When the Akribos Consulting Group presented the findings of its academic audit of Fairhope schools to the city’s Education Advisory Committee, it gave the volunteer committee a list of five options to launch the city’s schools into “top 10” statewide status.
Among Akribos’ five options was the recommendation for the creation of a special tax district, which would add 3 mills of additional property taxes within the boundaries of the Fairhope feeder pattern. A document provided by the Baldwin County Public School System showed the additional mills in a Fairhope-specific special tax district could mean approximately $1.8 million in new funding annually.
While voter support for new taxes countywide may not be reliable considering the failure of proposed millage increases in a referendum in March 2015, Fairhope EAC chairman Kerry Flowers said voters in Fairhope might be inclined to support additional taxes if they know the funds will be spent in Fairhope.
“Consider that Fairhope was one of the cities where voters were closer to passing the new taxes last March,” Flowers said. “Looking at the demographics of that referendum and hearing people talk about it, I think if people here knew that the tax money would directly benefit Fairhope schools at a local level, they might support it.”
Flowers stopped short of endorsing any of the study’s recommendations, but a special tax district was among the ideas the EAC pitched to the City Council last year.
Akribos also suggested the city could seek a “school flexibility contract” with the Alabama Board of Education. Other options included creating a charter school or creating an independent, city-run school system.
Akribos put a dollar amount on other recommendations it says the city’s schools could use to improve to top 10 status. Among those were $600,000 for personnel — including a director to lead curriculum and instruction and additional substitute teachers — and $80,000 for increased professional development for teachers. The Fairhope City Council provides $350,000 annually to the EAC, which it disburses equally among the city’s schools.
Baldwin County school system CFO John Wilson said special tax districts are an option for all seven of the system’s feeder patterns. Currently there are two tax districts which contribute funding to the school system — District 1, located near Little River in north Baldwin County, and District 2, which covers the rest of the county.
Wilson said the Baldwin County Board of Education is authorized by state law to create tax districts and levy up to 3 mills in each feeder pattern, subject to a vote by those who live inside its boundaries.
Dividing up the special tax districts could be complicated, as some of the county’s feeder patterns encompass more than one municipality. For example, portions of three municipalities and several unincorporated neighborhoods are packed into the Spanish Fort High School feeder pattern.
“Because of the way some of our feeder pattern borders are drawn, we could draw special tax districts based on those lines,” Wilson said. “Only those who live in the district could vote to approve it, and only those people inside the lines would pay the tax. The funds raised by the special tax district would only be used within that district.”
While Fairhope’s special tax district could generate $1.8 million in funding, Wilson projects four of the county’s seven feeder patterns would receive more than $1 million with an additional 3 mills. The Daphne High School and Foley High School feeder patterns would also generate more than $1 million per year, and a special tax district in the Gulf Shores High School feeder pattern would generate an additional $5.5 million in revenues, according to Wilson.
Wilson stressed that any funds raised by special tax districts will be above and beyond what the school system is already spending. If a special tax district generates $1 million per year, the system won’t deduct that money from what it budgets each year.
“This gives the community another option and a way to fund their schools over and above what the school system can do without breaking away,” he said. “The community will have its say in how the money is spent. If one feeder pattern wants to bring in additional teachers or build a new school, they can do so with this money.”
The additional tax revenue would also mean an expanded bonding power, according to Wilson. For instance, in Gulf Shores the additional revenue would be accompanied by nearly $80 million in bonding power over a 30-year period. The Foley and Fairhope feeder patterns would have more than $25 million in bonding power.
“If, say, Gulf Shores wanted to build a new high school, they could do that in this situation,” Wilson said. “These districts could help some of our feeder patterns address growth issues.”
While one of the Akribos study recommendations was for Fairhope to break away from the BCPSS to form its own independent, city-run school system, city leaders have rejected that option in the past. When the Fairhope City Council approved a $49,000 appropriation for the study in January, it did so with the stipulation that it would not pay for a feasibility study for a city-run system.
Wilson said any feeder pattern that split away from the county school system would have to levy much more in property taxes than what is proposed for a special tax district. They would also have to hire their own superintendent, CFO and staff.
Acknowledging additional taxation may be a hard sell, Flowers said he was also intrigued by the idea of a “flex contract” put forth by Akribos.
“I do think the flex contract is something that is interesting,” Flowers said. “I think there is less burden on taxpayers with that scenario. With the flex contract, we can still stay in the county system — which I think is what the City Council wants — but it would be a win-win for our teachers and schools.”