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BOE to lose funds

By By Paul Keane
Publisher
The City of Atmore on Monday rescinded a nearly 40-year-old ordinance that provided funding for the Escambia County School District through a city sales tax.
The nullification of the funding amounts to more than $250,000 a year in money handed out to Atmore area schools through the Atmore Education Revenue Commission. Currently, there is enough money to cover most expenses for this school year, but there will be no additional funds set aside on a monthly basis for future use.
Traditionally, a portion of the sales tax collected monthly has been set aside in a special account for use in education purposes. The Atmore Education Revenue Commission then fills requests from local schools – Rachel Patterson Elementary, A.C. Moore Elementary, Escambia County Middle School and Escambia County High School – by giving money from the fund.
The ad valorem, or property, taxes collected by the county and given to the city – which in turns gives a portion of that to the schools – is not affected by Monday's decision. Those funds were approved by a vote of the citizens and cannot be rescinded unless citizens vote to do so.
The order to rescind the contribution takes effect at midnight on Jan. 31. The measure passed unanimously without discussion until after the measure passed.
"Sales tax have been decreasing since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks," Atmore Mayor Howard Shell said. "With Kmart closing, that means $25-27,000 a month in sales tax that won't be collected.
"We looked at the numbers and knew this was coming. We can't play catch up, we have to pay for services now. We've lost four people already because we don't have the money to replace them, and we have a dump truck with a blown engine and a tractor with blown rings that we can't repair because the money is just not there."
Escambia County Superintendent of Schools Melvin "Buck" Powell said he understands economic times are tough, but he questioned the decision and the way it was handled.
"I just lost $1 million (in state funding) on Friday, and I lost $270,000 today," Powell said. "We've got four teachers losing their jobs in three days if we don't figure something out.
"I am absolutely disappointed in the way this was handled. I came prepared to speak on this subject and then they made the motion and voted on it without any discussion.
"I understand that Kmart is closing and that it's going to affect sales tax revenue in Atmore. But if Kmart accounts for 20 or 25 percent of the total sales tax, then cut our funding by 20 or 25 percent. Heck, cut it by 50 percent, but don't take away everything. To cut us out totally from a tax that was established in the 1950s just doesn't seem right."
Shell said the decision has been discussed and contemplated for quite some time now.
"This is not something we just reached out and grabbed," he said. "This is not a choice that we wanted to make, but we have to make it.
"The price of gas, tires, insurance and everything else has gone up for us just like it has for all of you. We also know that all of you are dedicated to our children and want what's best for them. We just don't have a choice right now. Hopefully, maybe by the time the next school year rolls around, we'll have a miracle and can make some changes."
Murray Johnson, who chairs the Education Revenue Commission, said there must be a major reason for the decision.
"There must be a major reason to repeal it," he said. "I just want to thank the City and the Council for the support you all have given in the past. But there must be a major reason for cutting this out, and I can't question that.
"I hope that if you get in a position you would reconsider putting this back in. Years ago, we had some really good years and even had some CDs to draw from. When the sales tax starting dropping in the 1980s, we had to use that reserve. We do have almost enough to complete this year, but we would hope that you would reconsider this at some later point."
According to financial reports from the Education Revenue Commission, a total of $271,941.38 was distributed to schools within the city limits during this school year. Included in those distributions was money for four teachers with benefits and two aides with benefits. Other items purchased with the money included copiers, equipment and technology maintenance, choral music and equipment, a corrective math program, band supplies, a building canopy at ECHS, instructional materials and audio/visual equipment.
In the 2001-2002 school year, a total of $314,573.12 was distributed, which included funding the same number of teachers and aides. In 2000-2001, the total was $291,516.97 and included the same number of teachers and aides.
Huxford Elementary is not eligible for disbursements from the commission since it is not located within the city limits.
Sales tax revenue for the past four full years has fluctuated greatly in Atmore. In Fiscal Year 1998-99, a total of $2,515.407.90 was collected, with $276,168.53 going to fund schools. In Fiscal Year 1999-2000, the total was $2,704,965.40, with $296,226.22 going to the school fund. In Fiscal Year 2000-2001, the total of $2,844,960.99, with $311,602.38 given to schools.
Last year, the total amount was $2,396,226.28, with $262,264.83 going to schools. In the first three months of this fiscal year – which includes collections for October, November and December, the total amount collected has been $545,860.34, with $59,714.63 going to schools. Projected out over the course of the fiscal year, those totals would amount to $2,183,441.36, with the schools receiving an estimated $236,698.52 had the ordinance not been rescinded.
Powell said while the school district will still receive some funding for this year, the cuts will have to be made before the end of the school year due to budgets being formulated now in preparation for next school year.
"We're going to have to make the cuts this year," Powell said. "We have to have our budget in place by July 1, so we have to make decisions now in order to be prepared for the new budget. That means we're looking at cutting three aides and possibly as many as four teachers pretty soon."