State Board of Education candidate Adam Bourne said he is concerned an email from State Sen. Trip Pittman to Baldwin County Public Schools Chief Financial Officer John Wilson sends a political message that amounts to a threat to the county school system’s $35 million funding through the penny tax.
In an email responding to the school system’s questions about the state’s funding of a new school system in the Pike Road community, Pittman wrote to Wilson that “… the penny can go away,” referring to the county’s penny tax, which is set for sunset in 2018.
The email, which Bourne received and forwarded to media outlets, was sent from Pittman’s personal email address to Wilson’s school system address on Nov. 24 and reads, “I increased the funding for current units and then fully funded Pike Road to get a vote to save [Education Trust Fund]. If you have a problem with that give me a call. Remember the penny can go away. Have a happy Thanksgiving.”
Pittman said the email was meant to be private, but Bourne said because it was sent to a public school email address it is a public document. Pittman denied the email was necessarily a threat to torpedo the penny tax renewal, but said he does have reservations about renewing a tax originally labeled as temporary. The senator, who chaired the Education Trust Fund committee when the Pike Road decision was made, said the email accurately reflects his feelings about the penny tax, which he claims he has shared publicly before.
The county’s one-cent sales tax earmarked for education was first approved in 2010 and renewed by voters in 2012. An effort to make the tax permanent failed in 2012. The tax will expire May 31, 2018, unless the State Legislature acts to renew it before then.
“I know people have tried to imply that it was a threat, but it is nothing that I haven’t said before,” Pittman said. “I was making it clear that I am not fully committed to the penny tax. The tax was originally approved as temporary and now that other sources of tax revenue are rebounding I’m not sure we still need the penny tax. It is a matter of spending tax money wisely.”
According to the Baldwin County School System, the penny tax provided more than $35 million in revenue this year. The money allowed the system to budget for 518 employees it otherwise would not have, including 151 teachers, 88 bookkeepers, 73 maintenance custodians and 72 bus drivers.
Bourne said the legislature could approve its renewal at any time in the next session. If that happens, Bourne said it would send a message to the Baldwin County School System that the state is committed to funding education in the county.
“Baldwin County relies on its school system to drive economic growth,” Bourne said. “Taking that money away would be a huge setback for the system. The system needs to know the state is committed to funding it adequately. They need to be able to plan for the future, and they won’t be able to do that if they aren’t sure the funding will be there.”
Baldwin County Schools Superintendent Eddie Tyler defended the tax, calling it vital in helping the school system address day-to-day needs. Recently the Baldwin County Board of Education’s Community Advisory Task Force released a report the school system says proves it is a better steward of its funding than the public perception.
The Community Advisory Task Force was a group of Baldwin residents charged by the Baldwin County Board of Education with finding actionable steps for improving the school system’s communication, curriculum, facilities, funding and leadership.
The task force’s report states that, according to the Public Affairs Research Council, the Baldwin County School System spends less per student than nearby systems in Mobile, Clarke, Conecuh, Washington and Monroe counties. According to the study, Baldwin County spends $8,512 per student while Mobile County spends $8,848.
Further, it found the system also spent 4 percent of revenue for administrative positions, below the state average of 5 percent. Baldwin County is also below the state average in spending on bus transportation, operations and maintenance, child nutrition and general operations costs.
The Task Force’s report states, “any possible increase in efficiency would not be sufficient to cover the funding deficiency” if the one-cent sales tax and millage levels are not renewed.
“The one-cent sales tax pays to keep more than 500 local school employees serving students to make up for a shortfall in funding from the state,” Tyler said. “Both the Public Affairs Research Council and the Baldwin County Community Advisory Task Force have scrutinized the school system’s finances and found that the numbers are accurate and that the system is performing financially better than the statewide average.”
Pittman spent five years as the state’s education budget chairman, but will chair the general fund budget committee beginning with the next legislative session in February. He said in the next year the state needs to decide how it can be more fiscally sound in spending tax dollars on health care, education and all levels of government.
According to PIttman, Baldwin County will receive $468,088 in current unit allocations in 2016, up from $342,081 the previous year. Pittman said residents should be concerned about government spending of tax dollars at every level.
“We have to make sure that all levels of government manage the money we have,” Pittman said. “I think people expect us to be accountable and they are frustrated with the way government spends money.”
Still, Bourne said he hopes the state won’t “play politics” with education dollars.
“Funding for public schools ought to be nonpolitical,” he said. “This money should not be decided by people playing politics. You can’t just rip funding away and expect the children to have enough resources to learn.”
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