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Powell: School funding cuts could jeopardize viable programs

By By Bill Crist/Brewton Standard
"I'm excited about the direction we're going in."
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.
"Many of these programs are in jeopardy due to a lack of money," he concluded to the approximately 100 people who had gathered in the Escambia County Courthouse last Tuesday night. They were there for the first of three town hall meetings that the board is holding to seek public input on the revenue crisis our schools are facing. Powell said that proration is the reason for most of the current problem and that by the end of this fiscal year, the local system will have lost approximately $4 million in state funding over the past three years.
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.
"Does money make a difference," he asked. "I say it does."
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.
"We've got to close the gap between our white students and black students," he said. "Between our kids who can afford lunch and those who can't."
Tough decisions must be made
If nothing changes, Powell said the system would be forced to cut 14 teachers positions.
"We'll try to eliminate some of those things that aren't absolutely necessary," he said. "Any program that is not necessary for getting the 'three Rs' is going to be on the chopping block."
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.
"I'm not going to threaten that," he said.
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.
"The savings wouldn't be immediate (with cuts)," he said. "Tenured teachers would have to be absorbed. Cutting 14 teachers is not going to save us, it's going to hurt us. I'm hoping that doesn't happen."
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.
"Ad valorem is much more stable and will increase as property values go up," said County Administrator Tony Sanks.
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.
"A sales tax will affect a lot of things," said Brewton Mayor Ted Jennings. "It will be a ripple effect, and it will be a negative effect."
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.
"I don't want to close Huxford or McCall," Powell said.
He said that the decision to close one of the schools would come from the state.
"I'll assure you folks it is not easy at all," he said.
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.
"We can't just sit back. We all need to get out and fight for it," he said. "This is not going to be a Buck Powell fight. I can't do it alone. Whatever this board comes up with, I hope you go to the polls and support it.
"We need to do something to help the school system."