Oneonta schools funding request: two views

Oneonta council pleads lack of funds in school board request

Oneonta City Schools has asked the city to be included as a significant item in the annual budget. The two parties met to discuss the matter last week. The Blount Countian reporters Jim Kilgore and Ron Gholson both covered the meeting, with Kilgore taking the city perspective and Gholson the school system view.

In response to its school board’s request for an assured yearly funding source, Oneonta city officials pled lack of funds as their key restraining factor. Councilman Tim McNair, while identifying specific areas of the school program he supports financially, appeared to voice the greatest reluctance to the board’s request.

McNair posed several questions emphasizing his desire for further information to aid in guiding his actions. His queries occurred in a Dec. 3 joint public work session between council members and most of the school board. (See accompanying article for school board positions.)

In response to McNair’s question of school funding, Oneonta Superintendent Michael Douglas explained that the school system receives its funds through three basic sources: state, federal, and local funds. McNair questioned if the $5,500 the state provides per student is not a figure the state assumes adequate to educate a child?

[Douglas had provided a table showing that Oneonta’s $7,769 per pupil expenditure in the latest year available ranked it 132nd out of the state’s 135 systems. The three below Oneonta were all county systems. The top system shown for that year spent $12,107 (Homewood City), with the lowest system (Autauga County) at $7,397.] Continued from front page

Douglas explained that per pupil state funding has steadily decreased the past several years. He asked were there any funds available to place the system in the regular budget. He asked of the source for funds for the proposed Wallace State campus building and, along with board member Don Maples, of funds released when the city pays off some of its warrants (bonds) in 2017.

McNair and city manager Ed Lowe noted that while some bonds do mature that year, the city refinancing plan actually increases payments beginning in 2017. The bond payments will rise by over $60,000 dollars for that year and similarly beyond. Lowe evaluated that that is not a viable source.

Of the remaining options (increased ad valorem or sales taxes) board members appeared to favor the sales tax option. Councilman Mark Gargus and others expressed concern that raising that tax might send shoppers out of the city. McNair spoke of the regressive nature (affecting the poor more significantly) of sales taxes.

District 3 Commissioner Dean Calvert also spoke at the meeting, noting the county would like to have voters approve a 1-cent, countywide sales tax increase. From that revenue, the Oneonta system would receive an estimated $150,000.

That figure represents 15 percent of the estimated $1 million set aside for education in the proposal, with the county obtaining the remaining $850,000. McNair speculated that Oneonta might likely account for half the county’s estimated $3 million in increased sales tax revenue, suggesting the 15 percent breakdown seemed unfair. Lowe asked Calvert of the possibility of redistributing the funds on a more favorable basis to the city based on where the revenues were generated. Calvert responded that it would be hard to say if that might be considered.

Lowe had provided some sales tax statistics which he indicated showed that most county’s only receive 1 cent in sales tax revenues, unlike the present 2 cents which Blount County receives. He also broke down the eight cities Douglas had used to compare their city systems with Oneonta, showing that six of those had higher sales taxes than Oneonta.

Douglas expressed skepticism at the proposed breakdown for the county tax. He noted that if the city increased its sales tax by just 1/4 cent and designated that to the school system, his system would receive an estimated $350,000 additional compared to the $150,000 under the county plan.

Mayor Ross Norris responded to an inquiry as to whether the council would increase the sales tax on its own with a strong, “No.” He was joined by McNair, who both echoed Calvert’s earlier position that despite his view that the county needed a tax increase, he would only agree to such with a vote of the people. Under Alabama law, municipalities may increase sales tax without popular votes, counties cannot.

McNair claimed that no one on the council was against helping the school. He contended, though, that the city had been $300,000 in the hole three years ago and had had to tighten its belt to get back to where it is. He disputed Douglas’s assertion that the school is the city’s primary economic driver, asserting that people look at low crime rates and fire protection as part of the entire package in making their decisions on where to live. Douglas responded that he felt the community could have all of that.

As to other suggestions that the school raise out-of-district (O-O-D) fees, Douglas noted that he receives the $5,500 per pupil from the state. Of his reported 350 O-O-D students (in a school enrollment of 1477), Douglas noted that the school is able to control who enrolls, and able, with their financial resources, to offer some programs which it could not otherwise. Should he raise tuition to say $1,000 and lose students, each student lost would cost the system $4,500.

Councilman Hal Blackwood asked of class sizes. Douglas explained the school does close grades to new O-O-Ds where their numbers would create an undue hardship on class sizes and/or teacher units.

Councilors Tonya Rogers and Danny Robinson spoke in summary with Rogers noting, “The bottom line is you need funding.” Robinson evaluated, “. . . the school needs a steady income.”

Norris thanked the school board for attending and expressed his belief the session had been beneficial. All councilors attended the meeting.

Before the session’s end, The Blount Countian had asked for council clarification on how any possible new sales tax might be used. Norris responded that most, if not all, of any possible approved sales tax increase would be designated for schools.