Residents protest, cheer property tax increase

Public comments on a proposed 9-mill property tax increase to benefit Shelby County Schools recently ran the gamut from outright support to dogged opposition, with calls for the elimination of wasted construction costs such as &uot;bell towers&uot; on new school buildings and the desire to seek other means to finance school needs such as impact fees imposed on new construction.

The feedback from about 30 individuals on the proposed tax hike was received during a public hearing last Thursday in the Thompson High School auditorium.

The hearing was called by the Shelby County Commission and hosted by the Greater Shelby County Chamber of Commerce as a step toward asking the state legislature to call for a public referendum on the issue.

The Shelby County Board of Education is seeking to have the tax proposal brought to a vote by residents of the county this May.

According to the board of education, the 9-mill property tax increase would increase the county’s tax total for schools to 39 mills. That equals $3.90 per $100, $39 per $1,000, according to School Superintendent Evan Major.

A mill is one tenth of a cent.

&uot;If we had an impact fee, I would welcome it,&uot; said Major following the meeting.

Several citizens raised the idea of an impact fee, or a fee charged to developers to help pay for the impact their developments have on the county’s schools and infrastructure such as water, sewer and roads.

Major said an impact fee has been discussed in the county for years, but is something over which the board of education has no control.

He also spoke of the immediate need for funds a property tax would bring, indicating that by the time the system would see any results from an impact fee, growth at 800 students per year would place the school system in a dangerous position.

Major told the crowd in attendance that a special election is necessary so that &uot;collection (of the additional tax) can begin immediately.&uot; He said a delay would result in the loss of an entire year of tax collection.

Major

concluded the public hearing saying: &uot;Obviously we don’t all agree, but we’ve had the opportunity to express ourselves.&uot;

According to Major, a total of $8,310 per year is spent on each student in the school system

each year (including capital outlay and debt services),

with only $3,843 of that amount contributed by the state.

He pointed out that the funding pie is cut up as follows: state, 50.628 percent; federal dollars, (all earmarked) 5.561 percent; contributions and donations, .14 percent; and local funds, 43.671 percent of the cost.

Major said of financial accountability: &uot;Last year, we had a perfect audit. It is my goal as your superintendent to make sure that continues to happen. There is no money missing.&uot;

He pointed out that &uot;only&uot; 1.6 percent of the budget is used for the central office, which he said ranks Shelby County school &uot;among the best in the state &045; of 128 school systems.&uot;

Major said financial records are balanced and closed monthly; there is a monthly managerial report to the Board of Education; an annual accountability report; every school is audited once a month; the system is audited annually by state examiners; and all records are open to the public.

He said Shelby County has 245 locally funded teachers, a 97 percent graduation rate and test scores above the state and national average.

Major pointed with pride to the fact the school system has produced 12 national merit finalists this year.

&uot;Let that sink in,&uot; he said, indicating only &uot;one school system in the entire state with more.&uot; The Homewood system had more finalists. That system also collects more than 50 mills of property taxes for its schools.

Major said the system offers 38 advanced placement courses and 34 honors courses.

Technology is implemented in every classroom, and there are 10 Alabama Reading Initiative Literacy Demonstration Sites.

Also according to Major, there are 35 Shelby county schools including 18 elementary and intermediate schools, 14 middle high schools, the Linda Nolen Learning Center, Shelby County School of Technology and an Alternative Learning Center.

He said Shelby County’s population stood at some 143,000 on the 2000 census.

That population includes 30,000 school-aged children, some of whom receive private education or attend other school systems such as Hoover. However, he said, 22,000 of those students (74 percent) are educated by the Shelby County School System.

He said the projected population of the county by 2020 is expected to stand at 250,000 people with 50,000 school-aged children and 36,650 of those educated in Shelby County Schools.

He said there has been a 34 percent increase in student enrollment over the past 10 years (5,532 additional students), but the enrollment is projected to increase by 5,300 students during the next five years.

According to Major:

Mt. Laurel Elementary is slated to open in 2004.

There are 21,838 students at present including 10,420 elementary and intermediate students, 11,136 middle and high school students and 270 other students.

The school system employs 1,720 professional employees with 70 teaching positions added for the 2002-03 year, 1,163 support employees and 299 bus drivers.

Class sizes are 18 students for grades K-3, 26 for grades 4-6 and 29 for grades 7-12.

Bus drivers cover 331 bus routes with 254 buses on the road for a total of more than 13,000 miles per day.

With an 8-mill tax increase passed in 1997, Major said the school system eliminated more

than 150 portable classrooms, built five new schools and added 176 new classrooms.

Major said the five-year plan approved by the board of education in January, which would be funded by the 9-mill tax increase, was developed after a 12-month study of capital needs and after discussion with leaders from every community.

He said the plan is for every school in the system and will provide facility needs and improvements to meet a student growth rate of up to 800 students per year and eliminate or minimize the need for 250 trailers or portable classrooms.

In a brief overview of the plan, Major pointed out that it will include five new schools, 250 classroom projects, land acquisition for future schools, gymnasium improvements, roofing projects, kitchen/cafeteria improvements, extensive interior/exterior renovations, parking improvements, meet buses and other transportation needs.

&uot;But, the plan will not be funded without additional revenues,&uot; Major stressed.

The tax increase will bring Shelby County to a total of 39 mills for schools. Major pointed out that Hoover collects 46.10 mills; Mountain Brook, 52.90 mills; and Vestavia Hills, 48.90 mills.

&uot;Money generated will be earmarked only for capital improvements.&uot;

He said the tax will generate $13.7 million the first year and will fund a $150 million capital plan and projected future growth.

Major said the tax will run out in 2017, the debt will be drained and the school system could look at restructuring at that time.

Among those in attendance at the public hearing were local mayors, the entire school board and members of the Shelby County Commission