Category Archives: education

City, state shortsighted on school funding

THE ISSUE: Elected officials in Decatur and the state are scrambling to take tax dollars from schools and use them for day-to-day operations. In both cases, it is a mistake.

In 1980, the Decatur City Council, in a 4-1 vote, passed a 1-cent sales tax. Unlike another penny added in 2001, the 1980 tax increase stirred little public complaint. The public largely was agreeable to paying the tax because it was going to Decatur City Schools. In good economic times and bad, the City Council has for 34 years provided 100 percent of the proceeds from the 1980 tax to DCS.

As the city prepares for fiscal 2016, Mayor Don Kyle has his eye on the penny tax. He proposed giving DCS the same dollar amount as in fiscal 2015 — about $9 million — and retaining any growth in tax revenue for the general fund. Because Decatur’s economy is growing at a slow rate, he points out that this change would have minimal impact on DCS revenue in fiscal 2016.

Yet the cap also would have minimal impact on the general fund in the coming year. So why do it at all?

The answer is obvious. Once city officials break the expectation that 100 percent of the penny will go to DCS, they can begin treating contributions to the schools the same way they treat expenditures for Parks and Recreation, Sanitation, or any department. In lean times, they could reduce the contribution to DCS. If they really want another amphitheater or to renovate another train depot, they can take the money from DCS. If the economy actually begins growing, DCS will not share in the benefit.

The mayor correctly points out the City Council in 1980 did not pass a resolution designating the tax exclusively to education. There is no legal impediment to the current council giving less than 100 percent of the tax proceeds to DCS; it is not legally required to give the schools anything.

That the city can legally reduce the educational opportunities of Decatur children, however, does not make it a good idea.

Former City Councilman Max Patterson, who cast one of the four votes in favor of the 1980 tax, was blunt in expressing his frustration that the current council appears poised to end the 34-year practice of giving all of the penny to DCS.

“That penny was established for the schools and should continue for the schools,” Patterson said. “If they don’t give the whole penny to the schools this year, I worry that this council and future councils will keep whittling away at it.”

The timing of the mayor’s effort could hardly be worse. DCS recently issued bonds for the construction of two buildings to replace the deteriorating Austin and Decatur high schools, and it will need any revenue it can get to finance operations while handling debt service.

Moreover, the Legislature has been engaged in a relentless attack on public schools, draining money from the Education Trust Fund for non-educational purposes and to finance private schools and charter schools. The ongoing special session could be even worse, as many legislators have their eyes on education funds as a way to plug holes in the General Fund budget.

When lawmakers take money from the Education Trust Fund, they reduce DCS funding.

Both the city and the state are looking greedily at education funds as a way to pay day-to-day expenses. But in both cases, current economic problems are in large part a function of high poverty rates.

The most effective way to combat poverty is through education. Officials in Decatur and the Statehouse should be looking for ways to improve education and buttress long-term economic growth, not raiding education funds to solve short-term financial problems.

(Published Aug. 6, 2015)


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Unified budget would give fox control of henhouse

THE ISSUE: If Alabama had an ideal Legislature, merging the Education Trust Fund and the General Fund would make sense. The Legislature is not ideal, however, and constitutionally imposed earmarks​ are​ essential.

A bill to merge the state’s Education Trust Fund and its General Fund makes perfect sense — in isolation.

Viewed in light of legislative actions during the past several years, however, it is frightening.

Never particularly trusting of their elected leaders, Alabamians frequently have placed restrictions on the money they agree to pay in taxes. Numerous constitutional amendments authorizing taxes also specify how the resulting revenue should be spent.

These restrictions necessarily create inefficiencies. Some governmental agencies may receive more revenue than they need, and others less. The earmarks prevent the Legislature from balancing between competing priorities. Is it more important to hire more teachers or to provide more services for the mentally ill? Is it more important to increase funding for textbooks or to relieve crowding in prisons? The answer to these questions may vary from year to year.

An ideal Legislature could be entrusted with such decisions, and could better serve the people if it were working from a unified budget. It makes little sense for an ideal Legislature to be constrained in 2015 by constitutional earmarks passed in 1936 and 1947 limiting the bulk of sales and income taxes to educational purposes.

Sadly, this is where reality intrudes. It turns out Alabama is not blessed with an ideal Legislature.

During the past four years, some of the Legislature’s most startling deficiencies have been in its treatment of the state’s public schools.

For starters, the Legislature routinely has ignored the constitutional restrictions that limit some taxes to the Education Trust Fund. The Legislature has directed $50 million a year in ETF funds to the Commerce Department. Another $650,000 goes to the Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau. The Alabama Civil Air Patrol gets $75,000 a year in ETF money. The National Computer Forensic Institute and the Alabama Supreme Court Library each get $250,000.

Even Gov. Robert Bentley, who has not been shy about raiding the ETF, figures $187 million a year is siphoned from the fund for purposes unrelated to education.

What does this tell Alabamians? That the Legislature is so determined to reduce funding for public schools that it will do so even when that means ignoring the state constitution. Imagine the result if the General Fund and Education Trust Fund are unified, giving the Legislature unfettered access to funds now used for schools.

And the funding issues barely scratch the surface of the hostility the Legislature has shown toward the state’s public schools.

The same constitution that restricts some tax revenue to the ETF also creates an elected state Board of Education charged with “general supervision of the public schools in Alabama.”

With alarming regularity, however, legislators without expertise in education have looked to supervise public schools. They have created a charter school system, drained public-school funding to finance private schools, imposed curriculum requirements and loaded unfunded mandates on local schools.

Now, indeed, some are threatening to disband the elected Board of Education — a board created by the same constitution that created the Legislature.

They resent the board’s authority over Alabama’s education system, and the fact that a state agency answers to elected officials who are not in the Legislature.

If Alabama had an ideal Legislature — one that understood the limits of its expertise and that recognized the importance of public schools to the state’s success — a unified budget would make sense.

Instead, Alabama has a Legislature that is consistently hostile to education. The people were prescient in 1936 and 1947 when they earmarked taxes for educational purposes. They knew that giving the Legislature complete discretion over education funding would be akin to giving the fox the job of guarding the henhouse.

(Published May 27, 2015)

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Legislators show their bullying ways

THE ISSUE: State Board of Education members may come to regret the courage they showed in refusing to rubber-stamp nominees for the Public Charter School Commission. Not used to being questioned, some legislators are anxious to retaliate.

Alabama legislators usually operate with a veneer of civility and expressions of concern for their state, but occasionally some reveal themselves as school-yard bullies.

So it is with their treatment of the state Board of Education.

The latest of many clashes came last week, when the board declined to confirm appointees for the newly minted Public Charter School Commission. A 4-3 majority preferred not to be a rubber stamp in appointing nominees they had no role in selecting, for a charter-school law into which they had no input.

They tugged on Superman’s cape. It was a courageous move they may come to regret.

The first retaliation came from state Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, with the enthusiastic support of Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard. Just back from a trip to D.C. to collect an award from an out-of-state charter school group honoring her for pushing a version of its legislation through the Statehouse, Collins had no patience with the impertinent education board.

“If they don’t want to take advantage of the honor, we’ll go back to the appointee process,” she said, and immediately filed a bill that would entirely exclude them from selecting charter commission members.

It was a sadly amusing legislative slap. In fact, both the board and the department it oversees have been isolated from meaningful input throughout the process of implementing a charter school system.

Taxpayer money to support the charter schools — much of which will enrich private companies that the law authorizes to manage them — comes straight from the state’s public schools. The law gives local-elected school boards nominal control over charter schools, but allows the charters to instead report to the Public Charter School Commission if local boards don’t do what they want.

The state Board of Education likewise has nominal authority over who serves on the charter commission. That authority is a sleight of hand meant for public consumption, however, as the board is limited to nominees selected by the same elected officials who pushed the charter legislation through.

So Collins’ threat to eliminate the board’s authority over the charter commission is merely a threat to make blatant what previously was concealed. The Legislature resents its elected counterparts on the Board of Education, and has never had any intention of including them in the charter school conversation.

The greater threat comes from Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, who said he has drafted a bill that would convert the elected Board of Education into an appointed board.

At first blush this appears to be an idle threat, or at least one that would require a statewide election to implement. A constitutional amendment specifies that an elected state board of education shall have “general supervision of the public schools in Alabama.”

The board should take little comfort in the amendment. In numerous bills since the GOP took control in 2010, the Legislature has wrested “general supervision of the public schools” from the board. It also has blithely ignored constitutional amendments directing funds to the Education Trust Fund, routinely using the earmarked funds to pay for liabilities that have no relationship to education.

By all rights, legislators should be put in detention for their bullying ways. Unfortunately, the bullies run the schoolhouse.

(Published May 17, 2015)

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Voters penalize underfunded government by cutting funds

THE ISSUE: The lopsided failure of a tax-increase proposal for Lawrence County Schools underlines a problem facing the state. Poor funding reduces the quality of services, and voters are unwilling to pay more for a low-quality governmental product.

Bumping along at the state minimum in property tax and hampered by low sales tax revenue, Lawrence County Schools struggled even before the devastating closure of International Paper Co. last year. One consequence of the funding shortage was the consolidation of Hazelwood, Mount Hope and Speake high schools in 2009. Another consequence was an inability to fund programs to increase lagging student performance.

Lawrence County residents were understandably frustrated at the consolidation and rightfully concerned that their schools put limited funding into programs designed to improve student achievement levels.

Lawrence County voters shot down a proposed 10-mill property tax increase Tuesday by a 4-1 margin.

As one voter said of the consolidation, “I haven’t seen any improvement in the schools even when we consolidated. So why vote for higher taxes?”

The problem with this approach, of course, is that we get what we pay for. Government services suffer when inadequately funded. If voters penalize their government by withholding funding, then services decline even more.

It’s a downward spiral that’s not limited to Lawrence County.

State legislators believe — probably correctly — that voters do not want an increase in taxes. That’s despite the fact Gov. Robert Bentley, among the loudest of the anti-tax crusaders before and during his first term, now says additional revenue is the only way to maintain essential state services.

One of Bentley’s biggest hurdles is the accurate perception among voters that state government is broken. Alabama is failing dismally at maintaining its prisons, providing health care for the poor, maintaining its roads, operating its court system and policing its highways.

Many voters look at this dysfunctional government and wonder why they would ever agree to increase their financial support of it.

Before the damage is irreversible, we can hope voters will find the capacity to trust the executives they elected. Bentley crippled state government in his effort to delay the inevitable request for more funding.

In Lawrence County, elected Superintendent Heath Grimes has taken unpopular steps in his effort to cope with dwindling funds.

If voters continue to respond to inadequate government services by refusing to fund improvements, they will continue to get what they pay for.

(Published May 3, 2015)

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AEA, no longer a threat, could help lawmakers

THE ISSUE: Once far too powerful, the humbled Alabama Education Association could be a valuable resource for lawmakers. Additional attacks on the organization further insulate the Legislature from sound advice on education reform.

For decades, the Alabama Education Association wielded far too much power in the state. It was well-funded, had a large membership base and was ruthless in its political activity.

One of the first items on the agenda when the GOP took control of the Legislature in 2010 was to beat the organization down. The first few legislative swipes may have helped the state, curbing the power of an organization that had for too long controlled the Statehouse.

The beating continues unabated, however, and it is no coincidence that education bills and laws are increasingly frustrating to the professionals required to implement them.

The latest attack on AEA would make sense in isolation, but it’s a reminder the Legislature doesn’t know when to quit. A House bill would prevent AEA employees from participating in the state’s retirement system.

On its face, this is not a bad move. AEA employees, after all, are not public employees. The problem it poses for educators — and the purpose of the bill — is that it makes it difficult for public school teachers to take jobs with the AEA. That’s unfortunate because, beaten down as it is, the AEA still is an important tool for educators to communicate with legislators.

As a spokeswoman for AEA explained, “What we do is try to hire the best and brightest classroom teachers to represent their colleagues … no one knows what goes on in the classroom like teachers do. To attract them, we have to offer the same benefits as if they were in the classroom.”

Participation in the state retirement system by AEA’s 80 employees costs the state nothing. Nor is the inclusion of non-public employees in the state retirement system unusual.

The employees of about a dozen other organizations participate, including the Alabama High School Athletic Association, the Alabama Association of School Boards and the Tennessee Valley Rehabilitation Center.

Starting this year, public employees, including educators, are prohibited from being lawmakers. While lawyers, doctors, pharmacists and members of every conceivable occupation potentially affected by state laws can have a seat at the Statehouse, most educators cannot.

What the Legislature has managed to do is insulate itself from educators’ input.

The results are painfully obvious. Potentially positive laws are flawed because legislators passed them without receiving advice from teachers who understand how they will play out in the classroom. Bill after bill seeks to repeal the state’s version of the Common Core curriculum, when the teachers who have reason to resent the extra workload the curriculum creates for them are convinced it helps their students. Laws drain money from school budgets, and the legislators who sponsor them seem oblivious of the devastating impact the financial loss has on classrooms.

It’s time for legislators to recognize the AEA is no longer a political threat. Lawmakers also should recognize they are in serious need of advice on the effect their legislation has on students. A humbled AEA would be a valuable resource for those legislators who want Alabama’s public schools to meet the needs of the next generation.

(Published April 27, 2015)

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Lawrence County Schools cannot succeed without tax increase

Lawrence County residents will go to the polls Tuesday for a crucial vote. It is not a referendum on Superintendent Heath Grimes. Nor is it a vote on whether every action of the Lawrence County Board of Education has been perfect.

Voters will decide whether to increase property taxes by nine mills, or $90 per year for agricultural and owner-occupied residential property worth $100,000. They will decide whether Lawrence County is content with a school district that is funded at the lowest level allowable under state law. They will decide if they are comfortable with dramatic cuts to an already ailing school system as tax revenue drops even more over the next two years.

Lawrence County residents legitimately feel like punching bags. They have been ravaged by tornadoes and high unemployment, both beyond their control. The closure of International Paper, also beyond their control, was devastating.

The IP closure was especially damaging to the school system. The loss of the county’s largest employer already has caused a $650,000 shortfall for the system, and the full impact of the property-tax loss won’t be felt until the 2017-18 school year. At that point, the annual shortfall — assuming no budget cuts — will rise to $2.1 million.

That’s a huge number that will require massive cuts. The system’s entire local budget, already skeletal, is less than $9 million.

Even before the IP closure had a dramatic impact on funding, Lawrence County schools were struggling. The system was 97th in the state, out of 135 school districts, in funding per student. It will be at or near the bottom in the state if local funding drops by another 23 percent.

Opponents of the tax increase are not disputing the effect IP’s closure has had, or will have, on school finances. They are questioning decisions made by Grimes and the school board. While we suspect most of those decisions were prompted by the system’s deteriorating financial situation, opponents may be correct that management has been less than ideal.

In a well-funded school district, voters would rationally evaluate a request for a tax increase by the performance of school officials. School districts surrounding Lawrence County have far better local funding; if they sought a tax increase, prudent voters would question whether schools could operate more efficiently. Bad management would be a valid argument against a tax increase.

Lawrence County’s funding is so low, however, that the school system cannot adequately serve its students — regardless of management. If the perfect superintendent swooped into Lawrence County and confronted a per-student budget that was half that of other districts in the region, at the state minimum, 97th in the state and about to plummet, what would he do?

He would, of course, seek more funding.

While the driving force behind the effort to generate adequate school funding is the children, those most affected by the tax increase would also benefit. Lawrence County must compete with other counties for residents. It cannot do so if parents of school-age children feel compelled to flee to other school districts. Property values depend on a growing, or at least static, population. So does business success. Especially with the loss of a major employer, Lawrence County needs good schools.

If critics of Grimes and the school board are right, then there should be changes in leadership. But changes in leadership will not address the inescapable fact that Lawrence County children cannot hope for a good education with funding levels this low, and about to go lower.

Lawrence County residents have been battered by events over which they have no control. The fate of their school system, however, is in their hands.

(Published April 21, 2015)

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Big government intrudes again

Posted: Monday, March 9, 2015
The Issue

  • The same state legislators that resent federal authority are anxious to exert control over elected local school boards.

Move over, elected school board members. The Alabama Legislature is back in session.

The hypocrisy of the legislative efforts to trump local school boards is startling. The same legislators who are so dismissive of local control of public schools are forever railing against federal power over the state. Alabama citizens have more direct input into the state Legislature than into Congress, they argue, so federal lawmakers should back off.

State legislators demand deference from the federal government, but decline to defer to school boards.

One example of the Statehouse’s intrusion in local affairs is the bill to establish charter schools.

The House charter school bill, sponsored by state Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, gives lip service to school-board control.

A local school board, the bill provides, “may approve or deny an application to form a public charter school within the boundaries of the local school system overseen by the local school board.”

That’s a sensible provision that could make charter schools an asset to the school system. A school board is in a better position than the Legislature to decide whether there is local need or support for a charter school. The school board also can evaluate the financial impact a charter school — financed with tax dollars that otherwise would support the school system — would have on the public schools, which educate 90 percent of the state’s school-age children.

Most importantly, local school board members must answer to their neighbors. While only a handful of the 140 legislators who will vote on the charter bill must answer to Decatur voters, all five Decatur school board members are accountable to their constituents.

Giving the local board control over applications to create tax-funded charter schools makes sense, because the public serves as a check to undesirable decisions. If Decatur residents want charter schools and the school board rejects them out of hand, those same board members are unlikely to be re-elected.

Unfortunately, the bill’s suggestion that local school boards have control over charter-school applications is illusory.

If the board denies the application, the charter can appeal the decision to the Alabama Public Charter School Commission.

This nine-member commission would include two members selected by the governor, two by the President Pro Tem of the Senate, two by the Speaker of the House and two by the state Superintendent of Education. Only one of the nine members would be from the school district in which the charter plans to locate.

The GOP majority in Montgomery duped the voters. With few if any exceptions, they ran for office with declarations that the government most directly accountable to the people should hold the most power. But when it comes to education, they are busy intruding on the governmental entity that is closest to the people. Decatur residents, like residents in all area school systems, elected the school board members they trusted to supervise their schools.

Thanks, Montgomery, but your interference is not helping.

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