The tax, allocated to Saraland City Schools, would provide an extra $1 million per year and be used “exclusively for capital projects,” Saraland City Schools Superintendent Aaron Milner said.
“This is what will secure our school system for years to come,” he said.
During Thursday’s meeting, Milner said tremendous thought went into the capital improvements plan and added that he and the school board “scrutinize everything.”
“This isn’t something we just threw out,” he said.
According to Milner, student enrollment at Saraland City Schools has increased by 1,327 students, or 86 percent more students than when the system first disbanded from the Mobile County Public Schools System in 2008.
In 2014, 2,862 students were enrolled in Saraland schools compared to just 1,535 during the system’s inaugural year.
“We’ve literally doubled in size,” Milner said.
If the tax referendum is approved, additions to Saraland High School and improvements to the system’s bus fleet will be implemented immediately while other projects will be executed over the next decade, he said.
The capital plan includes a nine-classroom addition at Saraland High School to better accommodate instruction as well as an expansion of career technical programs to include on-site welding, pre-engineering and health services programs.
According to Milner, Saraland City Schools are currently not up to par with other schools in the state, especially those in northern Alabama, when it comes to welding and engineering programs. It is expected the Mobile region will experience a 25 percent increase in the need for welders and 30 percent more workers with an engineering background by 2020, Milner said.
“This vote is about job creation as much as it is about anything else,” he said.
The next immediate action would be the implementation of a more modernized bus fleet. Milner said the system currently operates 30 school buses, 19 of which range from 13 to 21 years old. Of those 19 buses, 14 have more than 140,000 miles.
While buses less than 10 years old receive fleet renewal funding from the state, those exceeding 10 years receive no state funding, Milner said. Thus, purchasing newer buses would result in less taxpayer money going toward transportation, he said.
If the referendum is passed, the system also hopes to replace aging technology and increase wireless connectivity and bandwidth at each school.
Ultimately, the goal is to implement a 1:1 initiative, allowing for every Saraland student to have access to digital devices, Milner said.
Lastly, the capital plan would allow for the future construction of a Saraland Early Education Center, a kindergarten through first grade facility, which will include 24 classrooms. However, Milner said the project is “way down the road” and it is yet to be determined where the facility will be built.
Finally, the plan will include the expansion of athletic facilities to include construction of an indoor athletic facility to accommodate multiple programs including football, baseball, marching band and archery, among others. Future plans also include construction of an adjoining track and tennis facility Milner said, noting that extracurricular activities keep many students in school rather than dropping out.
“We make no apologies for putting an emphasis on everything,” he said.
With the median home listing price in Saraland being $130,000, Milner said taxpayers could expect an average annual bill of $75 for the school ad valorem tax.
Milner, who moved to Saraland about a year ago and has two children in Saraland City Schools, said he would also be subject to the tax increase.
“These decisions affect my family as well,” he said.
Milner said Saraland City Schools currently receive no district ad valorem tax. While the city receives 3.5 mills of municipality ad valorem, the money goes directly to the city and not the schools, he said.
If the referendum is passed in January, notification of the tax increase would happen June 1, 2015 and the Saraland Board of Education would receive revenue acquisition of ad valorem in January 2016, Milner said.
“A ‘yes’ vote is a vote against portables … against overcrowded classrooms … against floating teachers,” Milner said to attendees during the presentation.
While some citizens said they were undecided and had not yet made a decision regarding the upcoming vote, Barry and Deborah Andrews are proud to display a “Vote ‘yes’ to Spartan Progress” yard sign.
Deborah, who volunteers at Saraland Elementary School, said she and her husband have two grandchildren in Saraland City Schools and “most definitely” will vote yes on Jan. 27.
“We’ve got a great community,” Barry Andrews said. “We’re not wasting money, we can see where money is being spent.”
Milner said he has not seen any opposition to the proposed plan and cited an “overwhelmingly positive response” from Saraland residents.
“They consider it more of an investment than a tax,” he said.
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