The debate concerning Cullman County Schools Superintendent Shane Barnette's proposal to build a $30 million sports and arts complex was in some respects a healthy episode in our community.
Although it happened quickly, the proposal sparked a variety of opinions, pro or con, about the proposal. From the proclamations by the Hanceville City Council and Baileyton Town Council against the plan, to those who argued across social media platforms, the issue proved people care about taxes, their community and children.
Barnette had alluded to the plan as Project X, when unveiled at a press conference the day after Cullman Parks, Recreation & Sports Tourism Director Nathan Anderson announced a city plan to construct an $18-$20 million multi-purpose recreation complex. The timing of the two announcements within 24 hours set off a flurry of emotions.
Tied to Barnette's proposal was funding from a portion of a newly-approved half-cent sales tax by the Cullman County Commission and a pledge from the Cullman Area Chamber of Commerce to divert lodging tax money to the project. The rest of the funding would have been tied to a bond issue.
Even though Barnette had some support from the community, the desire of several county school board members was to use all of the half-cent sales tax to improve facilities and safety at schools, after all those were the reasons when the tax was hastily passed with no public discussion. The majority of residents appeared to agree with those against the proposal.
On Wednesday, Barnette reversed course and announced 100 percent of the tax money will go to the schools. In a prepared statement, the superintendent did not say the sports complex was abandoned, but that plans were put on hold or shelved for now.
With all respect, the plan Barnette presented — indoor sports and arts facilities accessible to all in the county — is intriguing. The facilities and grounds, based on the renderings, would make a spectacular arena for future events.
Barnette, who received much praise from school board members for his leadership and deep concern for the welfare of students, made the right decision to hit the pause button on the proposed complex. We applaud his decision and strongly support investing the tax funds into schools.
And, as is often the case, healthy debate typically creates good dialogue, questions and possible paths to be traveled, and this was certainly the case since the half-cent sales tax passed.
One question: although there is little doubt county schools need additional funds for facilities and safety, is there a reason the new sales tax had to be passed by the county commission quickly with no public notice or discussion? As we recently noted in this space, when government moves in a manner with little or blurred transparency, taxpayers lose.
Additionally, the topic of school consolidation reared its head and begs for more detailed discussions in the months and years ahead. It's understandable that no community wants to close its school, but if we are being honest, how long do we continue to patch facilities considered too old to repair?
Better transparency and the possibility of school consolidation – let’s make sure these two topics do not get shelved.