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County schools will have second chance for funding

By By Bill Crist Special to the Advance
Escambia County voters will have a second chance to stabilize funding for schools, this time with a local vote on raising the ad valorem tax here.
On Monday, local school officials asked the Escambia County Commission to move ahead with a proposed 10-mill ad valorem, or property tax, increase. The proposal was introduced earlier in the year, but was set aside until voters decided the fate of Amendment One. The countywide vote is tenatively scheduled for Dec. 9.
According to County Administrator Tony Sanks, the two school boards will need to pass resolutions asking for the vote on that date.
"We're waiting for the resolutions," Sanks said. "The act that our legislators passed, calling for the vote, is still valid, but we need a resolution stating Dec. 9 from each system."
Both school boards have called meetings for Thursday, Sept. 25, at which point they are expected to pass the resolutions.
According to Lynn Smith, Superintendent of the Brewton City Schools, the boards will actually pass two resolutions, one calling for the Dec. 9 vote and another recognizing education as beneficial to the community and the necessity of the tax increase.
According to Smith the second resolution will allow the systems to use school resources to promote the vote, such as placing signs on school property.
The Brewton City Schools will meet at 12:05 p.m. at the boardroom of the central office and the County School board will meet on the same day at 4:30 p.m. at the central office in downtown Brewton.
The county commission will reconvene on Monday, Sept. 29 and is expected to set the election for the date.
Residents in Brewton and Atmore currently pay 40 mills, which is divided and shared by the schools, county and city governments. East Brewton residents pay 37 mills, Flomaton residents 35 mills and people living in unincorporated areas of the county pay 25 mills.
State law requires school systems to pay the equivalent of 10 mills to the state in order to receive funding. That money does not necessarily have to come from ad valorem taxes, as is the case for the Escambia County school system. The county system collects 7 mills of property tax, and has relied on the oil severance tax to pay it's remaining portion. As that reveue stream has dried up, though, it's become more difficult for the county system to make its contribution.
"We have to contribute about $2 million per year, to the state," Escambia County Superintendent Melvin (Buck) Powell said. "That's so we can get about $19 million back. With our current millage, that means we still have to come up with about $569,000 each year. In the past, we were able to use the oil severance tax for that."
According to Smith, the proposed tax increase would generate approximately $2.5 million through property taxes and another $400,000 through vehicle taxes annually for the schools. Those figures are based on 2002 figures from the county tax appraisal office, he said.
Of that, the Brewton City Schools woud receive approximately 23 percent, or about $667,000. The County school system will receive the balance. The distribution is based on enrollment figures at all the schools within Escambia County.
According to school officials, one advantage to property taxes as a revenue source is that they tend to be a reliable, steady revenue source. Sales taxes, on the other hand, can fluctuate wildly with economic upturns and downturns, and can be hard to predict.
Powell said that the county system began making cuts in 2001 because the board could see the problems on the horizon.
"We saw the problem coming. In the Brewton area alone, since I got here, we've cut the medical career program at the high school," Powell said. He said the board has also cut the drama program, computer classes, PE classes and five elementary school teachers in the East Brewton schools, with similar reductions in Atmore as well.
Escambia County voters last approved a property tax increase for education in 1925. That vote increased the rate to its current level, seven mills.
"We've got to pass to pass this tax," Powell said. "We've got to pass it so we can do something. It's very serious."
Powell said that systemwide, 34 teachers have been eliminated from the county system since 2001, and if the financial picture does not improve, the board is bracing to lay off another 30, which could include tenured positions.
Smith said that the Brewton City Schools will need to make cuts, but said they would occur through teacher units rather than programs.
"Where you can make your difference is in teacher units," Smith said. "Although ideally we'd like to get back to smaller class sizes."
Smith said that the system felt like extracurricular activities and programs were important to the educational process.
"If it wasn't important, we wouldn't do extracurricular actitivies."
Smith said that one of the steps the City schools have taken has been to merge teaching assignments as teachers resign from the system.
"We've merged some teaching assignments where teachers are in subject, but teaching across the curriculum," he said. "We've also asked some fifth and sixth grade teachers to go across grades."
"We're only paying four teachers with local funds," Powell said.
The Escambia County system serves 4,600 students. The Brewton City schools serve approximately 1,350 students.
"We're going to do all we can to protect what we've got," Smith said. "But if it (the 10-mill increase) doesn't pass, class size will go up."