Teachers may be lost without new revenues
By By BILL CRIST – Publisher
Those eight words outline Escambia County Board of Education Superintendent Melvin "Buck" Powell's feeling about the future of the school system. He shared that sentiment just before listing an impressive number of extracurricular activities and programs as well as outlining the up-to-date facilities that the district currently has in place.
The board has three basic approaches to dealing with the situation: supporting an increase to the ad valorem (property) tax, which would be voted on by the citizens of the county; supporting a one-cent increase to the sales tax, which the county commission could pass or reducing expense by eliminating teaching positions.
Powell said the latter was a short-term fix and that what the system needs is an increase in funding.
Each of the tax increases has its benefits and downsides.
According to Powell, a one-cent increase in the sales tax would generate approximately $1.7 million per year. It will take an increase in the ad valorem tax of 5-8 mils to generate the same revenue annually.
Tuesday night's meeting, which will be followed by similar meetings in Flomaton and Atmore, was an opportunity for the members of the school board to inform the public and seek input on its current financial situation. According to Powell, the system will end the fiscal year with approximately $1 million in reserve, but state law mandates that the system must have one month's teacher pay in reserve. Powell said that monthly payroll is approximately $1.2 million.
He also said that when more money is spent on education the result is better classroom performance. He pointed out that scores on several nationwide standardized tests point to the fact that school systems that spend more per student, tend to score better. He went on to say that students on free or reduced lunch plans generally do not perform as well as students who are not on those programs.
To put matters in perspective in relation to other Alabama school systems, Powell said that Homewood spent the most per student, at $5,174. Roanoke City spent the least at $302 per student. Escambia County spends $951.31 per student.
Tough decisions must be made
If nothing changes, Powell said the system would be forced to cut 14 teachers positions.
Powell did say that he was not going to take the same approach as the Mobile schools did several years ago when the superintendent threatened to cancel football and other extracurricular activities if a tax increase was not approved by voters.
Powell said that Escambia County spends about $75,000 per year on supplements to coaches, cheerleader and band sponsors.
Powell went on to explain that there are several reasons that the board would prefer to take the approach of increasing revenue rather than reducing expenses, or cutting teaching positions.
Although he said he knew it was hard to convince voters to vote for a tax increase on themselves, he pointed out that there had not been an increase in ad valorem tax in Escambia County for education since 1927. He used the example that that on a house which has been appraised by the county at $100,000, increasing the rate by a mil would increase the taxes on that home by only $10. An 8-mil increase would result in $80 more taxes on that same home.
When asked if they would rather support an increase in sales tax or an increase in ad valorem tax, those in the audience overwhelmingly chose ad valorem.
According to County Assessor Jim Hildreth, even if a tax were approved today, it would be Oct. 2004 before the schools would see any money from it.
While a sales tax could be passed with the support of just three of the county's commissioners, and it would provide an immediate cash flow, it would likely face opposition from city and business leaders.
Jennings used the example of Mobile, where sales tax levels had risen to the point that businesses were moving outside the city limits because shoppers were leaving town to avoid the high tax. He said that ultimately that impacts sales tax revenue negatively.
The fact that sales tax revenue can fluctuate wildly as the economy moves from a time of growth into a recession, is another argument against it.
State will decide closings
Powell said neither he nor the board wanted to close any schools, as has been suggested for some districts around Alabama, at the state level. Among the schools that might be targeted are Pollard-McCall and Huxford.
He said that the decision to close one of the schools would come from the state.
Powell said that following the next two town-hall meetings, the board would take the public's input and consider which avenue to support at its regular February meeting.