Consultant: Alabaster schools possible

Published 10:36 pm Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Dr. Ira Harvey, right, speaks to members of the Alabaster City Council as Ward 7 Councilman Tommy Ryals, right, and City Attorney Jeff Brumlow, center, look on. (Reporter Photo/Neal Wagner)

By NEAL WAGNER / City Editor

Alabaster could benefit from forming its own school district, but likely would have to either raise the city’s sales tax by 1 cent or raise its ad valorem property taxes, a consultant told the City Council during a Sept. 7 meeting.

During the meeting, Ira Harvey, who was hired by the council a few months ago to conduct a city school district feasibility study, recommended the city add about $3.6 million in annual school expenses if it decides to break away from the Shelby County School District to form an Alabaster school district.

The additional expenses would cover things such as two specialist teachers in each Alabaster school and plans for a new $20 million Alabaster school building, Harvey said.

“I recommend a $20 million new school site,” Harvey said during his presentation. “What capacity would that new school serve? The school board would have to make that decision.”

Harvey said an additional 1-cent sales tax in Alabaster earmarked to the city’s schools likely would be the “path of least resistance” for the city to raise the money necessary to fund the additional expenses. Alabaster Mayor David Frings said the additional cent would raise about $4 million per year.

“I can tell you with certainty that a 9 percent sales tax is not a detriment to the consumer,” Harvey said, noting it would take about two years for the city to see any additional revenues from a property tax increase. “That is the de facto state standard now. You are lucky to only be at 8 cents right now.”

The council could vote to raise the sales tax, but it would take a referendum vote to raise the property taxes.

During his presentation, Harvey said the City Council could vote to split from the county school district, and could interview and appoint members of an Alabaster school board. The city school board could then hire a city school superintendent.

Currently, the Shelby County Board of Education has $2,078 in unencumbered funds to spend per student, Harvey said. Alabaster would have $2,302 in unencumbered funds to spend per student, he said.

Harvey said an Alabaster city school district financially would be “very, very close” to the Vestavia Hills School District, and said it “would be in the top 25 percent of school districts in the state, maybe even higher.”

If the city decided to form its own district, it would likely take about two years and between $2 million-$4 million to negotiate the split with the county. The city would receive all school buildings in Alabaster, including the Shelby County Instructional Services Building, and would be required by law to provide jobs for all certified employees currently at the schools.

The city would also be required to provide or contract with another entity to provide services for special-needs children,

Currently, about 522 students zoned for Alabaster schools live outside Alabaster city limits, but the city could allow them to attend Alabaster city schools, Harvey said.

After the hearing, several of the more than 100 residents in attendance voiced their opinions on the matter. The majority of the speakers said they would be in favor of a city school district if it improved the quality of education for Alabaster students.

“I’m a big supporter of Shelby County schools,” said Alabaster resident Becky Goggins. “But if you can show me that you can provide a better education for the children in Alabaster, I’m not going to stop you.”

Alabaster Council President Jim McClain said the council likely will vote on the school district “within a year,” and encouraged residents to share their thoughts on the matter with he and other council members.