Column: Chelsea needs its own school system; is now the right time?

Published 8:33 am Friday, January 28, 2022

By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Managing Editor

Before you read the comments on the Chelsea Neighborhood Watch Facebook page, let me preface this by saying I respect your decision regardless of what it may be.

We are all in different financial situations, we are all in different states of life and we all have differing views. The beauty of this country, this state, this county, our hometown, is that we get the right to make our own choices.

That will be no different for voting on whether or not residents of Chelsea want to break away from Shelby County Schools to start their own city school system.

My answer, I would likely vote yes.

And I didn’t come to that decision as easily as you may think, and it does still depend on what the final tax increase would be as well as insight into the future from the city council.

But it is tough to ignore the benefits of what could happen.

The main reason I took to this platform as a Chelsea resident wasn’t to create division, make it political or sway your opinion; it was simply to ask you to do your part in making the most informed decision possible should it eventually go to a vote. And try to do so as impartially and unselfishly as possible.

Do research into the matter, know what you are voting on and vote for what you think is best for yourself or the future of the city and its students.

Let me say this first. It is inevitable. One day, Chelsea is going to have its own school system.

There are no ifs, ands or buts about it. It will happen.

The city is one of the fastest growing in the state already, and the middle school and high school are bursting at the seams with students lucky not to have to eat their lunch on the floor.

After accepting that, the question becomes, when? Now, five years from now, 10 years from now or further down the road.

There are definitely some other pressing issues at play that need to be addressed as well.

A city police force, lower sewer rates/tap fees, home owners’ associations not ripping off their residents and much more.

One of my biggest questions, however, is about the future of the city.

Chelsea is growing at a torrid pace, but it is missing something that makes city school systems so easy for places like Alabaster, Hoover and Pelham—retail developments.

Not only are they some of the largest cities, but their property taxes aren’t as high because of sales tax from the multitude of shopping centers in each of those cities.

No, Chelsea doesn’t need a line of chain restaurants, hotels and businesses, but a nicely-designed shopping center with ample places to shop and eat rather than going over the mountain would make all of the difference in the world for the 1-cent sales tax already in place going to local schools.

One, is a future development like that something that is on the minds of the city council? Two, if that does happen, would our residents have property tax lowered in the future to accommodate it?

And that is where the question comes into play of is now the right time? There are so many things the city itself needs to continue improving. Financially, how will a city school system impact the ability to make that happen moving forward?

That, however, brings us back around to the current discussion of the property tax.

You may be seeing signs that there will be a tax increase of 45-75 percent if this is approved.

Well, one, we don’t know what the approved increase would be, and two, Chelsea is one of only three cities in Shelby County that doesn’t currently pay a property tax outside of the county rate.

The others are Indian Springs and Westover.

For the average family in Chelsea ($300,000 home), it would be an increase of around $600 per year or $50 per month for a 20 mills increase. Currently, Pelham has the highest millage rate for a municipality solely in Shelby County at 14 for a total of 58, while Alabaster, Calera and Columbiana are all at 10 for a total of 54.

The highest are Vestavia Hills with an additional 49.3 mills, Birmingham with an additional 36.2 mills and Hoover with an additional 30.5 mills.

For many of us already on a tight budget and the surge of expenses since COVID-19 started, the 20 mill increase may be too much.

But for me and my family, it would be worth it.

My wife and I don’t have kids yet, and we wouldn’t benefit from it right away aside from an increase in property value, but we see the future and would be willing to make cuts in our monthly spending to accommodate making Chelsea the best it can be for our students.

I’ve been in the halls of every high school in this county, and I can personally tell you, Chelsea is in dire need of improvements.

Walking the halls is worse than 280 traffic during rush hour, students really are sitting on the floors to eat and there aren’t enough classrooms.

The teachers, coaches and administrators work extremely hard, but the environment lacks what is needed for more than 1,100 students.

Shelby County Schools is incredible, and they do everything in their power to make all of their schools some of the best in the state, but they’ve got 28 schools to take care of in addition to the Career Tech Center and Linda Nolen Learning Center.

They won’t be able to solve Chelsea’s school problems anytime soon.

Some will argue that Oak Mountain can make it work, but Oak Mountain also doesn’t have issues in their schools like Chelsea does. They don’t need at least one new school built and major upgrades to another.

And that’s why communities such as Highland Lakes, Mt Laurel and other north Shelby unincorporated areas don’t want to annex. They avoid the taxes and get to send their kids to the 15th best high school in the state.

It is also a community that has a higher average income of families pouring more money into the school. And even they recently had a new sales tax put in place for Indian Springs to help with funding for different improvements.

Others will argue that they don’t have kids in the school system or that they don’t understand why the split from SCS is needed just because the facilities aren’t what some think they should be.

I understand it is hard to pay for something that doesn’t directly benefit your family. That has been one of the toughest parts in this decision for me personally, but if it is in your means to do it, it benefits the community as a whole so much more than not doing it.

As for the facilities themselves, it’s not that they aren’t up to par, which they aren’t, but they aren’t big enough.

The elementary schools are fantastic, but the middle and high schools aren’t built for the number of students that are currently walking the halls.

For that reason, many people move to Chelsea to start a family and then move to other communities once their kids reach the middle or high school to attend places like Spain Park, Oak Mountain, Thompson and Pelham, all of which rank in the top 25 of the best high schools in the state, while Chelsea currently ranks 53rd.

That is the possibility of what could be ahead for Chelsea if this change is made, not to mention giving middle school students a much better learning environment as well as an intermediate school.

But more importantly, you get the opportunities of added curriculum, more programs and the possibility of pre-K, which has hugely benefited Alabaster, Hoover and Pelham. You also prevent just throwing a few trailers up behind the school to accommodate the students.

No, a new building won’t make the kids any smarter. And yes, they are currently part of one of the top county school systems in the state. Those arguments have been made tirelessly.

But there is a reason the top 25 school systems in Alabama are city school systems, while Shelby County Schools has gone from the best county system to the fourth best at 30th in the state.

There are so many benefits that come with a city putting everything into your schools versus a county splitting fairly between 30 schools.

I’ve talked with several cities, superintendents, coaches and teachers in passing that have a city system, and all say the same thing: Do it earlier rather than later.

For Chelsea, that could still be a few years from now since there is plenty of room for growth, but having that base to build from is important.

A new school system would keep more families in Chelsea, keep those who grow up here coming back, create a learning environment that is enjoyable for the students and create opportunities for the children of Chelsea that are instrumental in preparing them for life.

My wife and I live on the salary of a journalist and a teacher, and we are right on the toe of being able to afford it. We know there are people who make much less living in the city and there are many who make way more.

But seeing the education system up close and personal, we both know it will be worth it for the future of the city and the future of the students in this city to make a change in some capacity.

Many are conflicted right now, and it is OK to feel that way. Many others have already made up their minds one way or another, and that is OK too.

We aren’t going to be in 100-percent agreement on this because it is a costly expense.

Just be informed on the matter and decide whether the benefits outweigh the costs.

This is an opinion piece by Alec Etheredge. You can contact him at 205-669-3131 or at alec.etheredge@shelbycountyreporter.com. You can also share letters to the editor by emailing news@shelbycountyreporter.com.