James Hutcheson said it was the largest crowd he’d seen at a County Commission meeting in his 12 years as chairman.
A largely pro-tax, pro-county schools crowd packed the Commission chambers Wednesday, a crowd so large it overflowed and spilled out into the hall just outside the pair of double doors. They were there to support County Schools Supt. Cindy Wigley in her quest to get the Commission to pass a 1-cent countywide sales tax to be split among the 5 school systems based on student population. It would mean roughly $5 million in extra revenue per year for the county schools.
Supt. Wigley painted a picture of a school system in desperate need of the additional revenue. She spoke about how all of the buildings in the system are well above capacity. She placed the system’s building needs alone at between $160 and $200 million.
But the county’s mayors were also in attendance and they’re not keen on adding another one-cent sales tax within the cities. They asked the Commission for time so a group made up of the mayors, County Commission, school leaders and legislators can look at the issue and hopefully come up with an alternative solution for funding for the schools.
The mayors got their wish. Commissioner Rick Watson – who made a motion to approve the one-cent tax two weeks ago – this time made a motion to table it until the December 14 Commission meeting in order to allow the mayors the time they sought.
Commissioner Joey Baker seconded and it passed unanimously.
But the Commission indicated that “the can has been kicked too far down the road already” and appears poised to act on the tax on December 14 if some new measure hasn’t been agreed on.
In her remarks to the Commission, Supt. Wigley said the cities had imposed sales taxes for decades but only the city school systems had benefited. She said county residents have little choice but to shop in the cities.
“For them to have no return for the county students is simply wrong,” she said.
She said most other counties with a similar situation have a shared sales tax. She said voter registration data shows roughly an even split between the population of the cities and rural Marshall County.
She listed the needs of each of the 4 school districts in the county system:
• Brindlee Mountain – Classrooms, a lunchroom and a gym.
• DAR – A new elementary school, the current one is at 123 percent capacity and was built in the 1920s. The new school would not only provide additional classrooms, but would correct a traffic flow problem on the campus, Wigley said.
• Douglas – The Douglas campus alone has 2,018 students. Sloman and Douglas Elementary have 14 modulars with 2 classrooms per modular. Wigley said each school needs classrooms, a lunchroom and a gym. A new road is needed on campus to correct highway congestion. Douglas High needs classrooms, cafeteria expansion, restrooms at the stadium and a gym.
• Asbury – This campus serves 1,351 students. Asbury Elementary has 6 mobile classrooms, so does Asbury High. Wigley said a new high school is needed.
• Central office and Tech School. The current central office was built in 1979. Since then, Wigley said, the central office has taken half the classrooms and parking at the Tech School. “The Board office is in need of relocation to give Marshall Technical School the space that was intended for it,” she said.
She said having a 1-cent shared tax would mean an estimate $15 to $19 million a year for the 5 school systems of the county.
“The bottom line is that we need your help to be successful,” she told the Commission. “Our success is your success.”
A number of others in the audience spoke, mainly in support of the tax proposal. Some also offered their thoughts on how to change the proposed tax. One man suggested raising it 10 cents, not one cent.
“Let the cities figure out what to tell their people,” he said.
A woman said the “divide between the city systems and the county systems has never been greater.” She said it was a “fairness and equity issue” and she recommended passing the tax.
Mayor Leigh Dollar said the mayors of the county “respectfully request the Commission to delay this decision. All four of us would appreciate the opportunity to work with all parties involved to come up with a solution that benefits all the students and citizens of Marshall County. We need more time to come up with a plan that addresses all the needs. We are committed to working together to finding a solution.”
“One question,” citizen Joel Kennamer asked, “where is the legislative delegation?”
“That’s a good question,” someone else said.
County School Board chairman Brian Naugher said the room was filled with educators and he thanked them for their work.
He said the county system needs “brick and mortar” and he said the County Commission has a legal obligation to provide that. He said the law that allows them to pass this tax to meet those needs dates back to 1959.
“The question is why not today?” He said it had been brought before the Commission previously in 1997, in 2001, in 2007, and in 2018.
“Let’s stop kicking this can down the road,” he said. His comment was met with the morning's largest round of applause from the audience. “If you approve this today, it’s 2 years before we have a single seat in a classroom because of construction time.”
Lt. Col. John Coffindaffer said education is a key. “But we’ve got to peel back this onion and consider the cash cow that is the American taxpayer,” he said. He spoke about the high rate of inflation and how people are already struggling and said it would be bad to add an additional tax burden to them at this time.
"People will pay it," he said. "But only because they don't want to go to jail."
Guntersville Councilman Randy Whitaker said every student in the county should have a good opportunity for an education.
“Here’s my concern,” he said. “Mrs. Wigley says she needs $200 million for schools. This tax is estimated to bring in $5 million per year. That’s 40 years to make that budget. How many generations of kids is that? The sales tax may not be the best way to get there.”
He suggested looking at ad valorem taxes, noting city rates are higher.
Guntersville businesswoman Stephanie Hadwin said it is incredibly important for students to have access to every opportunity. But she said businesspeople are also clawing and struggling to survive and she said some have not bounced back from the pandemic.
“As a businessperson, this scares me,” she said of the tax. She said some people are already threatening to take their business to Huntsville and she said they would to avoid an extra 1-cent tax.
Citizen Larry Sorter said he hadn’t seen any effort by the Commission to bring businesses to rural Marshall County. He suggested that could be a real help.
Retired educator Sarah Mitchell said the disparity between city and county schools had never been denied.
“So why are the mayors concerned now?” she said. “Were you concerned 3 months ago. I am thrilled you are willing to sit down and work. Are you concerned about the 1-cent sales tax or are you concerned about the children of Marshall County?”
I can only imagine the only reason this is continually kicked down the road is the lack of the five family's ability to be reelected. The families only think of themselves and no one else. It will not benefit their interest and agenda to ride the coattails of the Lt. Governor.
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