City schools, Pt. 2

Start-up money biggest obstacle in forming independent system

News Staff Writer

Note: This article is the second in a three-part series on the recently completed study to determine the feasibility of forming a three-school municipal education network.

The recently completed study to determine whether an Atmore city school system is financially feasible is being studied by city officials, by the group that proposed the idea and by attorneys for both sides.
The complex document, more than 350 pages long, features analyses of local demographic and financial data. It raises many questions and features possible solutions to some of the problems inherent in such an undertaking.
But the one glaring fact that has been picked up on by almost all who have examined the study, is that a significant amount of money — at least $2 million and possibly as much as $3 million — will have to be put on the table before the proposed system even gets off the ground.
Willie Hawthorne, a member of the board of Atmore Citizens for Change, said the cost was a nominal one, when reconciled with the tangible and intangible benefits such a system could create.
“I know it’s less than $2.5 million,” Hawthorne said. “That’s not a whole lot to spend, though, for the children, for the city and for uplifting our community.”
The local pastor added that he wanted to dispel some rumors and some concerns that some local people have expressed about the proposed system. He said ACC’s motives are simple and pure.
“It’s been kicked around, people have been made to believe, that something is going on,” he said. “We’re looking at what we can achieve with our own school system. The bottom line is, we want to better our schools here in Atmore. That’s what it’s been about since the beginning.”
District 2 City Councilman Jerome Webster, in whose district lies most of the support for separating Escambia County High, Escambia County Middle School and Rachel Patterson Elementary School from the county system, said the estimated start-up costs took him by surprise.
“I want to study it real good before we make any decision on it,” Webster said of the feasibility study. “But from what I gather, it’s going to take a lot of money to get it started. I didn’t think it would be that much.”
Several options — including issuance of bonds or an increase in sales taxes or property taxes — were presented in the study.
Staff said the city could not absorb from its General Fund or its reserves the costs of forming the three-school education network. Neither did he foresee any tax increase in the near future.
“The city doesn’t have that kind of money,” Staff said. “We’re still paying for Rivercane. We couldn’t raise the sales tax; then we’d be at 11 percent and everybody would start buying out of town. The only thing that leaves is property taxes, and that’s not fair because it puts all the burden on the people who own property, whether they have any kids in school or not.”
Note: Dr. Ira Harvey, who conducted the feasibility study for a $60,000 fee, will meet with city officials and the public to explain the study and answer questions when post-pandemic travel routines allow it.