GARDENDALE — Of all the things that new Jefferson County Schools Superintendent Dr. Stephen Nowlin has faced in his career, secession is not one of them.
But JefCoEd already has had situations where cities have pulled out and formed their own systems. Now another city may do the same: Gardendale.
A pull-out is also being proposed by a citizens’ group, and a study has been commissioned by the city council to look into the costs and logistics of such a move. (That study was unveiled in a special meeting Tuesday night at the Gardendale Civic Center. Nowlin's remarks came before that meeting.)
Nowlin is hoping that Gardendale residents see the advantages of remaining with the county system.
“I would hope Gardendale would not pull out,” Nowlin said. “They are good schools now. If I were a citizen of Gardendale, the first thing I would ask is, ‘Do we have good schools here? If not, then let’s form our own, but if so, then why form our own?’ It gets more expensive than people realize to do that.”
Nowlin said he understands why a city like Gardendale might want to break away.
“There are several reasons. Frequently, it’s a local-control thing. Mayors and councils and city government can control what happens in those buildings with personnel more. But another thing that makes it more attractive is if a city has a large tax base, and they can pull in more money, and can keep all that money for themselves,” Nowlin said.
When Alabaster broke off from the Shelby County system, it enacted a 1-cent sales tax that provides funding much higher that what local schools got from the county, he said.
“But you run into problems in having your own system. You may have more money if you raise sufficient taxes, but you also become responsible if there’s any growth and you have to build new schools, and the city has to pay for them with bonds,” Nowlin said. “For example, if Gardendale continued to grow for the next few years, then they would have to build another elementary school for $15 to $20 million. In 10 years if they keep growing like they are, they’d have to build another middle school for $25 million — additional debt and additional taxes. And if you have proration, parents expect the city to make up what the state doesn’t provide.”
Local control of schools also means that local politics sometimes becomes an issue, he added.