North Jefferson News, Gardendale, AL

November 6, 2013

Breaking Away: FOCUS Gardendale says school system would benefit Gardendale

By Melanie Patterson
North Jefferson News

GARDENDALE — Another in a series of stories about the proposal to separate Gardendale's schools into its own system, and the referendum to enact a property tax that would par for it. A story about opponents of the plan appears later Wednesday.

The idea for a Garden­dale city school system started a few years as a conversation between two fathers who wanted better for their children.

“For several years, when our kids were in preschool, we bantered the idea back and forth that we would want to move to an area with better public schools when they got older,” said Chris Lucas.

His conversations were with David Salters. Lucas and Salters are the organizers of FOCUS Gardendale Inc., a nonprofit organization that is strongly promoting a city school system in Gardendale.

Lucas and Salters take issue with the fact that the Jefferson County School System ranks 65th out of 124 school systems in Alabama, according to schooldigger.com.

“Our primary philosophy is not that there’s a problem with (Jefferson) county schools, but we just know there are better public schools out there,” said Lucas.

The Jefferson County system operates about 50 schools, which means it “simply can not have Gardendale at the top of their list,” said Lucas. “But if the school system is controlled locally, we can educate our kids in a more innovative and flexible way. Local control is huge.”

Lucas said the biggest piece of the equation is funding.

“If you look at funding levels, it directly correlates to academic success,” Lucas said. “The more funding you put in a classroom, the more successful the classroom is going to be.”

If Gardendale does form its own school system, the 30.1 mills of property tax that Gardendale property owners are already paying for public education will be diverted from the county school system to the city school system.

However, Lucas thinks Gardendale schools are not necessarily receiving the full 30.1 mills of tax from Gardendale residents, because taxes from across the county are spread among all of the Jefferson County schools.

With the 30.1 mills that residents already pay, plus 5 mills the Gardendale City Council imposed in September and another possible 5 mills that citizens will vote on Tuesday, “you’ve got an incredibly well-funded school system,” Lucas said.

“Obviously we think this will provide a quality education for our kids,” he added. “But it’s bigger than education. The second piece of the equation is that quality communities are anchored by quality education systems.”

In spring 2012, the men began talking with people in the education field to find out what it would take for Gardendale to form its own school system.

They then began to talk with Gardendale City Council members and those running for the council “to sell the idea to them that we should pursue the idea of a city school system,” said Salters.

When the new city council took office in November 2012, it did not take long for all members, including Mayor Othell Phillips, to get on board with the idea.

Another proponent of the system is Kenny Clemons, who was mayor of Garden­dale for 12 years and was the principal at E.B. Erwin (now Center Point) High School for 30 years.

“This is the best opportunity that any city in the state of Alabama has ever had to form a school system,” Clemons said.

About 10 years ago, when he was mayor, Clemons said Gardendale considered forming its own school system mainly to try to remedy Gardendale schools’ aging facilities, but he did not have the support of the city council.

But he said now is an even better opportunity because Gardendale High School has a new facility, and the city school system will not have to pay a bond issue for the new school.

“Our elected officials see this as an opportunity to move our city to another level,” Clemons said. “I’m not for taxes any more than anybody else, but I am for moving the city forward.”