Mayor: City can’t afford school system; supporters still hopeful
By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
Note: This week’s article is the third of a three-part series on the city school system feasibility study, its positives and negatives, and the questions that still remain regarding formation of a municipal school system.
Although supporters of a municipal school system remain hopeful, Atmore Mayor Jim Staff said this week that, based on anticipated start-up costs and supplemental yearly funding, the chances of such a city-backed educational network are slim and none.
Estimates are that such a system would require roughly $2.5 million to $3.5 million in initial funding, as well as about $1 million a year in supplemental funds to maintain the system at the level it now operates.
“Either we can, or we can’t, and we can’t,” Staff said of city funding for a separation of the three schools within the city limits. “Who’s got $2.5 million? They (supporters of the system) throw it around like it’s …”
Staff said he has been told that the three-school system — which would consist of Escambia County High School, Escambia County Middle School and Rachel Patterson Elementary School — would suffer a decrease in the quality and scope of education students receive, unless a significant amount of money was allocated to its annual operations.
“If I’m right on this, we’ll lose 14 teachers,” he said. “We won’t have a band; we won’t have a choral program. A bunch of that will be gone because all that’s funded from somewhere else. Plus, it will take over a million dollars (a year) to fund it. Where’s that coming from?”
Officials of Atmore Citizens for Change feel that the funding could be obtained from several sources, including donations, borrowing, a tax increase or money from city reserves.
“With start-up costs at $2.5 million, it will be a worthwhile investment for our children, and we believe that most of the citizens would agree,” the group said in a letter sent to city officials. “We’ve learned that this $2.5 million can be garnered in a variety of ways. Yes, a donation would be great, but the city can also use its reserves, seek a line of credit that can be paid back by the Atmore City School System over a period of time, or the city can issue a warrant issue, which can also be paid by the Atmore City School System.”
Staff said a tax increase would be the only viable means of funding the school system.
“What reserves?” he asked rhetorically. “We’re still paying on our Rivercane debt, still got about $11 million owed on it. When our last audit was done, one of the things that probably kept us from an A-plus rating is a lack of cash.
“We would have to have a tax referendum. There has not been a city school system that didn’t have to pass a tax. I think $2.5 million is short. I think it will take more like $3.5 million, and it’s got to come from the people. I just don’t see it.”
System supporters firmly believe that formation of a city school system would be in the best interests of the majority of Atmore residents and the community’s children.
“This has been a long journey, but we held to our beliefs that this could be done for Atmore’s children,” reads the letter to city officials. “After reviewing the study …we are excited that an Atmore City School System is possible for our children. To know that we are less than $2.5 million away from something great for our children is exciting.”
Atmore Citizens for Change feels that the costs, whatever they might be, should be looked at as an investment in the city’s future.
“We ask our Atmore leadership to please stand up and invest in the future of Atmore,” the group’s letter reads. “The people have waited long enough. Of the 138 school districts in the state of Alabama, over half (70) of them are city systems that have broken away from the county districts for something greater for their towns, communities, and children. We want to join them.”
The study has still not been discussed in a public forum, and Staff said an effort is being made to have that done as soon as possible.
“I’ve got my questions, but I don’t know whether he (Dr. Ira Harvey, who conducted the $60,000 study) is waiting on (the COVID-19 pandemic) to get over with. (City Attorney) Larry (Wettermark) suggested to him that we do it by video conference or whatever. I’d rather have it in person, but I’m ready to get it over with.”
The Rev. Willie Hawthorne, spokesman for ACC, said he believes there is enough public support for the plan that city officials should feel encouraged to move forward.
“What the citizens want, we want,” he said. “That should be what everybody wants. We want to pick it up where it is now and run with it.”