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Schools need help

By By Paul Keane
Publisher
A crowd of nearly 600 residents expressed support of ad valorem taxes while also taking the Atmore City Council and the Escambia County Commission to task during Thursday night's Town Hall Meeting on the school funding crisis.
As he did in previous meetings in Brewton and Flomaton, Superintendent of Schools Melvin "Buck" Powell pointed out many of the good things happening in the school district.
"I like what's happening in Atmore area schools," he said. "Test scores are up, dropout rates are down, the school are clean and discipline is good. The buildings are in good shape and we have no portables at any of our schools, and technology is good in Atmore. We also have good after-school programs, we have the gifted programs and the Turtle Point Center in Flomaton, and we have a good preschool program at Rachel Patterson.
"A lot of that is in jeopardy because of a lack of funds."
Powell pointed to the state's proration program implemented three years ago as one source of the funding problem. In fiscal year 2001, the cuts in state funding were $1,578,368. In fiscal year 2002, the cut was $836,689, and the cut this year has been $767,601. The projected cuts in fiscal year 2004 is $1 million for a total of $4,182,658 in state funding lost over the last four years.
"We are the lowest in the nation for property taxes for education," Powell said. "I want the kids to get a good education so they can get a good job. Our economy depends on a good education for our children."
Powell then asked for a show of hands on how many people would prefer a property tax or a sales tax. The overwhelming majority raised their hands for a property tax. Later in the meeting, it was asked if a combination of both taxes would be acceptable, and again the overwhelming majority voted in favor of having a property tax for permanent funding and a sales tax as a temporary measure to fund schools until ad valorem collections would begin in 2004.
Many of the residents in attendance questioned the rescinding of Atmore's education portion of city sales tax and why the County Commission is reluctant to pass a sales tax or increase in registration, license plate fees or gas taxes to help fund education.
"We're in the position of waiting for the Board of Education to make recommendations," Commission Chairman Larry White said. "We do have some options, but we'll wait until the Board of Education makes a recommendation on what they want us to do.
"But we have got to have a vote of the people for any measure. We need the people to speak on any measure that we might try to pass."
Many of the residents also expressed concern about Huxford Elementary being closed. Powell said only the state would close any schools in the system.
"I'll assure you we as the Board will not close any schools," Powell said. "The state may have to come in and close some schools, but I will fight to the death to keep every school open."
Powell added that closing a school such as Huxford would mean it would be five or six years before the system would realize a significant savings.
"It would take at least that long to see the results of the savings," he said. "Actually, I hope you people in Huxford get mad enough to get everyone out to vote for this measure."
Members of the Poarch Creek Tribe promised its support to the school system.
"We want to publicly support the Board of Education to keep the schools open," said Stephanie Rolin with the tribe. "At Huxford Elementary, 112 of the 286 students are members of the tribe.
"The tribe is in full support of the Board. What we need to know is what do we and the public need to do support this and get people to vote for the measure?"
Powell said any campaign for a referendum will have to come from grassroots efforts.
"We cannot use public funds to advertise for a referendum or election," Powell said. "Once a measure is passed, then we'll be asking businesses to donate money for advertising.
"And we're going to ask teachers and students to pass out fliers and to talk with their neighbors, relatives and friends about this measure. We are going to need to get all of the support we can to help pass this measure."
When asked about a sales tax measure, both Powell and Atmore Howard Shell said that measure would not be beneficial.
"What worries me is that we can sales tax ourselves out of business," Powell said.
"If you look at Mobile, with a 10 or 11 percent sales tax, business are dropping off, which hurts your sales tax base. A property tax is the fairest and most dependable type of tax."
White said he and the commissioners have been in discussions with the local legislative leaders – "Skippy" White, Seth Hammett, Pat Lindsey and Greg Albritton – and that support at the state level for a property tax measure is solid.
Powell told the audience that if some type of solution isn't found, then the consequences could be grave.
"We would have to borrow against our assets to keep things operating," he said. "When we've borrowed all we can against our assets, then the state would take over the system and begin closing schools and programs in order to keep us in operation. That is something that nobody wants."
Members of the Board will meet on Feb. 13 to determine just how many mills of additional property tax is needed. A formal resolution asking for the County Commission to help would be passed at the Feb. 27 meeting of the BOE at Flomaton High School.
The County Commission could then act on that resolution as its next meeting, with any potential election on a referendum taking a minimum of 30 days before it would go before the voters.