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November 7, 2012

County schools’ Section 16 vote passes with 67 percent

Cullman County Board of Education Superintendent Billy Coleman is 2-0 when it comes to local amendments, following a 67 percent win for the Section 16 proposal that gives the county schools’ control of some potentially valuable property on Smith Lake. The vote passed with 19,401 votes in favor; and 9,473 opposed.

In addition to this local amendment he led a successful charge earlier this year for a countywide half-cent sales tax, the second attempt in the past three years after a failed bid in 2010. The latest win effectively provides two new sources of revenue for the school system, both coming by the mid-way mark of Coleman’s first term in office. Both amendments passed by wide margins.

“We just really appreciate the people of Cullman County and are really humbled they’re entrusting us with this opportunity,” Coleman said. “Looking at the long-term, this could be a tremendous benefit to both school systems in our county.”

With its passage, local amendment 1 gives the school system control of 321 acres in Joppa, 122 acres in Chigger Ridge and 435 extremely valuable acres on Smith Lake — including 25,000 feet of shoreline that could be worth several million dollars.

Until now, the land has been under the stewardship of the Alabama Department of Conservation — despite being set aside for “school use” by federal law in 1785. Virtually all Section 16 land in Alabama remains under the control of the state, with funds from leasing and timber split among school systems annually.

By either developing or selling the property, Coleman said the system now plans to put 90 percent of any revenue from the land into a trust and use the interest as a new source of revenue for the system. Revenue will be split between both local school systems, with the county receiving 83 percent and the city allocated 17 percent based on student population.

“We’re going to take this very seriously and make sure the decisions we make are the right ones for the long-term,” Coleman said.

Local legislators were also proud to see the amendment pass, and the measures’ sponsor Rep. Jeremy Oden (R-Vinemont) said it should be a benefit to local students for decades to come.

“I think it was needed and we looked at it for the beginning and saw it would benefit the county school system so much, and I don’t think anyone had a question on it when we sponsored it,” he said. “I had the honor of sponsoring it and with Sen. Bussman and Rep. Buttram’s help, we’re elated it came through. I know the board will do well with the management of it and I know it will be spent wisely. I think their idea of putting 90 percent in a trust is a great idea.”

Sen. Paul Bussman echoed those sentiments, saying the Section 16 vote was arguably the most significant issue on the ballot locally.

“This is the biggest thing for Cullman County and city schools, and this is huge for the future livelihood and future success of our public schools,” he said. “The delegation worked very hard to make sure that remained a local bill and I think over next 20-30 years we’ll see a tremendous benefit from that.”

Though this is the first time an amendment on Section 16 land has actually made it to the ballot in Cullman County, numerous attempts and investigations had been made by previous administrations to find a way to gain control of the property.

The difference this time? Coleman said he had no intentions on giving up.

“We just kept on plugging away,” Coleman said. “Things really changed after we met with the governor, because times were tough for our system. We were teetering on the edge financially and people were receptive of a system trying to think outside the box and improve the situation.”

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

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