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November 4, 2012

County schools’ Section 16 vote will decide fate of Smith Lake property

After months of community meetings and anticipation, local voters will decide the fate of a massive, valuable tract of property on Smith Lake with Local Amendment 1 during the November 6 general election.

The property is currently controlled by the State of Alabama, though it was set aside by federal law in 1785 for “school use.” Cullman County school officials are making a push for control of the land because they believe the large section on Smith Lake could potentially be sold or developed to fund a trust that would serve as a new funding source for the system.

If local voters approve the measure, it would give the county system dominion over 321 acres in Joppa, 122 acres in Chigger Ridge and 435 extremely valuable acres on Smith Lake — which includes 25,000 feet of shoreline that could be worth several million dollars.

Almost all Section 16  land across Alabama is under the stewardship of the conservation department, with revenues from timber clearing and leasing put toward a fund that is divvied to all applicable systems.

In the long-term, the school board has pledged to put 90 percent of the profits from developing or selling the property into a trust, using interest for future capital needs and budget shortfalls.

“We want to establish a trust that can serve our students forever,” Superintendent Billy Coleman said. “We knew from the beginning that this isn’t a quick fix and we’re going to be smart enough to realize the land will increase in value as the economy recovers. It’ll probably be several years, under a  new superintendent, a new school board and new group of kids to truly gain the benefits of it. This is a long-term vision to help us overcome future financial obstacles.”

School officials have held dozens of community meetings in recent months in an effort to explain the vote, and Coleman said he believes most local residents have been open to hearing his message.

“We have spent a lot of time and had a lot of meetings sharing the facts with people, and we’ve gotten a great response from folks who’ve heard the facts and are supportive,” he said. “This doesn’t cost anybody anything and it’s a resource set aside for schools over 200 years ago. We absolutely believe the school system would be the best to manage something set aside for schools.”

Coleman has also pitched the idea of creating a steering committee of administrations and community members to help shepherd the Section 16 revenue, to act as another layer to ensure the funds are used correctly.

“We absolutely want to have checks and balances,” he said.

Trent Moore can be reached by e-mail at trentm@cullmantimes.com, or by telephone at 734-2131, ext. 220.

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