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HSV Times: First BRAC, then tax hike?
Monday, April 19, 2010 | Huntsville Times
By Steve Doyle and Steve Campbell

Schools must boost revenue to get part of $175M in bonds

The BRAC bill passed the Legislature last week, but North Alabama school systems have miles to go before they could borrow millions for new classrooms.

To qualify for part of the $175 million in bonds, school systems must promise more future revenue, possibly through tax increases. Only then will the Alabama Public School and College Authority release money.

Then comes the waiting game. Schools can't qualify for money until Huntsville's Federal Building Authority determines that 7,000 new, BRAC-related jobs have come to the area. That job counting started in January.

Joe Ritch, chair of the Tennessee Valley BRAC Committee, said the area likely won't hit that 7,000 mark for about two years.

School systems in Madison, Limestone, Marshall, Morgan and Jackson counties may apply for the BRAC bill money. Ritch said the building authority counts defense and contractor jobs that come to Redstone Arsenal, Cummings Research Park, Thornton Research Park and the Enhanced Use Lease/Redstone Gateway park-development project.

Summer push set?

The push for a half-cent sales tax increase could be revived this summer in an effort to qualify the city school system for a chunk of the $175 million.

Ann Roy Moore, superintendent of Huntsville schools, said the system needs more money to accommodate rapid growth and to renovate old buildings. She said local school systems like hers are already swelling with students.

"With or without BRAC, school systems in North Alabama need additional funding," Moore said Friday.

Moore cited rapid growth in west Huntsville as a chief concern. Providence K-8 School has nearly 1,200 students but is designed for 1,000. The system owns land nearby for a middle school to take pressure off Providence, but doesn't have $18 million to build the school.

Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary needs another wing of classrooms, estimated to cost $8 million, to accommodate students from Lincoln Elementary, which closes this summer.

Moore said she will push for more money for schools, but didn't specify how. She said the community must have a clear understanding of the city's school needs.

Not surprisingly, City Council members had a mixed reaction to raising Huntsville's sales tax from 8 percent to 8.5 percent.

Richard Showers said he's open to considering it. City schools need more money, he said, to fulfill promises made to transferring Army families about smaller class sizes and quality instruction.

Last month, Showers tried unsuccessfully to steer an extra $3 million a year to the school system by upping its share of city sales tax income from 12.5 percent to 15 percent.

"I strongly support making sure we have the best school district anywhere in the South," he said Thursday. "Our schools are too good to take a step backward."

Before voting to raise sales taxes, however, Showers said he would hold at least one town hall meeting to see what his constituents in north Huntsville think.

"I take my directions from the citizens who support me and keep me downtown in office," Showers said.

Councilwoman Sandra Moon, who represents south Huntsville, said she is "really ambivalent" about the possibility of a sales tax increase for schools.

Moon said the only reason she would even consider voting for it is because the school board showed it was willing to make "hard choices" by consolidating several small schools.

Even so, "somebody would have to spend a fair amount of time with me and convince me that this is a good thing," she said Thursday.

Moon may be out of office before the sales tax issue bubbles up to the council level: She plans to step down when her term ends Sept. 30.

Councilman Bill Kling, who served on the city school board from 1984-88, said officials need to be "very, very cautious" about raising sales taxes in a recession.

"I don't think this is a very appropriate time to be taking more money out of people's pockets," he said. "I would say we'd probably have to have a large amount of community input on this issue."

Kling said the best solution would be for school leaders to challenge Alabama's equity funding program, which siphons tax dollars from wealthier school districts like Huntsville and gives it to poorer ones.

"That would stop some of the hemorrhaging," he said.

Councilman Will Culver said he would "defer to my constituents" in west Huntsville before deciding how to vote. The council last raised sales taxes for schools in September 1989.

A half-cent increase in the citywide sales tax would generate an estimated $17 million a year.

"For me personally, I don't have a problem with it," Culver said Friday. "But I know that during these difficult economic times, the last thing many people want to hear is any kind of tax increase.

"I haven't made a decision on it and probably won't until it's something we're confronted with."

Council President Mark Russell could not be reached for comment.

The council recently voted to give its school system more flexibility in using $2.7 million appropriated for the system. But Ritch said that move probably won't qualify Huntsville to get BRAC money for schools.

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