North Jefferson News, Gardendale, AL

October 10, 2013

Residents ask plenty of questions over proposed Gardendale school system at forum

By Robert Carter
North Jefferson News

GARDENDALE — Members of the Gardendale City Council, Mayor Othell Phillips and consultants hired by the city had their first chance to be questioned directly by city residents, as well as those from unincorporated Mt. Olive, about the proposed new Gardendale school system.

The first of two forums attracted about 160 attendees to the Gardendale Civic Center’s main auditorium Thursday night. Among them were roughly 20 wearing neon-yellow T-shirts supporting MO Matters, a group of Mt. Olive residents supporting the new system and possible annexation into Gardendale.

The forum, which lasted nearly three hours, went through a host of questions relating to the costs of the new system, the taxes needed to fund it, and what would happen to various programs if Gardendale goes through with separation from the Jefferson County Schools.

Aside from Phillips and Council President Stan Hogeland, attendees had their inquiries addressed by Dr. Ira Harvey, the consultant who prepared the initial feasibility study about how a separated system would work and should be funded; Dr. Keivan Deravi, a professor of economics at Auburn University-Montgomery who studied the economic impact on the city of a separate system; and Jason Harpe and Brian Barksdale of Carr Riggs and Ingram CPAs, who presented pro forma budgets, revenue and expense estimates for the proposed system.

Deravi told the crowd that a new system would increase property values at a higher rate, based on similar new systems in other Alabama cities. His estimates showed that the average home value would increase to $203,000 in six years with a new system, compared to $183,000 without one.

Harpe said that a 10-mill increase would give a new system a net surplus of about $2 million a year if current staffing and class levels remained as they stand now. He also showed a budget that would increase teacher staffing by 10 percent, leaving an annual surplus of about $570,000 annually.

Most of those who posed questions, either written on cards submitted to Hogeland or in person at a podium, appeared to favor the formation of the new system and the additional property taxes that would be required to fund it.

While some questions had quick and straightforward answers, others — such as whether students currently in Mt. Olive and attending Gardendale schools would be allowed to continue through the rest of their school career — couldn’t be answered because the issue would need be resolved in the separation agreement between the county board of education and a Gardendale board that doesn’t even exist yet.

That concerned one questioner who was skeptical of the process, saying “we won’t know what’s in it until we pass it,” borrowing from a line from then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi about the Affordable Health Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

“Forming a new city school system is like a marriage. Separating from a county system is like a divorce,” Harvey responded.

Councilman Alvin Currington showed a breakdown of how taxpayers would be affected by the new 10-mill tax — five mills already approved by the council, and the other five going before a referendum of city voters. A homeowner with property worth $100,000 would see a tax increase of $100 a year, he said. (The average home in Gardendale is worth about $160,000, so the average hike would be $160 a year).

Personal vehicles are taxed at a slightly higher rate; a $20,000 car would incur an annual tax hike of $30, Currington said.

The council also issued a sheet of frequently asked questions and answers, which is available online at www.cityofgardendale.com. Phillips said that many of the presentations by the consultants would also be posted on the site later on.

The council will hold a similar forum on Monday, October 28, which is 15 days before the tax referendum.