Residents, tribe can help with funding
By By Paul Keane
There are a number of options that could be explored to help fund schools in Escambia County, including taking up collections on a regular basis at local churches and getting members of the Poarch Creek Indians involved more in the funding process.
In many areas of Alabama, especially Central Alabama, a number of churches have begun making donations to local schools via regular collections. Some churches have even attempted to collect from their congregations an annual amount equal to the amount of property taxes that would be collected for schools if the church property was not exempt from taxes.
When presented to a group of area ministers recently in a meeting with Atmore Mayor Howard Shell, many of the ministers had questions about how to collect the taxes, but none of them seemed outwardly opposed to the prospect of having such as program in place.
And while churches are exempt from property taxes due to their non-profit status, members of various congregations do volunteer and assist in various ways. That includes serving as volunteer aides, offering counseling and helping out with fundraisers and other activities. In addition, many local churches offer various ministries to schools and students.
During the meeting with Mayor Shell and Superintendent of Schools Melvin "Buck" Powell earlier this month, ministers were asked to decide which side of the school funding issue they wanted to support – either through an increase in property taxes or through a sales tax – and to educate their congregations on the topic.
And while churches look at ways to assist the schools and offer support, one group in Escambia County stands poised and ready to lend a hand to local schools.
The Poarch Creek Indians and their Chairman, Eddie Tullis, are ready to assist local schools. Tullis admits that his tribe has a vested interest in the success of local schools, especially when it comes to Huxford Elementary, a facility located right near tribal land.
"We are very concerned about Huxford," Tullis said. "We would hope that before anyone looked at closing schools, they would look at performance. Huxford is one of the top-performing schools in the system right now. And I challenge anyone to show me a school that gets more community support than Huxford.
"But we as a tribe are very concerned about this situation. We lost our community school once, and once is enough. We're willing to help out in any way that we can."
When Powell began a series of town hall meetings concerning the funding crisis nearly six weeks ago, Tullis stepped forward and floated the idea of opening a casino in the area to help with education revenue.
Tullis pointed out that a casino would create numerous jobs and stimulate the economy with various forms of revenue. To open a casino on tribal land would take agreements with state officials and the Department of Interior, as currently the State of Alabama does not allow the type of gaming that would allow lotteries and casinos into the state.
With or without a casino, though, Tullis says some fundamental changes need to take place to provide for more permanent funding for education throughout the state.
"I think the leadership of Atmore and the State of Alabama are being given a great opportunity to provide leadership to our area and the entire state," Tullis said. "Opportunities like this – to provide this type of leadership and make some fundamental changes – don't come along very often.
"And this is a very critical situation. I don't think a lot of citizens realize the effects that education has on a community, both good and bad. Education is critical to any community, and we owe it to our children to give them a good education."
That could mean increasing property taxes, Tullis said.
"I own land in both Florida and Alabama," he said. "I know what I pay in property taxes each year in both states, and it is outrageous how low the property taxes are in Alabama when compared to Florida.
"Everyone gives lip service to funding education better, but what we need is for the bureaucrats to take this issue and run with it. I want to have a discussion with people who have studied this issue more, and I think they owe us some options to consider.
"I would love to see (State Superintendent) Ed Richardson and (former State School Board Member) Bradley Byrne come down and talk to people in this community and give us some options to decide upon."
Tullis pointed out that federal funds from the tribe are already used to provide counselors and other programs in area schools, and that taking over one or more schools would not be feasible at this time.
Tullis said that the state funding, on a national average, is considerably more than what federal funds from Native American programs would provide for schools. "I don't think, on average, that we would have as much money per pupil as what is provided right now on a national average," he said.
Tullis did say the tribe is ready to assist local schools in any way possible.
"We're willing to help," he said. "We stand ready to help bring resources and additional revenue to our schools."