By Trent Moore
The Cullman Times
— 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.
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.”
Section 16 project
Voters approved a measure in November to give the school system control of 321 acres in Joppa, 122 acres in Chigger Ridge and 435 acres on Smith Lake — including 25,000 feet of shoreline that could be worth several million dollars.
County school officials plan to either develop or sell the property, use 10 percent of the profit immediately, then place 90 percent of any revenue from the land into a trust and use the interest as a new source of revenue for the system. Funds will be split between both local school systems, with the county receiving 83 percent and the city allocated 17 percent based on student population.
“A whole lot of people really worked hard to make that happen,” Superintendent Billy Coleman said. “I want to thank the people of Cullman County for putting their trust in our system to manage this. Now we have to move forward.”
The first step is to create a new committee to help ensure the potential revenue is used correctly. Officials hope to hold the first meeting at some point in early 2013.
“We’ve talked about some principles behind setting up a steering community and everybody is thinking on that now, and we’re going to come back together and get everyone’s thoughts,” Coleman said. “I feel like our first step is to form some type of steering committee to put some policies in place and make sure we’re all on the same page. Our main goal is to make sure we preserve the vision, when this finally does start funding the system, that it perpetuates itself forever.”
Considering the complexity of the vote, with the land changing stewardship from the state to the county, Coleman said the board is also investigating the logistical hurdles that still lie ahead.
“We’re looking into that now and we need to get some legal documents that show where we are in regards to the land,” he said.
The board also plans to tour the affected property soon to gather information on exactly what assets they now control.
“It’s common knowledge that, with the economy how it is, the value of that property is not what it could be right now,” Coleman said. “We feel having this committee will be a way to bring some expertise from the community and businesses.”
Trent Moore can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by telephone at 734-2131, ext. 220.