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January 1, 2013

THE TIMES’ STORY OF YEAR: Huge developments for Cullman Co. schools

Editor's note: A voter-approved tax for county schools? The school system gaining control of hundreds of acres of land from the state? Critics said it couldn’t be done. But the critics were wrong. Voters approved the tax and the school system wrestled control of the land from the state.

After nearly half a decade of insecurity — with everything from teacher jobs to equipment at the whim of the annual state budget — the Cullman County Board of Education managed to take control of its financial future in 2012 with two monumental votes.

After voting down a countywide half-cent sales tax just a few years ago, local residents approved an identical tax in 2012 after new Superintendent Billy Coleman and his staff campaigned ceaselessly with dozens of community meetings across the county early in the year. That tax alone is expected to generate millions in new revenue.

The November general election also brought good news for education officials, with voters passing a measure to give the school system control of some potentially valuable land on Smith Lake, which could be worth millions once it is developed.

Half-cent tax

Voters approved a countywide half-cent sales tax for education by a 53 percent majority in March, and officials say they’re now working to make good on all the promises made during the lead-up to the vote.

“This will allow us to get some additional resources to our students, and we appreciate it, and take our responsibility very seriously,” Coleman said in a previous interview. “We worked hard getting the message out, but now it’s time to practice it, and make sure we put it into action. The worst thing we can do now is say ‘Hey, everything’s fine,’ and not take the economical approach we’ve taken to this point.”

The county system plans to use 60 percent of the new revenue for instruction, 20 percent for maintenance repairs, and 20 percent for separate school projects.

The sales tax revenue started rolling in around mid-to-late 2012, and county schools finance director Randy Dunlap said his staff spent much of the year budgeting for  implementation.

“Now, we have to begin budgeting for fiscal year 2013, and it’ll go toward everything from roofs to technology,” Dunlap said in a previous interview. “We’ll also need to devise a plan to provide that 20 percent to the local schools.”

To increase accountability, the board opened a separate bank account to track the half-cent revenue to insure it is used properly.

“We don’t arbitrarily make these decisions, and we’ll probably form some committees to look at these, but to me it makes sense to focus on local schools first,” he said. “That’s the quickest way to help, and it might be a good place to start. It’s important to get that out because each school has some unique things they’re addressing.”

Proration to the state education budget over the past three years has cut deep into the school system’s financial reserves. The district has shed employees and programs in recent years just to stay afloat, but Coleman said the half-cent tax will allow the county schools to once again re-invest in student enrichment. Everything from improved technology offerings, to an engineering academy, are now part of the long-term plan.

“We haven’t been funded a dollar the past three years for technology from the state, and we have to get our technology support to where it needs to be, because we’re struggling to support what we have now,” Coleman said. “I think that over a period of time, this is going to really help us catch up in areas of technology and how it supports our curriculum, because it continues to move in that direction. We’ve also started our engineering initiative, and we feel like we can look at that now and be very deliberate in the approach we take.”

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