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Hartselle board offers $1 million for new school

By Deangelo McDaniel
dmcdaniel@decaturdaily.com 340-2469

HARTSELLE — To demonstrate their commitment, a unified school board told the City Council that it is willing to pledge $1 million in start-up money for a new high school.

With the four other board members and the superintendent at his side, the offer came from board Chairman Dr. Andy Dukes during the council's work session Monday night.

The school system will get the $1 million from an estimated $2.8 million Hartselle is expected to receive from an almost $1 billion school bond the state approved.

The offer came after Dr. Dukes, vice Chairwoman Jennifer Sittason and Superintendent William Michael Reed laid the foundation for why Hartselle needs a new high school.

"The biggest thing is we want to stay on the top academically," Sittason said.

The one thing that the school board didn't mention was how to pay for the high school.

That has been the stumbling block for almost a year, as city leaders and the school board have tried to figure out how to fund the school with an estimated cost of between $25 million and $30 million.

"We're not here to try to tell you how to fund it," Dukes said. "We're just here to tell you about the need."

The council has two ways of raising additional revenue: sales tax and property tax.

"I can't fundamentally vote for a sales tax because I don't believe that is a good way of raising revenue," Councilman Mark Mizell said.

The council majority agreed with him.

This leaves a property tax increase vote on the table. Unlike a sales tax, the state constitution requires voters to approve property tax increases.

"I'd rather see a property tax than a sales tax," Councilman Bill Smelser said.

But the council can't get this matter before the voters because Councilman Bill Drake has opted against a resolution asking Rep. Ronald Grantland, D-Hartselle, and Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, to sponsor local legislation for a vote on a proposed 12.5-mill property tax increase.

While it is not law, Grantland and Orr have said they will not sponsor the bill unless the council vote is unanimous.

Drake, who was not at Monday's meeting, said he did not support the resolution because no one has shown him proof that a voting majority wants the tax increase.

History supports him. Voters overwhelmingly rejected tax increases for schools in 1990 and 2004.

Drake has asked the school system to get a petition of registered voters requesting the tax vote.

If he changes his mind on the resolution, Hartselle voters will be voting on a tax increase at the same time they are electing the next city administration.

This same scenario played out in the 2004 municipal election when voters rejected a 7.5 mill tax increase and the entire city government.

A 1-cent sales tax increase would generate more money than the property tax and requires only a majority vote of the council.

Councilman Samie Wiley questioned the wisdom of a sales tax increase.

"Have y'all thought about the elderly?" he asked the board.

"We're not here to push a method of funding," Dr. Dukes said. "We're here to tell you about the need."

Board member Jeff Gray said it is the job of the council to find a way to fund the high school. He said the school system is not a revenue producing entity.

"We're not telling you to do a sales tax or ad valorem tax," Gray said. "We're telling you there is a need (for a new high school)."

Gray said the council has two choices. One, the council can disagree with the need for a new high school, he said.

"Or at some point you've got to have the political will to do this," Gray said, referring to a tax increase.

Mayor Dwight Tankersley, who invited the school board to Monday's meeting, proposed a 1-cent increase in May, but a council majority turned down the plan.

Council President Kenny Thompson said he would support a 1-cent sales tax increase.

A one-penny hike would increase the sales-tax rate in Hartselle from 8 cents to 9 cents.

This is what customers pay in Decatur. In rural areas of Morgan County, it is 7 cents.

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