Met by thunderous applause and a standing ovation, the City Council of Gulf Shores voted unanimously to establish a city school system.
The resolution will allow the city to establish a city school board to be appointed by the city from a pool of applicants. The school board will then negotiate with the Baldwin County Board of Education on behalf of the city on the details of the split.
Mayor Robert Craft clarified that this move was not meant to be a negative slap in the face toward the county school system.
“We don’t agree with some of their philosophies and we don’t agree with the way it affects us, but we recognize what an overwhelming challenge they have,” Craft said. “With the size of this county, the number of students, the number of facilities and teachers- it is broad and it’s diverse. Trying to come up with one formula that takes care of everybody is daunting task.”
Recently, the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA) was contracted by the City of Gulf Shores to develop potential budgets for a possible Gulf Shores City School system. PARCA developed budgets based on projected enrollment, or Average Daily Membership (ADM), numbers.
“What we learned form there is there is enough revenue in this city that will flow from the student through the process to us for us to fund a city school system with no new taxes,” Craft said.
Craft spoke to the crowd about failed options to enhance the education experience for Gulf Shores students, including a task force and special tax districts. He said he felt the only option left to consider was a city school system.
“The key of where we go from here was what the citizens wanted us to do,” Craft said. “This didn’t need to be a city council decision. This needed the community coming to us.”
The community did just that. In late July, citizens packed city council chambers to present an option for the PARCA study, with a check for $12,000 of the $15,000 needed to complete the study.
Craft said he wanted to find out from the study the level of education the city would financially be able to provide.
Blake Phelps, the city’s economic development coordinator, broke down the PARCA findings for the council.
“They looked at three different models,” Phelps said. “One was existing expenses, basically what we’re spending currently today within our schools on a per student basis. They also went into what they call high-performing and top-performing schools.”
PARCA estimates a Gulf Shores City School System with an ADM of 1,725 students would generate $15,386,796 in revenues through existing revenue sources. PARCA estimates expenses for a Gulf Shores City School System with an ADM of 1,725 students to be between $14.9 - $17.4 million depending upon the academic needs and desires of the community; with $14,905,185 needed for current expenses, $16,449,799 to be on par with high-performing schools and $17,412,275 to be competitive with top-performing schools.
“This actually excludes the 1 mill county-wide special ad valorem tax that was not renewed by the citizens of Baldwin County,” Phelps said. “It’s set to expire next year. We don’t include that in these numbers. It also doesn’t include a portion of a third county-wide sales tax. If that 1 mill is renewed by the county, that’s additional revenues. We wanted to look at a worst-case scenario and be very conservative through this.”
PARCA estimates a Gulf Shores City School System with an ADM of 1,725 students could expect to require between $0 - $2.1 million in additional annual revenues depending upon the academic needs and desires of the community.
Councilman Jason Dyken, also chairman of the finance committee, said the city was in dire straights in 2008. Gulf Shores was operating in the red every year and “basically living on credit cards.” Since then, the city had been able to get to a place financially where it has $24 million in reserves and is even making accelerated debt payments. He said he had spoken to credit agencies to see how much the city needed to have in reserves to get the best possible rate in capital markets and found they had already reached that number.
“By putting more money in reserves, we weren’t getting a return on that investment,” Dyken said. “We looked at how best to reallocate that money. It’s y’alls money. That money is in excess of $2 million a year.”
By reallocating money previously used to bolster the city’s reserves to education, the city would have enough money for the estimate to put it on-par with top-performing schools in the state.
“We’re not doing this to keep schools as they are,” Dyken said. “We’re not talking about just buildings, but improved academic performance. That has always been our perspective as a city through this administration.”
Baldwin County Superintendent Eddie Tyler responded to the announcement by wishing Gulf Shores well in its endeavor and reassuring parents that the county system doesn’t expect significant disruptions from the transfers.
“We have been anticipating the Gulf Shores split for several months,” Tyler said. “In fact, our decision to move forward with the middle school in Orange Beach was in large part a result of information we had received about the impending decision in Gulf Shores.”
He said the county school system is on fire right now with graduation rates and college scholarship awards are higher than they have ever been. He also expressed concern with Gulf Shores not coming out of the gate with a plan of excellence.
“In fact, their five page plan is the bare minimum, with a significant reduction in per pupil spending from where they are today,” Tyler said. “Had they come out with a plan to be the best funded, best staffed system in Alabama, then I would be applauding them and excited for what they can do, but that is not what they have shown. While I have hope, and I wish them well, I am also concerned for these families and their future education.”
Councilman Philip Harris said he had been asked several times why the city had not gone in for a more in-depth study like it had done years back.
“What we realized from all that was that we were trying to do too much out of the gate,” Harris said. “What we realized what that we don’t need to start at the end. We just need to start.”