Lawrence County teachers and students somber after property tax referendum fails

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LAWRENCE COUNTY, Ala. (WHNT) - The next day after Lawrence County residents shot down higher property taxes to help the county's education system with an overwhelming majority of 79% against to 21% for, the mood at Lawrence County High School was somber.

Advanced Placement History teacher and baseball coach Denton Bowling said he tried to comfort students who asked him if the school was still going to have a baseball team.  He talked about the vote with his students as it pertained to history and how history is told.

He and his Assistant Principal, Jason Goodwin, were both disappointed to learn that as Lawrence County residents were voting down the tax increase, residents in Muscle Shoals and Russellville were both voting to extend their 30-year tax to support their education systems.

But an opponent to the tax increase, Moulton business owner Tom Joiner, said residents were upset that the county spent more than $50,000 on an issue that could have been included in a general election.  Furthermore, he and others believe there needs to be closer accountability on spending by the school district.

Superintendent Heath Grimes came into the office on Wednesday to meet with staff and talk about plans for the future, but was unavailable for comment to the media.

Tuesday night after the vote, he did comment.

"I knew it was going to be an uphill battle from the beginning but I truly had no idea that the citizens of the county felt so strongly and the message is clear," explained Heath Grimes, the Lawrence County Schools Superintendent.

The vote was to raise property taxes by $90 annually to fill a major shortfall left by International Paper shutting down shop in the county.

Many who voted 'no' said it came down to county leaders spending recklessly and not taking accountability. They feel they have been taxed enough.  But, say they want to find a solution for the school system.

"I want all the citizens of Lawrence County to come together, expecting a high quality education for our kids, and being able to maximize the funds that we currently have," added Mark Clark of the Citizens for Accountability Political Action Committee.

Both agreed they need to sit down and come up with a solution all parties can agree on because the school system is preparing for some major cuts over time.

"We're going to slowly go through things," said Grimes about the cutbacks. "We have about 12 to 18 months to make these decisions and we'll make them a little at a time.  But, we'll right-size the ship."

Grimes said the school board has been through though battles before and will find a way to stay afloat.  He said he will not push for another vote as superintendent.

Without that tax money, the school system will be operating with 20% less of its current budget and will have to downsize faculty and staff.

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For weeks, groups on both sides have been encouraging people to make their voices heard.

"I want to encourage everyone to go out and vote," said Clark.  He said the group raised and spent some $20,000 on campaign signs to encourage residents to vote "no."

"Be informed and go vote," said Heath Grimes, the Lawrence County Schools Superintendent.

The most outspoken supporters and opponents of the idea say they've made their cases the best they can and are now thinking about what should happen the day after the referendum.

"After the vote, to start taking an active role in the school board decisions and to develop a dialogue with each one of the board members, where we can stay informed on what's going on within our county and our school system," said Clark.

"If we win, we know that we have an opportunity to continue these programs that are in place and will be excited about that knowing that our students' future is bright.  And if not, we'll come back like we always do and start making personnel decisions," said Grimes.

Grimes added the referendum is costing the county about $50,000.  But, the school district is facing a loss of more than $2 million.

For this referendum, 128 people requested absentee ballots.