By Melanie Patterson
North Jefferson News
GARDENDALE — Residents got some answers tonight about whether the city could support its own school system.
In a word, the answer is “yes,” according to a study that the city commissioned in October.
Dr. Ira W. Harvey of Decision Resources LLC gave a presentation this evening before a large crowd at the Gardendale Civic Center, regarding the financial feasibility of Gardendale forming its own school system and breaking from the county system.
Harvey said there are two major reasons that it is a financially-sound proposition.
First, the 31-mill property tax in the county is high and would provide plenty of revenue. “You inherit a substantial tax base from the beginning,” he said.
Second, the debt level would be minimal because Gardendale would inherit all school buildings, paying for none of them.
Harvey said the low amount of debt Gardendale would have in starting a school system is a level he has “never seen before.”
He made it clear, however, that his role is not to recommend whether Gardendale should break out on its own educationally; his job is to simply determine the financial feasibility.
“I’ve tried to sell you to the idea that the numbers would work,” Harvey said. “You have an exceptional opportunity. ... You have an opportunity to control your destiny. But it’s up to the city council.”
Although the purpose of the meeting was to discuss finances, Harvey and city leaders answered some other questions that have been bothering many residents and neighbors.
One big concern was whether Gardendale would annex Mt. Olive, and how a city school system would affect students at Mt. Olive Elementary School, which is not in Gardendale’s city limits.
Those students currently are in the Gardendale schools feeder pattern; Mayor Othell Phillips said 440 Mt. Olive residents currently attend Gardendale schools in grades six through 12.
Phillips and council president Stan Hogeland said Gardendale leaders have not discussed annexing Mt. Olive into the city, although Hogeland said it “obviously is a possibility.”
However, Phillips said there are many expenses to consider when annexing property, such as police and fire protection, maintenance of roads and parks, and other expenses.
As for whether Mt. Olive students would still be allowed to attend Gardendale schools, Harvey said administrators of a new system would make that decision.
There were also questions from concerned teachers about whether they would retain tenure, their current salaries and retirement benefits. Harvey said they would.
“No employee with continuous employment status — tenured teachers — can lose their job as a result of a city forming its own school system. Period,” he said. “You’re still a teacher. All that’s changed is you report to a different board.”
He said pay scales would not change, but added that few school systems in Alabama can afford to pay more than the state allocates for teacher salaries.
A third issue of concern to residents is whether property taxes would increase in order to help fund a city school system.
Harvey said that is ultimately up to the city council, but he said it depends on what kind of school system the city and the citizens want.
In response to a question from Sen. Scott Beason about whether the city could start its own school system without any new start-up taxes, Harvey replied, “Normally, I would say no.”
He said it depends on many factors, but “I would feel more comfortable if you would do so” in order to ensure the school system had plenty of operating expenses.
Beason said he has supported Gardendale having its own school system for 20 years.
“I know there are some humps and bumps along the way, but I think it’s something our area definitely needs to look at hard,” he said.