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Tax loss would devastate Morgan schools, officials say

By Bayne Hughes
hughes@decaturdaily.com· 340-2432

They can see the wreck coming, and they hope Morgan County voters will help them avoid the potential disaster and stay on the financial track of solvency.

At a Jan. 16 special election, voters will consider renewing a 7.3 mill property tax, originally approved in 1957 as a 5.5 mill tax and increased to its current level in 1979. Residents in Decatur and Hartselle school districts do not vote.

The tax almost expired unnoticed by Morgan County Commission and Morgan County Board of Education officials on Sept. 30. They discovered the oversight too late to get the renewal on the November general election ballot. The system has already lost about $100,000 from a motor vehicle tax that the county collects monthly.

School officials agreed that failure would be “devastating” to the school system because it would lose about $4.6 million. They point out that that tax is not a new one, so taxpayers would not see any tax increases with approval.

“It really would be chaos,” school board member Dora Woodard said.

Chief Schools Financial Officer Rodger Spillers said he doesn’t want to consider making a budget without this money that the schools have depended on for almost 50 years. The school system is already trying to cut its expenses to rebuild its savings account.

The system operates on a $65 million annual budget. Spillers projects having $1.6 million in reserves at the end of the 2007 fiscal year. The state wants the county to have $4.2 million, equal to one month’s operating expenses.

“So we’re really talking about a $9 million cut if the tax fails,” school board President Jimmy Dobbs said.

School board member Carolyn Wallace compared losing the tax to a family losing income from company layoffs.

“A family gets used to having that income, and they begin to depend on it,” Wallace said. “Morgan County Schools would suffer without this money.

With almost 85 percent of the school system’s budget consisting of salaries and benefits, the first area the board would have to cut is employees.

Spillers said the board would almost surely cut local teacher units. Morgan County has about 60 teacher units, costing $3.3 million in local tax dollars.

‘Bare minimum’

“I’ve always felt we have a good school system, but this would put us to operating at the bare minimum. We wouldn’t have any extras in any areas,” said Superintendent Don Murphy, whose term ends Jan. 1.

School officials said they would almost surely have to non-renew the contracts of every non-tenured teacher or staff member in May before the school ends.

The board couldn’t fill positions left empty by resignation or retirement.

Tenured teachers’ jobs would be safe, although some could face unwanted transfer to fill the gaps left from attrition and non-renewal. They would also face increased class sizes and work loads.

Superintendent-elect Bob Balch is working with the principals to let their teachers and staff know what the property tax vote means to them and get their help in promoting passage. He said he plans to attend every faculty meeting before the vote.

“The employees need to know that they need to help us push this because it directly affects them,” Balch said.

High school losses

Brewer High, the largest school in the system, would lose the most at 10 local units, while Falkville and Danville high schools have five each. West Morgan High only has two local units.

Ryan School is the smallest school in the county with 130 students, but it has five local units because some classes have fewer than the 13 students required to earn a state unit. At one time, Ryan was under consideration for closure when its enrollment dropped to near 100, but its numbers bounced back in recent years.

Would Ryan end up on the chopping block again? Woodard represents the Ryan area. She said she would fight any closing attempt.

“I would hope that would be way down on the list,” Woodard said.

Athletics have always been a passion of Morgan County’s citizens, but failure of the tax could mean no Rebel football tackles, Patriot three-pointers or Bulldog home runs next year because sports could face elimination. The music could also die with the killing of bands at the high school and middle school levels.

Coaching supplements

Spillers said the school system spends about $700,000 a year on supplements to pay coaches, band directors, technology specialists and other extracurricular activities. The state helps the school system hire nurses, but not enough to cover the bill so this might be an area facing cuts.

Murphy said he “has faith in the people” that they will understand this is an existing tax that the schools need to provide their students a good education.

“I support it just as strongly as a citizen or grandpa as I do as the sitting superintendent,” Murphy said. “This is something that’s needed for all children, whether they’re in the school system now or young children who haven’t started school yet.”

Morgan County school tax

  • If Morgan County voters fail to renew an existing 7.3 mill property tax at a Jan. 16 special election, county schools will lose about $4.6 million.
  • The system pays an additional 60 teachers from local funds. The school board could cut these jobs for a savings of $3.3 million.
  • The board could cut technology specialists, sports teams, bands, and other extracurricular activities for a savings of $700,000 in supplements.
  • Voters in Decatur and Hartselle do not vote in this election.
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