Citizen support key to city school decisions

Gulf Shores moved forward while Daphne didn’t


Over the last couple of decades, Gulf Shores, Orange Beach, Daphne and Fairhope have considered breaking away from the Baldwin County Public Schools System. The municipalities usually were motivated by perceived dissatisfaction with the allocation of resources by the county system.

The need for tax increases, a lack of support from citizens, logistics and improved communication and response from the Baldwin County system contributed to the demise of these movements. Then, late last year, Gulf Shores actually committed to forming its own system. Soon after, Daphne backed away from the idea as its City Council voted against paying for the second part of a feasibility study.

Gulf Shores relied in part on a five-page feasibility study from the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, while Daphne paid for a 50-page study from a private consultant. Both studies indicated a city system was financially doable. But Daphne’s indicated that higher taxes would be needed while Gulf Shores might be able to get off the ground initially without a tax increase.

Gulf Shores has appointed a school board chaired by Kevin Corcoran. Corcoran has served as chairman of the Baldwin County Community Advisory Task Force for Education and co-chaired the Island Wide Task Force for Education.

“I think the primary difference between Daphne’s introspection and the Gulf Shores initiative is the Gulf Shores initiative was citizen-led. This came from a series of meetings throughout the city and nine months’ worth of study. It seems as though Daphne seemed to be led from the top down,” Corcoran said.

“If you attended any of these Gulf Shores meetings, they were out into the foyer and the hallway and out into the parking lot. People couldn’t even get into the City Council chambers when the presentations were made and these discussions were held.”

Corcoran said he attended the public presentation of Daphne’s feasibility study and counted about 20 citizens other than public officials and members of the news media in attendance. And when Gulf Shores sought applicants for the five-member unpaid appointed school board, the city got 34 candidates.

As the fastest growing county in Alabama, Baldwin suffers from overcrowded public schools and the county school board struggles with where to build new schools and which areas should get additions first.

But in Daphne, the level of dissatisfaction hasn’t been as evident as in Gulf Shores, and although the City Council agreed to pay for a feasibility study, opposition to a separate system was evident from the beginning.

“We have a good school system in Baldwin County. That was the main thing,” said Councilwoman Tommie Conaway. Conaway is a retired former principal of Daphne East Elementary who was behind the creation of an advisory task force for the schools in the feeder pattern.

“We want to make it better,” she said. “So why not just help the schools make it better?”

Conway said people she talked to in both her council district and other parts of Daphne were not in favor of a separate system. “In order to be successful, you have to have the support of your community, and we would not have had the support of our community.”

Instead, the council will move forward with the advisory committee, which had been postponed while the feasibility study was being conducted. Each council district will have one member and Mayor Dane Haygood recommends two appointments, she said.

Although Daphne’s feasibility study contained many more statistics about projected growth and numbers of students, Corcoran said Gulf Shores had studied and discussed the issues over a longer period of time, so much of that information was already familiar to its citizens. The Baldwin County system also maintains enough statistical information that the city can make accurate projections, he said.

Based on current enrollments and tax bases, Gulf Shores also will have more tax money available for per student, Corcoran said. One mill of property tax in Gulf Shores brings in about $600,000, while one mill in Daphne is worth about $400,000, he said. Gulf Shores has about 1,800 students while Daphne has about 4,000.

The new Gulf Shores school board was appointed in December and will not begin public meetings until it has consultants in place to begin negotiating the terms of the split with the county school system, Corcoran said. Board members currently are interviewing candidates for an education consultant in executive session, with the City Council making the final appointment, he said.