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Secondary schools, higher education fight for funding

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

The push is on to grab as much of a proposed state bond issue for schools as the affected parties can get.

Secondary schools stand in one corner, while colleges and universities stand in another in a debate about how to divide a proposed $850 million to $1 billion bond issue.

The Alabama Commission on High Education’s presidents council wants a 60/40 split, with kindergarten-through-12th-grade schools getting the larger share. State Superintendent Joe Morton said secondary schools want an 80/20 split, while bills are pending in the state Legislature proposing 75/25 and 71/29 splits.

Lobbying hard

Susan Cagle, ACHE’s director of institutional finance and facilities, said both sides are lobbying hard because the state doesn’t have an annual facility renewal allowance as other states do. She estimated each side has more than $1 billion in capital needs.

“All we have is periodic bond issues, and those are infrequent,” Cagle said.

Decatur Superintendent Sam Houston and Morgan County Superintendent Bob Balch said colleges can generate more funding through tuition and fees, alumni contributions, and athletics. Higher education can also issue its own bonds. But secondary is dependent solely on state funding for capital projects, they said.

“I’ll bet you won’t find any of the colleges or universities having to use portable classrooms,” Houston said.

Cagle said the problem with alumni contributions is they are usually earmarked for specific purposes, while tuition and fees fund day-to-day operations, leaving colleges waiting on a state bond issue to pay for major maintenance and renovation projects.

Secondary educators can’t even agree between themselves on how to split their portion of the bond.

South Alabama school systems, many of which have old, rundown buildings, want more money.

Meanwhile, systems facing major growth issues, like those in Madison and St. Clair counties, say they should get a larger piece of the pie.

“I certainly understand where the poorest systems are coming from, and we’re facing growth issues, too,” Balch said. “But the fairest way is to divide it based on enrollment.”

Balch said Morgan County has three schools, West Morgan, Priceville and Lacey’s Spring, that need additional classrooms because of growth.

Houston said that if either faction gets its way, Decatur City Schools may not get its fair share.

Decatur’s growth

Decatur’s growth in minimal, although Base Realignment and Closure Commission plans could mean a boom in the near future, and his facilities are in decent shape compared to those in some other systems.

But Decatur has more than $16 million in unfunded capital projects, many of which are roofs, boilers, chillers and air-conditioning systems.

Houston believes the fairest option is to use average daily attendance to divide secondary’s money.

“There’s not any frills in any of our unfunded projects,” Houston said. “There’s no question Decatur has it’s own pressing capital needs.”

Calhoun Community College President Marilyn Beck said the state’s two-year colleges are expecting to get about 7.5 percent of the bond issue not matter how the legislature decides to split the money. Calhoun’s share would be between $7 million and $10 million.

“That’s not enough to build a building,” Beck said. “So we would use the money to make continued improvements at our Decatur and Huntsville campuses.

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