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In a growing Alabama town, a demand to build a new school system has drawn ire from county school officials and several residents in recent weeks.
At a hearing on Thursday evening, dozens of Chelsea residents challenged a proposal to raise property taxes from 44 mills to 74 to fund a school district in the city. The overwhelming opposition led one council member to change his position and cast doubt on a vote this summer.
Chelsea town officials lined the stage with a crowded sanctuary at Liberty Baptist Church, asking for up to 30 million in tax increases to create their own municipal system, complete with a brand new high school.
“It’s not easy to make tough decisions or tough decisions or decisions that you think will cause conflict or dissension within the community,” council member Tiffany Bittner told the crowd. jokingly asking them not to “throw tomatoes” at him as a sign of disapproval.
From 2010 to 2020, Chelsea’s population grew by nearly 4,000, an increase of 40%. Leaders expect an additional 650 homes to be built in the city by 2025.
The city’s rapid growth, officials say, goes beyond its schools, which are currently part of the Shelby County system. The county school district has nearly 21,000 students; it is estimated that 4,000 students could be allocated to a new school district in the city.
Read more: As Northport’s eyes diverge from Tuscaloosa’s schools, what’s at stake?
Read more: Alabama schools present plans for $2 billion in federal spending.
If residents choose not to approve the higher tax rate, which would allow for a new secondary school, options below 20 mills and 11 mills would cover facility repairs at slower rates and allow wage increases for teachers and essential services, such as special education.
Council members accused the teenagers of being ‘crammed like rats’ into the gymnasium at Chelsea High, where basketball games ‘rage on’ and cheerleaders have to stand on stage because there are no has nowhere to go. Students have to eat around school because not all of them can fit in the cafeteria, they said, and the teachers are among the lowest paid in the county.
“It’s also best to make a decision for our future and for our children,” Bittner said. “I feel like at Chelsea it’s time to do our best to show people that we’re not mediocre, we’re not okay with the status quo, we’re not okay with dilapidated and inadequate facilities.Again, our children deserve better.
But Lewis Brooks, the county superintendent, disagreed with that assessment, saying the district had just built three new elementary schools and had invested $28 million in schools in the community since 2010. He added that Chelsea High is home to the only state in the state. -state-of-the-art surgery program and that teachers are paid on the same salary scale.
Brooks did not attend the hearing. For months he had taken a hands-off approach, save for a few talks with the Chelsea bosses.
“This conversation has basically been about a new high school,” he told AL.com on Friday. “And the reality is that the school board is not in a position to write an $80 million check to build a new high school.”
The proposal is not unique to Alabama, where 10 school districts have seceded from county systems since 2000. Alabama has some of the most relaxed secession laws in the nation, and each split brings its own considerations of fairness and feasibility.
In Shelby County, two districts separated from the county system: Alabaster and Pelham. Those splits, Brooks said, caused the system to be conservative in its spending, and he pointed out that there are other fast-growing communities that deserve repairs.
“We can’t take the full range of resources we have and concentrate them in one community,” said Brooks, who noted that the district is in the midst of a $42 million fundraising campaign. “What would I say to the people of Helena who have 11 laptops in middle school and five laptops in middle school? What would I say to the people of Calera, who have laptops in their elementary and middle school if every amount of money we had was concentrated in one community? »
As officials debate what is best for schools in Chelsea, Northport executives are closing in on a decision to separate from the Tuscaloosa County school system. But in Shelby County, where the property tax is 44 mills — far more than Tuscaloosa County’s 10 mills — Chelsea residents have overwhelmingly opposed a property tax hike.
One by one, the inhabitants approached the microphone.
“I’m a no,” said resident Wanda Brannan. “I am almost an old person. I can’t be a retired senior because I don’t get the raises teachers get. The nurses barely get raises and I don’t have the money for a property tax. I am no.
Fewer than a handful of the nearly 30 residents who took part in the public comments said they would vote for a new school system, a major change from the results of a poll released earlier this month.
Some, like Brannan, doubted the ability of the city — and their own — to afford a split. Other opponents were totally opposed to raising taxes, calling the proposal “draconian”.
Some questioned why executives focused so much of the conversation on facilities, arguing that crowded hallways and gymnasiums didn’t stop the system from ranking among the best districts in the state. And the few supporters of the split said they were torn between the options.
“All I see right now is a bunch of divisions,” said Josh Lee, who moved to Chelsea 13 years ago in the hope that there would one day be a municipal school system. He agreed with some residents who argued the city couldn’t afford a tax hike and said he’d like to hear alternatives. “I don’t want to force my neighbors to pay for something just because I want it.”
Resident Amber Polk said there was another option: work with the county.
“Doing nothing is not an option,” she said, noting that several residents were in conversation with county officials about how much they would have to pay in district taxes to make improvements and stay in. the county system. “But doing the wrong thing just to say we’re doing ‘something’ isn’t a good solution either.”
Chelsea Mayor Tony Picklesimer and Superintendent Brooks are open to a conversation about a district tax, they said, which would include a committee of Chelsea residents to decide how the money is spent. That would, however, require a legislative act, the mayor said.
“Obviously they don’t want to lose Chelsea,” Picklesimer said. “We are a cash cow. Our sales tax that we pay exceeds what is spent on our schools. Obviously they don’t want to lose that.
Brooks agreed that the community of Chelsea was an important area for the county and that he had seen other districts apply a similar tax.
“I don’t want to see 4,000 students and families leave our district,” he said. “But again, our goal is always to make sure our kids have the best we can offer.”
After the last resident – a man who told leaders he would lose his home with a tax hike – took his seat and the mayor made his final remarks, council member Casey Morris announced that he had changed position.
Picklesimer told AL.com that ahead of the hearing he “got signals from everywhere,” pointing to an online poll in which 600 of roughly 1,100 respondents voted in favor of a $600 property tax to start. January, but when that tax went up to $900, the interest went down.
He said he predicted the response on Thursday evening, and that “if that happens” a vote will come down to the people and will take place over the summer, at the earliest.
“A property tax of any kind is going to have a real fight,” he said. “…I expected them, and I heard them. I heard them.