PCC asks for school funds

Published 12:00 am Monday, February 17, 2003

Pike County Commissioners invited the superintendents and school boards of both school systems to a special work session to discuss the future of the 1-cent educational sales tax and promptly asked the schools for money.

The commissioners, with Willie Thomas and Larry Meeks absent, presented a draft resolution to the superintendents and board members that would ask Pike County's voters to approve a renewal of the 1-cent sales tax with 75 percent of the money going to schools and 25 percent going to the Pike County Commission's coffers.

In front of an audience consisting of only five people, the commissioners explained their request, saying the money would be used to fund appropriations to agencies in the county and to pave and repair Pike County's roads.

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Mark Bazzell, superintendent of Pike County Schools, said he would be willing to share the funds with the county if the voters were to approve the measure, but Hank Jones, superintendent of Troy City Schools, was unwilling to sign on to such a provision.

&uot;We are appreciative of the dollars that have come from the sales tax in the past, but we are not in a position to make a statement of support for this proposal yet because we have not had a chance to discuss it as a board,&uot; he said.

Both superintendents did agree the coming years would be extremely difficult for schools and educational systems across the state.

&uot;We are going to be looking at a decrease in funding of anywhere from between $900,000 to a million dollars,&uot; Bazzell said, citing a 5 percent decrease in state funding and an $89 increase per employee per month in costs such as insurance and retirement.

Jones agreed, saying the coming years would be the worst in his 32 years in education.

The current 1-cent sales tax is set to expire Sept. 30, and county leaders say it will be up to the voters to decide whether or not to extend the tax with a 75-25 split; extend the current tax with 100 percent going to education; or end the tax altogether.

County attorney Allen Jones said an election would cost the county approximately $36,000 and the state Legislature would have to approve any reallocation of the tax dollars.

&uot;It will take about three months to organize and election once this comes out of the Legislature,&uot; said Karen Berry, commission chairperson. &uot;So we need to move on this soon.&uot;

Members attending the session reach conclusion on the next step in the process, but agreed that a public relations campaign would likely be needed to convince the public of the need to approve the tax again.

Berry said the commission needed the funds to help with projects such as paving roads and funding organizations that have been denied appropriations money in previous years. One of the audience members was a representative from one of those organizations.

&uot;Why are people not knocking down doors for more money for school systems?&uot; asked Tammy Powell, director of the County Extension Service, which has not received county appropriations for the past two years. &uot;We need county funds for travel within the county and to know whether or not we will have paper in our office.&uot;

However, the superintendents also made cases for the funds. Bazzell presented a list of classes that had been cancelled due to lack of funds and Jones forecast a $1.2 million loss of revenue in coming years.

&uot;I just hate to see it as an either/or situation,&uot; Powell said.

The debate over school funding comes at a particularly volatile time in state political and financial circles.

State Superintendent Ed Richardson has outlined a bleak future for Alabama schools, including the possibility of a school year with no air conditioning, no transportation as systems are forced to sell off fleets of school buses, no librarians, no honors classes and electives and, worst of all in the minds of some, no high school football.

Richardson appeared before the House and Senate budget committees which will be assembling the budget until the regular session starts March 4 and painted a picture of schools without drama, art, journalism, music and debate classes. He said funding cuts will require numerous staff and personnel to be fired and class sizes could be expanded by four to six students per class.

The issue of a Pike County referendum on school sales tax comes hot on the heels of a Feb. 4 election that saw Houston County voters overwhelmingly crush two tax measures that would have raised millions for city and county schools. Eighty percent of Houston County voters rejected a 5-mill property tax increase and 82 percent opposed a half-percent sales tax increase.

Last year, 2,634 Pike County voters turned out to approve an extension of the 1-cent sales tax, which both superintendents cite as critical to avoiding major cutbacks during the current school year.

&uot;We are having this work session to see if the schools would be willing to share,&uot; said Commissioner Ray Goodson, who represents District 4 of Pike County.

Gov. Bob Riley has set up a Commission on Education Spending designed to account for every public dollar spent on education in the state in the past decade. The commission boasts 34 members representing all manner of organizations with an emphasis on corporate Alabama. Though members represent such diverse groups as the Alabama Educators Association, the conservative Eagle Forum and higher ed officials, the business community is exceptionally well represented. The chairs of the commission are from corporate backgrounds: Chairman Tom Hamby, president of Bellsouth in Birmingham and vice-chair Walter Howlett, chairman and CEO of Booker T. Washington Insurance Company in Birmingham.

Stephen Stetson can be reached at stephen.stetson@troymessenger.com.