By Melanie Patterson
North Jefferson News
GARDENDALE — There was plenty of emotion on both sides of the aisle this week as citizens and officials discussed raising property taxes in order to help fund the proposed Gardendale City School System.
The Gardendale City Council, which is on the record as unanimously supporting a city school system, hosted a town hall meeting Monday in order to disseminate information to the public and gather individuals’ comments.
Experts were on hand to give presentations about the city school system — some for the third time over the past several weeks.
Dr. Ira Harvey of Decision Resources LLC did the feasibility study that determined Gardendale is financially capable of funding its own school system, although Harvey recommended raising property taxes by 10 mills in order to provide a system that is better than the existing one.
“Yes, it’s quite feasible,” Harvey said. “Yes, I would recommend some additional revenues because if you can’t offer a better product, why do it?”
The city council in September raised property taxes in Gardendale by 5 mills in order to fund the future school system. However, by law, a city can only raise taxes by 5 mills; therefore, there will be a special election on Nov. 12 where the city is asking voters to approve an additional 5-mill hike.
One person in the audience, Carol Brown, was concerned about the city raising taxes prior to the new school system being approved. Brown wanted to know where revenue from the first 5-mill tax increase will go if voters say no to the second 5 mills. The initial increase is earmarked solely for the school system.
City leaders said in essence that they’re counting on voters to say yes.
“We don’t have a plan B,” said City Council President Stan Hogeland.
Another citizen, Dennis Gamble, said there are no guarantees that students will fare any better in a city school system than they currently do in the Jefferson County School System.
“Will students be better off in 10 years?” he said. “I see no promises of a better student.”
Donald B. Sweeney Jr., an attorney with Birmingham law firm Bradley Arant Bolt Cummings, said it is impossible to determine test scores and other hard figures. However, he gave anecdotal evidence by saying he has helped numerous school systems navigate separation agreements, and said none of those systems have ever expressed a desire to reverse their decisions.
Another audience member made a similar point.
David Salters with FOCUS Gardendale, an organized group that supports the new school system and is urging citizens to vote for the property tax increase, asked Sweeney how many school systems he has worked with that wanted to join a larger system rather than separating; the answer was none.
Salters argued that a city school system will improve the entire city and make Gardendale more attractive to families and businesses.
Another audience member, Russell Smith, said he believes the schools would improve under a city school system because he has seen it happen through schools where his family members have worked. However, he urged the city council to not forget its businesses, which will be supporting the school system by paying higher property taxes, even though many business owners do not have children in Gardendale schools.
Many audience members are concerned about Mt. Olive students. Mt. Olive is in unincorporated Jefferson County, but many of the children there attend Gardendale schools.
No one knows at this point whether Mt. Olive students would be allowed to attend Gardendale City Schools, including whether they would be required to pay tuition, because the city council does not have the authority to make such a decision.
Rather, the city council would be tasked with appointing a school board; the school board would be the only entity to make decisions regarding Mt. Olive students and other school-related matters.
There are reportedly 537 Mt. Olive students enrolled in Gardendale schools.