City defends its school funding effort

While expressing a desire to do more, Oneonta City officials allege the city’s school funding compares favorable with other similar municipalities. City manager Ed Lowe presented figures purporting over $1.4 million Oneonta provides the system.

By Lowe’s figures, Oneonta’s school contribution exceeds that of Attalla listed at $600,000 and Geneva at under $854,000. He listed two other systems, previously cited by city school Superintendent Michael Douglas, which had slightly larger figures: Brewton at $1.5 million and Haleyville at $1.6 million.

Lowe’s statements preceded a presentation by Douglas of petitions signed by more than 500 school patrons asking the city to provide increased assured funding to the school. As Douglas delivered his plea, he disputed the city comparisons.

Douglas conjectured that amounts for the four cities cited addressed only budgeted amounts and not complete community support – property taxes, warrant obligations, or various other funds which appear in the Oneonta total. He, eventually, shifted to a per pupil expenditure comparison, which places Oneonta in the bottom three or four of the state’s more than 135 school systems. He pledged to contact the named cities for possible additions to the Oneonta-provided figures.

Discussion became spirited on both sides as three of the five council members present and Douglas spoke further. Councilor Tonya Rogers asserted that it is the goal of the city to support the school.

She contended that the city does much to support the school that goes unrecognized. She emphasized safety as a key citizen concern, alluding to police and fire protections that must also receive funding. She would later question which existing service would anyone have the council deduct?

Councilman Mark Gargus echoed some of Rogers’s view noting, “. . . the council wants to help. We have a $7.2 million budget, which is less than the school’s.” He and others have spoken of growing the city and thus its revenues to help with overall funding. He surmised, “We got off on a wrong foot.”

He referred to city spending on the Little Brick Church, contending that some have labeled that as misusing funds. He said that the church was donated to the city and the work has been financed through grants. Councilor Tim McNair offered, “I have always supported Oneonta City Schools.” He spoke of his own voluntary contributions to programs there and service to the school. “I don’t want to be adversarial. . . . We’re not wanting to fight the school system. . . . We need to work together.”

McNair’s conciliatory remarks followed earlier words disputing Douglas’s statement at a school confab. McNair said that the superintendent’s comment that the Oneonta system was not better funded than the county was wrong. He accused school officials of first proposing a tax increase when the board and council met in a Dec. 3 public hearing.*

McNair affirmed that there was no way he would vote for a tax increase. “I made a purpose of saying I would not raise taxes. I would not, unless I had run on a platform to do that.”

As tensions appeared to ease, Mayor Ross Norris added his desire that the planned addition of the Wallace State Community College campus would provide an economic boost to increase city revenues. He then proceeded to a resolution to annex approximately 100 acres the city recently purchased north of town.

That land purchase, totaling around $1.7 million, had also elicited comments during the school discussion. Before the annexation approval, Norris said the city has already had a nibble on purchasing part of the acreage and he believes sales will eventually cover the city’s purchase price.

Before adjourning, spectator Linda Peoples asked the opportunity to speak. She sought information on the status of a Christmas flood-damaged bridge blocking her access to Oneonta. Public safety director/administrator Brandon Horton fielded that question at Lowe’s request. He advised her of city, county, and federal actions which should have the so-called cold water bridge repaired soon.

Councilman Danny Robinson missed the March 22 meeting. City attorney Alex Smith and Mayor Norris were joined by councilors Rogers, Gargus, McNair, and Hal Blackwood at the meeting. The council holds its regular sessions the second and fourth Tuesdays of each month at 5:30 p.m. in city hall.

*[Reporter notes for that meeting show the tax issue arose after Blount County Commissioner Dean Calvert spoke of the county commission’s effort to add an additional one cent county-wide sales tax. Lowe would later ask if the board was seeking a tax increase. Douglas’s response, according to reporter notes, was, “If you don’t have the money and I can’t get in [presumably the budget] without more revenue, then yes.”