Cullman County School Superintendent Shane Barnette made his case for the 1-cent sales tax for education at Thursday’s Rotary meeting. The referendum will be on the March 3 ballot.
Barnette said if the measure passes, the county will receive 77 percent of the funding, while the city school system will receive 23 percent. The tax is expected to raise about $10 million annually.
If voters approve the tax, the county school system plans to divide up the funds into three areas: a new Career Tech Academy, safety and security measures for the schools, and updating school facilities.
Barnette said a feasibility study showed the need for a new Career Tech Academy. “It came back overwhelmingly that we need to prepare more kids to go to work,” he said. He added that it’s expected that 30,000 new jobs will be coming to the North Alabama region, and he wants graduates from Cullman to be ready for those jobs.
“We want to train young people to go do the work and make a good living,” he said. “And not only do that, we want them to do something they enjoy doing, find that niche, enjoy life, provide for their families and contribute back to society.”
School facility improvements are needed, he said, because many of the buildings are 100 years old and badly in need of repair. As an example, he said a radiator pipe recently burst and caused floor damage at West Point, and they had to relocate students. “It’s just a matter of time before those things continue to affect every single campus that we have,” he said.
He also pointed to Vinemont Elementary, which was rebuilt after a fire destroyed the school. It was rebuilt with all the classroom doors exiting to the outside. “We’ve got a lot of kindergartners, first graders, second graders, every time you see where it’s pouring down rain - every time they want to go to the bathroom - they’re getting soaking wet,” Barnette said. “And that’s not even talking about the safety of the situation.”
To improve school safety at all the campuses, Barnette said the plan is to improve fencing around the schools, add some school resource officers and install second-entry systems. “We want to install one of these on every one of our campuses,” he said. “Even if our sales tax fails, if I have to sell a kidney or whatever I need to do, I’m going to do my best to install these.”
He addressed comments and questions he’s seen on social media, in particular the Section 16 land, commonly referred to as “the lake house.” One frequent comment is that the school system should sell the property and use the proceeds for school improvements, rather than increase the sales tax.
Barnette said, “When we got access to this land, the way it was set up for us to have access to it was that if we sold it, 90 percent goes into a trust fund and we could draw the interest off of it. So we could use 10 percent of it.” That 10 percent would be divided between the city and county school systems based on system enrollment. After legal fees, the county school system would receive about $300,000 he said.
“The campuses we have, we might could build one classroom with that,” said Barnette.
Barnette also addressed the question of consolidating schools. “I do believe that as one school is closed in a community, that community could dry up. I’m not about killing communities.” He added that expected industrial and business growth could drive up school enrollment.
“Do I see us consolidating? I can see in the future, if this tax does not pass, someone, maybe not this superintendent but the next superintendent, having to do something. There will be buildings closed because kids can not be in those buildings,” he said.
Barnette said he expects voters will approve the tax, but said he’s looking for support and to continue educating voters before the March 3 election.
He said good schools in the county also benefit the city. “Our city prospers when our county does well, and our county prospers when our city does well. We’ve got to work together, that’s what it comes down to.”
At the meeting this week, the Rotarians also donated 50 suitcases for foster children. Rotary member James Tackett noted that many of these children move from place to place and don’t have suitcases to carry their belongings. Instead, they use plastic bags. He added that the suitcases or duffle bags will also give them a place to store their belongings. “It will give them a little safety, a little security,” he said.
He said there are about 140 children who need suitcases or duffle bags. Anyone wanting to donate a new or gently used suitcase can drop it off with Tackett at the the Edward Jones office at 1830 Lee Ave. SW, suite A.